How to Cope with Morning Sickness

By Marisa Iallonardo
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eden, M.D.
August 14, 2023
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Morning sickness is nausea and vomiting typically experienced in early pregnancy—it’s pretty well known on the list of common pregnancy symptoms. But just because it’s expected doesn’t make it any pleasanter.

Despite the name, morning sickness can hit at any time of day. “For me, it was all-day, near- constant nausea that increased in duration with each pregnancy,” says Kristen Bonistall, who lives in Westchester County, New York, and experienced morning sickness with all three of her pregnancies.

“I would feel ill and nauseous most days,” says Haydee Gomez of Tarrytown, New York, who had morning sickness throughout the first trimester of her pregnancy with her son. “I was also hypersensitive to smells, which did not help my situation, as I was commuting and taking the subway to work.” Haydee occasionally even vomited on the train, forcing her to make pre-work pitstops to change her outfit at a clothing store that (fortunately!) opened early.

Kristen’s and Haydee’s experiences are common. “Up to 80% of pregnant people will report some nausea or vomiting,” says Joanne Motino Bailey, Ph.D., a certified nurse midwife and director of the Nurse Midwifery Service at University of Michigan Health. Thankfully, there are strategies to ease your symptoms. Read on for what to expect and how to find relief from morning sickness.

What Causes Morning Sickness?

The good news is that morning sickness doesn’t always make you get sick. “Unlike so many moms, I never actually vomited, but the nausea was so bad, sometimes I wished I could,” Kristen says.

The bad news is that it always makes you feel sick. “It can start with nausea, but sometimes it can progress to include vomiting as well,” says Steve Behram, M.D., medical director of Congressional OB GYN, in Rockville, Maryland.

Morning sickness has been a clinically recognized part of pregnancy for generations, says Gloria A. Bachmann, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn, professor, and associate dean for women's health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Even the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote of the pregnant woman’s reduced intake of food due to loss of appetite and nausea,” Bachmann says.

Yet even today, experts still can’t pinpoint the exact cause of morning sickness. The most common explanation is that it’s triggered by rising levels of the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG)—the same hormone that turns a urine pregnancy test positive, explains Behram.

Another theory for what causes morning sickness is that it could be evolutionarily protective, keeping a pregnant person from eating foods that could have a negative impact on the earliest and formative stage of pregnancy, Bailey says. However, she notes, “There’s nothing to say that that’s true.”

How Long Does Morning Sickness Last?

Morning sickness, if it occurs, will start in the first trimester as the HCG hormone begins to surge, says Behram. This usually happens about four to six weeks after the first day of your last menstrual period. Symptoms tend to peak somewhere between seven and 13 weeks and then subside.

“But again, this is highly variable,” explains Behram. It’s possible for morning sickness to last for the entire pregnancy. This can occur in up to 20% of pregnancies.

“In my first pregnancy, the nausea lasted for two weeks and was somewhat manageable,” Kristen says. “In the second and third pregnancies, the nausea lasted 15 and 20 weeks, respectively.”

6 Ways to Find Relief from Morning Sickness

Morning sickness will eventually pass, whether in a few weeks, months, or, at the absolute latest, after the baby is born. In the meantime, you can try these methods to ease the queasiness and make yourself feel more comfortable.

Snack Regularly

“The most basic thing I tell people to do is focus on very small high-protein snacks throughout the day,” Bailey says. “High-protein snacks help stabilize blood sugar levels, which may be a contributor to nausea.” She suggests a handful of nuts, a few pieces of cheese, or a few bites of a protein bar—and recommends setting an alarm for every two hours to remind yourself to eat something.

Salty snacks, like saltine crackers, may help settle your stomach and also help you retain water, which is important for staying hydrated.

Eat Ginger

Research suggests that ginger can be an effective way to combat morning sickness. In one study, for instance, the group of pregnant women who took 125 milligrams of ginger extract four times a day reported a decrease in nausea and dry heaving compared to the group who was given a placebo.

A newer study found that a ginger drink—a mix of ginger, hot water, and a little sugar—helped reduce vomiting due to first-trimester nausea. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends ginger ale, ginger candy, and ginger tea.

Use Aromatherapy

Although you want to avoid smells that make you feel sick, some scents may actually help. Bailey recommends dabbing peppermint essential oil on a cotton ball and waving it under your nose or sniffing the alcohol swabs you’d use to clean a wound.

For Haydee, the scent of lemon did the trick. “I would cut the lemons into small wedges and keep them in a Ziploc bag in my purse; they were what got me through 12 weeks of feeling pretty awful,” she says.

Experts aren’t totally sure why certain scents help symptoms. However, Behram says that there could be a connection with the part of the brainstem called the chemoreceptor trigger zone, which is associated with vomiting.

“We postulate that maybe certain agents, both natural or pharmacologic, may either increase or decrease the activity of this part of the brain,” he says. “Thus, it's possible that the mechanism of action of certain scents, such as lemons or mint, may not just be a distraction, but may, in fact, be due to actual chemical changes in the chemoreceptor trigger zone.”

Try Acupuncture

“Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in the treatment of morning sickness,” Behram says. A study published in the journal Birth, for example, suggested that pregnant women who were treated with traditional acupuncture experienced decreases in both nausea and dry heaving compared to women in a control group.

Consider Medication

“There are medications that can help,” Bailey says. “For some people, they don’t fix it all, but they can decrease the symptoms so people are more functional.”

Bailey says some people have success taking a combination of vitamin B6 and Unisom, an antihistamine that’s commonly used as a sleep aid—both of which are available over the counter. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking anything to confirm that it’s safe and to know the best dosage for you.

Zofran, a medication used to treat nausea and vomiting, is also regularly prescribed for morning sickness, Bailey says. “The reason why we like Zofran is [because] it works really well, and it doesn’t make you drowsy,” she explains.

Drink Up

Staying hydrated is key, Bailey says. In Kristen’s third pregnancy, when her morning sickness lasted the longest, Trader Joe’s cranberry and lime juice seltzer became her go-to. “It really stopped the nausea,” she says.

What to Do About Severe Morning Sickness

As uncomfortable as it may feel for you, the queasiness and vomiting of early pregnancy is not usually dangerous for your baby, according to ACOG. However, some people experience it to an extreme.

“Morning sickness [is considered] a serious condition if a patient loses more than 5% of their body weight, presumably due to dehydration,” explains Behram. “Patients with this more severe form of morning sickness are said to have hyperemesis gravidarum, which can also lead to significant electrolyte imbalances.”

Hyperemesis gravidarum is rare, occurring in up to 3% of pregnancies (including, famously, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, formerly Kate Middleton) and requires medical intervention, according to ACOG.

In most pregnancies, the experience of morning sickness ranges from mild to moderate, but it’s important to look out for symptoms that go beyond nausea and vomiting, like fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or blood in the vomit. If you notice any of these, contact your provider as soon as possible, since they can be signs of other issues, such as an infection or a severe gastrointestinal disorder, Bailey says.

Another red flag that requires immediate care: if 24 hours have passed and you’re still not able to keep fluids down. Call your doctor in that case, too, Bailey says.

You may need to experiment with different stomach-settling tricks to find the ones that work for your morning sickness. And remember, just about everyone—pregnant or not—can relate to the misery of nausea, so try not to feel embarrassed about the symptoms or the strategies you use to ease them.

Others may even offer their support. Says Kristen of the seltzer that eased her nausea: “It helped me so much that family and neighbors would leave four-packs of my ‘pregnancy cosmo’ at my front door every time they went to Trader Joe’s.”

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