The process of reproduction is an essential characteristic of all living organisms. While other animals lay eggs, mammals give birth to a newborn. The anatomy and physiology of the new born baby is similar to that of an adult where all the body systems are in functioning state. The process of embryogenesis is very complex and critical. The developing embryo gets all the nutrients required for its growth and development from the mother. Therefore, certain physiological changes occur in the maternal body to be able to support the embryo. Any nutritional or hormonal deficiency at this stage may not only result in under-weighed babies with birth defects but also affects the quality of life of the mother after delivery.

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fetal circulation

Image: “Circulation of a fetus.” by Henry Vandyke Carter, Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 502. License: Public Domain


Response of Mother’s Body to Pregnancy

Once a woman conceives and becomes pregnant, several physiological changes begin to occur in her body. This is not only to provide nourishment to the developing embryo, but is also an advance preparation of the parturition. Following are the major physiological maternal changes that occur during pregnancy:

  • The uterine size increases from 50g of non-pregnant female to about 1 kg. The vagina enlarges and the introitus opens more widely.
  • The breasts also become almost double in size with a 2 pounds increase in weight.
  • The average weight gain in pregnancy is 24 pounds, of which 7 pounds is of the fetus, 4 pounds of extra-embryonic structures, 2 pounds each of the uterus and the breasts, 6 pounds of the accumulated fluid and remaining 3 pounds is the fat deposition in various parts of the body.
  • As the developing fetus removes substrates from the maternal blood, the desire for food is greatly increased. The basal metabolic rate (BMR) also increases by 15% during the later half of pregnancy. Hormones such as thyroxin, adrenocortical and sex hormones also contribute to increase in BMR.
  • Maternal body stores nutrients that are required by the fetus in last trimester. The weight gain of the fetus almost doubles in the last trimester and so it requires excessive amount of nutrients. A pregnant woman in addition to having other nutrients must take sufficient iron, calcium and vitamin D. In the later stage of pregnancy, she may also require vitamin K to prevent the newborn from hemorrhage during child birth.
  • The cardiac output of the mother increases to 40% as the heart has to supply additional blood to placenta. Cardiac output however falls to a little above the normal value during the last 8 weeks of pregnancy. The maternal blood volume also increases to 30% above normal during pregnancy. The hematocrit and viscosity of blood decrease.
  • Pregnancy is referred to as hypercoagulable or pro-thrombotic state. The prothrombin time (PT) and activated partial thromboplastin time (APTT) decrease. This is thought to prevent blood loss during parturition.
  • Due to increased BMR during pregnancy, the minute ventilation also increases. Some of it is attributed to increased level of progesterone which is a direct respiratory stimulant. The PCO2 level in the blood decreases. As the growing uterus presses upon the abdominal structures, the change in shape of diaphragm is limited. So, in order to maintain adequate ventilation the respiratory rate increases.
  • Glomerular filtration rate (GFR) increases by 50% to excrete out excessive water and salts retained in the body due to hormonal changes occurring in pregnancy.

Maternal Changes During Parturition

Parturition refers to the birth of the baby as a result of forceful uterine contractions. Two main effects which lead to production of such contractions are hormonal changes and mechanical factors.

Hormonal factors

  • During pregnancy, the placenta produces estrogen and progesterone in excessive amounts. Estrogen promotes uterine contractility while progesterone inhibits it. It has been hypothesized that at the time of delivery the ratio of estrogen to progesterone increases significantly which leads to initiation of uterine contractions.
  • The pituitary gland of the fetus produces oxytocin while the adrenal glands produce cortisol. Both of them are the uterine stimulants and initiate uterine contractions.
  • At the time of labor, the fetal membranes secrete prostaglandins, which too will stimulate the cervix and the uterus.

Mechanical factors

  • When the smooth muscles of the uterus are stretched, their contractile power increases. The movements of the fetus cause intermittent stretch of the uterine wall. In twin pregnancy, the average time of delivery is 19 days earlier than in single pregnancy. This emphasizes the importance of mechanical forces produced by the fetus.
  • When the fetal membranes are ruptured, the head of the baby is further pushed downwards causing stretching and irritation of the cervix. This results in transmission of signals from cervix to the uterus either by the nerve reflexes or through direct myogenic transmission of signals.

Initiation of Labor

The weak and rhythmical contractions of the uterus that occur throughout the pregnancy are called Braxton-Hicks contractions. However, at the end of pregnancy these uterine contractions become stronger in amplitude and frequency and result in the dilatation of cervix, which forces the baby out of the birth canal.

This process is known as labor. The normal duration of labor in a primary gravida is up to 24 hours and when exceeded, the woman is said to be in an obstructed labor which requires urgent intervention. With multiple pregnancies, the duration of labor significantly reduces.

The process of labor has been explained on the basis of positive feedback mechanism.

