Avoiding the Pregnant Pause.

Can you cycle when pregnant, and is it a good idea? ANNA SEMLYEN (pictured) discusses the issues with mothers who did it.

“You're not still cycling, are you?” asked friends and family, nervously. Bless ‘em – they're concerned for my welfare. I'm expecting my first baby in six weeks, but I don't see that as a reason to give up cycling if cycling still feels good. I'm car-free by choice and biking is so much a normal part of life that I can't imagine stopping without very good reason. Is it responsible for me to cycle when pregnant? Of course – though it's very much a personal choice.

The mothers I talked to with first-hand experience of cycling while pregnant were overwhelmingly positive, and convinced me that an expectant mother shouldn't be scared of cycling if it feels right, at any stage in pregnancy.

Dr Becky Field, a GP in York, thinks pregnant women are often encouraged to go too gently. I recommend that women listen to their body and work out what they can do for themselves. My midwife told me of a lady whose waters broke, so she cycled to hospital. She'd forgotten some essentials, so rode the three miles home to fetch them. The woman claimed that cycling's regular rhythm was a welcome distraction from first stage labour pains.

Labour is just what it sounds extremely hard work. So, the fitter you are, the better. Gentle, regular, inexpensive, healthy exercise like cycling raises your stamina for the final push. Perhaps only swimming and yoga are more highly recommended but you still have to get to a pool or ante-natal class.

Evidence from trials by midwifery lecturer Dr Jean Rankin of Paisley University is that exercise in pregnancy is very positive. However, do not to take up a new sport or strenuous activity which develops, strains or trains new muscles when expecting. Continue exercises you already enjoy until no longer comfortable. Remember also that pregnancy affects psychological processes and judgements. For instance, your attention span is less and there is reduced short term memory which can affect decision making. Mrs Mieke Jackson, a cycle trainer, was advised by her GP not to race, water-ski or go climbing, but that cycling to full term was fine.

Cycling increases the tone and strength of your legs and pelvic muscles which assists positions such as squatting and kneeling, in which gravity eases a downward delivery. Exercising the hip joints and pelvic muscles will keep them mobile. This helps to open the pelvic outlet: crucial for a smoother, less painful labour. Cycling also raises the cardiac output and respiration rate which are both important when the biggest muscle in the female body – the uterus – is working hard. Plus, cycling makes your abdominals and pelvic floor stronger and reduces the chances of obesity, severe stretch marks or exertion incontinence.

Feeling Tired?

The extra energy used to create a new being is exhausting. My tip is to restrain your travel and move about less – since it's often draining, expensive and a means, not an end. Transport gives access to work, health, leisure and social needs. Why not get home deliveries, use the phone, letters or email more or ask/pay others to do errands? Localising by choosing the nearest alternative is convenient and will leave time for those much needed snoozes!

Cycling is faster than going on foot, for less effort: cycling is incredibly energy efficient, five times more so than walking. Swea Sayers, a mother of four, walked in her first pregnancy when she was a poor student without a bike. But she cycled throughout her last three pregnancies and confirms that cycling is much easier than walking everywhere. Becky Field also found cycling more comfortable than walking when she was near term.

Common maternity complaints include varicose veins, swollen feet and legs. Unlike walking, cycling is non-weight bearing and helps these problems, as can lifting your legs up against a wall or chair.

Studies have shown that, on average, cycles are faster than buses for the first eight miles. Plus, you can carry things more easily on a bike than by foot, provided you have suitable bags, panniers, a trailer or basket. Swea said shopping is especially good with a bike.

Toxic traffic fumes are three times higher inside a car than on the pavement or for cyclists. If you are low on energy or asthmatic, you'll breathe more easily outside than you would stuck in a vehicle.

Riding position

The extra two stone (over 20% of bodyweight in my case), causes some women to suffer from backache and sciatica from their attempts to counterbalance. Therefore, a straight back and upright riding position are best, as used for Dutch-style city bikes or some folders, rather than a leaned forward position with drop handlebars.

Sara Robin of York CycleWorks said “I managed the first four months with drop handlebars and then had to swap to an upright, lightweight bike. I'd recommend women choose bikes with a comfy suspension seat pillar or wide, spongy saddle and low gears. Ladies saddles are now available – some with a hole in the middle to reduce rubbing against sensitive areas and to keep you aerated and cooler.”

Clearly, mounting a ladies bike or folder is easier than swinging a leg over a high cross bar, and there should be room for the bump. Perhaps put the seat post lower to help you get up? Sara found driving incredibly uncomfortable, yet I only had trouble cycling up steep hills at eight and a half months. I also felt less isolated on my bike than in a car. Dr Becky Field said “my legs had to shoot out to the side of my bike to avoid my bump.”

Safety concerns and emotional sensitivities are heightened when protecting an unborn child. Clearly, the mother-to-be needs a well maintained bike and to ensure they are seen in bright coloured clothes with good lights.

You may also have to change your route: I now ride a longer journey to one of my yoga classes, as I decided to stop lifting my bike over a stile fairly early on.

When (or if) to stop

Physical balance can be affected in pregnancy. If so, then cycling may not be advisable except on traffic free paths or on a tricycle. However, in both her pregnancies, Sara Robin cycled until she went into labour. Jane Henshaw (of A to B magazine) in Castle Cary rode to the hospital to be induced. Swea Sayers was also still cycling the day after beginning labour. All her children were late, but perfectly healthy.

Expect to ride slower in second and third trimesters and to be breathless.

Listen to your body and choose for yourself when and if you stop cycling.

Post natal cycling

How soon you return to cycling depends on how you feel physically and if you are happy about biking with a baby. If it was a difficult birth, perhaps with an episiotomy and/or a tear, then take great care!

Sara Robin said “after my second child I was back on a bike less than a fortnight and returned to my normal weight in two to three months by breastfeeding and cycling.”

Cycling improves mental alertness, reduces stress and lifts depression, giving an overall felling of well-being. A leisure ride (perhaps leaving the baby with a carer) offers a liberating chance to get away if you are feeling low or caged in by motherhood.

Of course, it's natural to protect a new-born baby. I suspect many parents don't research the cycle accessory options for babies and are reluctant to cycle with a tiny infant, except on traffic-free paths. There are now several options available, including a front carrying sling: load carrying methods that can support the fragile neck of a new-born.

Editor's note: We have it on good authority that Anna's kids turned out to be perfectly normal well-adjusted individuals :)

Read MickAllan's review of CUTTING YOUR CAR USE by ANNA SEMLYEN