Must-Read for First-Time Moms: How to Reduce Leg Swelling during Pregnancy

pregnant woman wearing compression socks

In this pregnancy guide for first-time moms, you will learn about the following:

  • Pregnancy swelling or edema
  • Causes of leg swelling during pregnancy
  • Factors that affect leg swelling
  • Risks associated with leg swelling
  • How to tell when the leg swelling is abnormal
  • How to reduce leg swelling
  • Postpartum swelling or edema

Let’s get started.

What Is Edema?

Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit American academic medical center, defines edema as “swelling that is caused by fluid trapped in your body’s tissues.” It occurs typically in the feet, ankles, and legs but can also affect the face, hands, abdomen, and even the entire body, the center explains.

It’s normal for pregnant women to experience puffiness in the feet, hands, and face in the first trimester, but the swelling usually becomes more pronounced in the fifth month of pregnancy. It can increase in the third trimester.

Swelling in legs
Source: Harvard Health

What Causes Swelling during Pregnancy?

A pregnant woman’s body produces 50 percent more blood and fluids during pregnancy. This is essential for softening the body so that it can expand as the baby develops, says the American Pregnancy Association. The extra retention of fluid also aids in preparing the pelvic joints and tissues to open for childbirth. 

Because of the increase of blood and fluids, it’s common for pregnant women to experience edema. Also, as the uterus expands, it puts more pressure on the pelvic veins and the inferior vena cava. This hinders the process of returning blood from the lower and middle body to the heart, leading to swollen legs, ankles, and feet. 

Although swelling is caused by rapid water retention, this doesn’t mean that one should drink less water. The body will only work harder to retain water to avoid dehydration, which can worsen the swelling. The Institute of Medicine recommends drinking 10 cups (2.4 liters) of water a day while pregnant.

Other Factors That Affect Swelling during Pregnancy

A tiny number of lucky women don’t experience swelling during pregnancy. For most pregnant women, edema is simply a part of the process, but every expectant mother has varying experiences with swelling. Some have it easy; others, not so much. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic and the American Pregnancy Association, several factors can affect swelling or edema during pregnancy:

  • Standing or sitting in place for too long
  • Hot weather or high temperatures
  • Low potassium levels in the body
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Consuming foods and beverages with too much salt
  • Wearing tight clothing that restricts blood flow

Dr. Yvonne Butler Tobah at Mayo Clinic “Expert Answers” adds that hormonal changes can also affect swelling during pregnancy.

When to Worry

Are There Risks Associated with Swelling during Pregnancy?

“Mild swelling in the legs and feet is harmless and perfectly normal,” says Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. When there’s sudden swelling in the hands, face, and the area around the eyes, this can be a sign of preeclampsia. 

Swelling that’s accompanied by excessive pain, redness, and heat can be an indicator of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The condition develops because of a blood clot or clots, usually in the leg. If you suspect it’s DVT, see your health-care provider immediately.

What Is Preeclampsia?

According to the definition of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), preeclampsia is “a serious blood pressure disorder that can affect all of the organs in a woman’s body.” Dangerously high blood pressure is usually accompanied by other signs that the affected mother’s organ systems are not working correctly.

What Causes Preeclampsia?

The ACOG says that right now it’s not clear what causes preeclampsia.  However, some women are more at risk of developing the condition. The ACOG’s website lists the following risk factors for women with a high risk of preeclampsia:

  • Preeclampsia in past pregnancy
  • Being pregnant with more than one fetus
  • Chronic hypertension
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Autoimmune conditions, such as lupus

When left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to severe complications in the mother and the baby. Treatment for the disorders varies from one woman to another, but the first step to curing preeclampsia is diagnosing the problem. Pregnant women should watch out for signs of preeclampsia. The ACOG lists these symptoms on its website:

  • Swelling of face or hands
  • A headache that will not go away
  • Seeing spots or changes in eyesight
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or shoulder
  • Nausea and vomiting (on the second half of pregnancy)
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Difficulty breathing

Should I See My Doctor?

Swollen legs, ankles, and feet are standard during pregnancy, but if the swelling becomes overwhelming and is accompanied by other symptoms, the best course of action is to consult your practitioner. If you have any concerns or experience other symptoms, visit your health-care provider to be safe. Do what you can to ensure that you and your baby are safe and healthy.

How to Reduce Swelling

To alleviate swelling during pregnancy, expectant mothers should practice the following healthy habits and lifestyle changes:

  • Avoid standing or sitting in one position for too long. Doing so will not only put more pressure on the lower trunk but will also ensure that fluids stay on the leg, ankles, and feet. If you’ve been sitting for a few hours, stretch your legs, and rotate your feet several times.
  • Rest with your feet elevated. Lie down in a comfortable position, and elevate your legs with a pillow or prop them against a wall. This will help improve circulation and reduce swelling in the lower body.
  • Sleep on your left side. Doing this will reduce the pressure on your inferior vena cava, promoting better circulation during your sleep. 
  • Avoid going outside when it’s hot. Heat can aggravate the swelling. Stay indoors during the hottest times of the day, and turn up the air conditioner if you’re feeling warm.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and clothing. Leave the high heels for now as wearing them can only exacerbate the problem. Use shoes that provide excellent support and cushioning to your swollen feet.
  • Wear supportive garments. Using compression stockings or socks may help reduce the swelling. Compression wear can gently squeeze your legs to stimulate circulation and provide support for muscles and bones.
  • Avoid wearing clothes that are too tight. Opt for loose and comfortable clothing that won’t restrict your wrists and ankles and inhibit blood flow.
  • Reduce sodium intake. Consuming too much salt is one of the factors that affect swelling. Avoid eating canned or processed foods that contain high amounts of sodium.
  • Eat more potassium-dense foods. Potassium helps regulate the amount of fluids the body retains. In your pregnancy diet, include more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, beans, beets, lentils, yogurt, and potatoes and sweet potatoes with the skins on. You can also get potassium by drinking certain fruit juices, including carrot, orange, passionfruit, pomegranate, and prune.
  • Avoid drinking too much caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it can make you urinate more often. That will lead to your body rapidly losing water, pushing it to work harder to retain fluids that cause swelling.
  • Exercise regularly. Too much physical activity for too long can exacerbate swelling, but too little can do just the same. Regular exercise improves blood circulation, which can help reduce swelling.
  • Try water therapy. Walking or swimming in a pool may help provide compression tissues and alleviate swelling during pregnancy. The cold may also contribute to reducing the swelling.

When Will the Swelling Go Away?

Postpartum Edema

Generally, the swelling will go away after the woman gives birth, but some women also stop having edema before that. Swelling after childbirth, also called postpartum edema, is normal. It happens because the excessive fluids produced during pregnancy have yet to be completely flushed out. Excess water will be eliminated through sweating and urination, and the swelling will subside.