Have you ever noticed a pregnant woman trying to keep everyone at arm's length once she reaches the third trimester? It's not just her mother's instinct at work. A recent study found that during a woman’s final weeks of pregnancy, her ‘safety bubble’ expands. In other words, her sensitivity to objects or people immediately around her heightens and her need for personal space increases!
The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, looked into women’s ‘peripersonal space,’ which refers to "within an arm’s length of another person or the space immediately surrounding a person’s body", where the majority of interactions with the external world and with other people occur.
The researchers, who came from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in East Anglia, United Kingdom (UK) and from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, UK, studied women in different stages of pregnancy — women in their second trimester (around the 20th week) whose bellies were only beginning to become prominent, women in their third trimester (around the 34th week) whose bellies were already quite large, and women who were at roughly 8 weeks after giving birth. The researchers also included women who were not pregnant in their study.
The participants were blindfolded and then asked to push a button the moment they felt a light tap on their abdomen. An earlier study had found that people responded quicker when they heard a sound that seemed closer to them than when they heard a sound that seemed to come from further away. A similar concept was applied in this new study — the researchers tried to measure the distance at which the participants reacted faster to estimate their peripersonal space boundaries at the different stages of pregnancy.
ScienceNews reports that women who were in their third trimester actually pushed the button in response to a tap even if the sound accompanying it was coming from further away. Meanwhile, women in their second trimester and those who had already given birth did not manifest similar results.
“Our results suggest that when the body undergoes significantly large changes, at the stage when the abdomen is clearly expanded, the maternal brain also begins to make adjustments to the space immediately surrounding the body,” Flavia Cardini, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in psychology at ARU in East Anglia, UK and author of the study, says in a press release on the ARU website.
“Peripersonal space is considered a ‘safety bubble’ and it’s possible that the observed expansion of this at the late stage of pregnancy might be aimed at protecting the vulnerable abdomen during the mother’s daily interactions,” Dr. Cardini continues. “So as the mother’s bump grows, in effect the expanded peripersonal space is the brain’s way of ensuring danger is kept at arm’s length.”
Pregnant women need their space
The study's findings suggest something that we should all learn to give pregnant women: their personal space. Expectant moms need that space to accommodate their growing bellies.
“It’s not that women are just being ‘overly sensitive,’” Samira Tahtawi, M.D., an OB-Gyn and OB hospitalist group site director at WakeMed Cary Hospital in North Carolina, US, tells Parents. “It is notable to have science reaffirm the peripersonal space entity to alert family, coworkers, and friends that advanced gestation with its consequent physical changes does increase the vulnerability factor to the fetus.”
The need for space also speaks about moms’ growing instinct to protect their growing babies from any perceived harm. Parents notes that the study “reveals how the brain’s sense of space compensates for a rapidly changing body—one that’s carrying very precious cargo.”
“The changes the body undergoes during pregnancy are very fast and massive,” says Dr. Cardini. “The brain might not be able to adapt to them quickly, which might be why it needs to expand the sense of near space in order to better monitoring external threat.”
The findings of Dr. Cardini’s study also points out that there are big risks that can threaten the growing baby.
Dr. Tahtawi says, “It is important to maintain the ‘protective bubble’ through the late trimester to deflect any harm to the fetus. They physical protuberance of the term uterus is at risk merely by its extension so far out into the woman’s immediate physical environment.
“Just as we reflexively protect other body parts from harm, so would we protect our abdomen and life within from any perceived harm.”
Don’t be afraid to protect your belly, moms
Preggo moms, if you feel uncomfortable about people touching your belly or coming too close, don’t hesitate to take action!
“Pregnant women need little reminding that their abdomen requires a safety barrier as they reach term,” Dr. Tahtawi says. “So women should feel empowered to take whatever action is right for them, including telling people to stop or that they aren’t comfortable with them being touched, backing up, or even gently pushing the toucher’s hands away!”
Dr. Tahtawi even suggests a wordless approach to reminding people to take their distance: Wearing statement shirts. “This can wordlessly prevent the oft-dreaded belly touching,” she says.
The bottom line is that, if you are approaching the final stretch of your pregnancy, it’s completely okay to ask people around you to keep their hands off your belly — or maybe remind them to ask you for permission first!