  • As the fetal head descends down into the pelvis, it stretches the cervix. This stretch response causes uterine contractions. These uterine contractions begin from the fundus of the uterus above and then propagate downwards, causing further stretch of the cervical wall. This re-sends the signals to the uterus to produce another forceful contraction, stronger than the previous one. The cervix is stretched and dilated because of this vicious circle and finally the baby comes out of the birth canal.
  • Another important event occurring during this process of cervical stretching is the signal transmission from the cervix to the hypothalamus, which results in production of oxytocin hormone. This oxytocin hormone causes a stronger uterine contraction than the previous one. So every succeeding uterine contraction is stronger than the preceding one.
  • The pain signals from the uterus and the birth canal travel through the spinal cord to give signals to the abdominal muscles. These muscles contract forcefully, further aiding the passage of fetus through the birth canal. The combined force of contraction of abdominal muscles and the uterus pushing the baby through the birth canal is around 25 pounds.
  • In the early part of labor, the frequency of uterine contractions is low occurring after every 30 minutes, but as the labor progresses these contractions become stronger and may recur after every 5 minutes. These intermittent, rhythmic contractions of the uterus are of utmost importance as they prevent the blockage of blood flow to the fetus which may result into fetal death. Abusive use of oxytocin may cause uterine spasm resulting in fetal death.

    positive feedback mechanism of labor

    Image: “The positive feedback mechanism of labor.” by OpenStax – https://cnx.org/contents/FPtK1zmh@8.25:fEI3C8Ot@10/Preface. License: CC BY 4.0

  • The process of labor is divided into three stages:
    • First stage is the start of labor till full dilatation of the cervix (10cm), which is approximately equal to the size of fetal head. This is the longest stage of labor prolonging up to 22-24 hours.
    • Second stage is from the dilatation of the cervix till expulsion of the fetus. This is the shortest phase of labor and is sometimes as short as one minute.
    • Third stage is when the placenta is separated from the uterus and is expelled out. This may take up to 45 minutes. The positive feedback mechanism is illustrated in the diagram beside.

Fetal Circulation

During fetal life, the lungs are non-functional. Therefore, the fetus does not have the ability to oxygenate its blood. It gets the oxygen and other nutrients directly from the mother via placental circulation. Fetal circulatory system is therefore different from an adult circulatory system. There are several bypass mechanisms discussed below:

fetal circulation

Image: “Fetal circulation.” by KellyPhD – Own work. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Oxygenated blood and other nutrients travel through placenta into the umbilical vein. The exchange of gases occur at this level.
  • Ductus venosus shunts the oxygenated blood away from the liver into the inferior vena cava.
  • The blood then enters the right atrium through the inferior vena cava.
  • Some of the blood goes directly to the left atrium via foramen ovale, which is a window-like opening between the two atria.
  • The remaining blood which enters the pulmonary artery re-enters aorta through a connection between the two called ductus arteriosus. It shunts blood away from the lungs.
  • Mixed blood after supplying the head and the body travels back to the placenta via umbilical arteries. It then enters the maternal circulation.

Changes at birth

The following structural changes occur at birth:

changes in newborn heart

Image: “Changes occurring after the birth in a newborn heart.” by BruceBlaus – Own work. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

  • The first cry of the baby lets the air flow into the lungs. As a result they expand and the blood starts flowing in the pulmonary arteries. The increase in pressure in the right side of the heart and in pulmonary artery causes closure of foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus. Prostaglandins inhibition also plays an important role in their closure.
  • The functional closure of ductus venosus occurs at birth. However, its anatomical closure may take a week. The remnant of ductus venosus is called ligamentum venosum.

Adult circulation

In an adult, two circulatory systems flow simultaneously.

  • The deoxygenated blood from different parts of the body enters the right atrium via superior and inferior vena cava. From the right atrium the blood flows into the right ventricle and is finally pumped into the pulmonary artery. The pulmonary artery takes the blood to the lungs where it gets oxygenated. This is pulmonary circulation.
  • The oxygenated blood leaves the lungs and enters the left atrium via pulmonary veins. It then flows into left ventricle and is then pumped into aorta and to all parts of the body. This is called systemic circulation.

Comparison of fetal and adult circulation

  • In fetal circulation, the exchange of gases occurs at placental level while in an adult circulation, it occurs in the lungs.
  • In fetal heart, there is higher pressure on the right side of the heart while in adult circulation left side of the heart bears more pressure of the blood.
  • In fetal circulation lungs are bypassed by the foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus. In an adult, there are two circuits of blood.
  • In fetus the blood flowing is oxygenated, deoxygenated or mixed. Under normal physiological conditions, the adult blood is either oxygenated or deoxygenated.

Review Questions on Maternal Changes During Pregnancy and Fetal Circulation

The correct answers can be found below the references.

1. A young pregnant lady, in the 3rd gestational month, came for a follow-up obs ultrasound to the gynecologist. She has HR 116/min, RR 28/min and temp 99 F. Which of the following would decrease during her pregnancy? 

A. BMR

B. Hematocrit

C. Blood pressure

D. Cardiac output

2. A 9 months pregnant female came with complaint of cramping pain in the abdomen since morning. Pain is now worse and bleeding has started. She has been examined by the duty doctor in the labor room. Head of the baby was seen on per vaginal examination. Which stage of labor is she in? 

A. Stage 1

B. Stage 2

C. Stage 3

D. Stage 4

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