The Pregnant Field Scientist

Last autumn, I had two great pieces of news. The first was that I had been awarded a small grant to conduct three weeks’ fieldwork in Chile. The second was that I was pregnant.

I was obviously immediately interested in other people’s stories about fieldwork while pregnant. I could find only a few blogs about it on the internet, so I thought I would write about my own experiences of fieldwork while pregnant.

The first thing to do was to decide whether to go at all. I discussed this extensively with my husband, midwife, doctor, parents, head of department and departmental health & safety officer. I was a low-risk pregnancy, in good health (‘ideal’ blood pressure!) and would be doing the fieldwork at the start of my second trimester. The fieldwork would largely comprise low-elevation (under 800 m) hill walking, sometimes on steep terrain or off the path. Current guidelines indicate that exercise, particularly walking, is beneficial to pregnant women. In fact, the highest risk appeared to be the long flight to and from Chile, but I was reassured by an update to the guidelines issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians, which indicated that if your pregnancy is straightforward, flying is not harmful to you or your baby.

After some deep thinking I decided that I was keen to do this fieldwork. We wrote an extensive risk assessment that included extra pregnancy-related mitigations, such as taking extra rest, extra water and snacks, wearing graduated compression socks on the aeroplane, and driving slowly carefully over rutted roads in our 4×4. I was to stay at low altitudes (below 2000 m) and avoid hot springs, spas and hot tubs (I should be so lucky on fieldwork!). I was also to be careful lifting, carrying and climbing up things. I was to take a comprehensive pregnancy vitamin supplement every day. This was alongside the usual pregnancy guidelines, such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, raw/undercooked meat, mould-ripened or unpasteurised cheese and so on. The 5-week trip also meant that I would miss some routine check-ups, but my excellent midwife scheduled me in right before I departed and after I returned to the UK.

Before I left, I had my 12-week scan, which showed that everything was developing normally. I also had an early check-up from the midwife, who managed to hear the baby’s heartbeat at 14 weeks (magical!). I was in good health, with a straightforward pregnancy and had had a very easy first trimester. So I packed for the trip, including some hiking trousers and tops in a bigger size than normal (there is a real gap in the market for affordable outdoor maternity wear). I was ready to go!

The flight to Chile was straightforward. They actually called pregnant ladies in for early boarding first, but with my teeny tiny bump I didn’t feel I should! I made sure I had an aisle seat to ensure I could do regular laps of the plane and settled down for the long flight with my compression socks, extra drinks, ear plugs, eye mask and other paraphernalia. The flight passed without incident and I met my colleague in Santiago. One more flight south to Patagonia and we were set.

During our three weeks of fieldwork (14-16 weeks pregnant), I just took things a little easier than normal. I was still in my normal-sized clothes. I made sure I always had plenty of food and water and rested up in the evenings. I did find that I got a little more tired than usual (although a long day in the field is tiring under the best of circumstances!), so would occasionally rest in the early evening while my colleague did his own side-project. We walked some distance each day, with light rucksacks. My poor colleague had to carry a little more than me (although he was a much faster walker, so this made sense as more weight would just have slowed me down further). We were camping and then staying in self-catered accommodation, so I took an extra-thick inflatable camping mat for extra comfort. We cooked for ourselves so I was able to ensure I had plenty of tinned fruit and vegetables, backed up with some cabbage, onions and celery that were around the only fresh vegetables around.

Campsite in Patagonia

Campsite in Patagonia

After our three weeks of fieldwork, I swapped my colleague for my husband who flew down to Chile to join me. We had a two-week holiday (while I was 17/18 weeks pregnant). We had a great holiday, hiking and exploring (including visiting as many glaciers as possible, of course!). By the end of this holiday I was showing and beginning to feel the effects of my bump. But we just took it easy and rested when I needed it.

On holiday with my husband

On holiday with my husband

On January 1st I returned to the UK and caught up with routine antenatal appointments. I was delighted at my 20 week scan to see that everything was looking healthy and normal. I had trimmed up a little during fieldwork (can only be a good thing) but was sporting a clear bump. The bump is now growing at an alarming rate (I’m now 22 weeks) and fieldwork now, towards the end of my second trimester, would be a much harder and more uncomfortable experience. I’m constantly surprised by how hard little things, like bending down to put on my socks, has become!

Visiting glaciers at 18 weeks pregnant

Visiting glaciers at 18 weeks pregnant

These were my experiences of fieldwork early in my second trimester of pregnancy. I hope you find them of interest. I must stress that mine was a low-risk, straightforward, healthy pregnancy, and that I participated in fieldwork after consulting several medical professionals. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again in a similar situation.

Bump at 18.5 weeks

Bump at 18.5 weeks

If you have any experience of fieldwork while pregnant, I’d love to hear about it Please do comment about it below.

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13 thoughts on “The Pregnant Field Scientist

  1. Hello Bethan,
    In January 2002 I did a few weeks fieldwork on Montserrat between about 18 and 22 weeks pregnant. Like you I passed all the checks and was lucky to have a healthy pregnancy. Everyone was always helpful with questions from our university insurers to the check-in desk at the airline – on the way home they put me in an empty row! So my main advice would be if you want to ask a question about it – just ask!
    I had to delay my 20 week scan (meaning baby was big enough to conceal her gender!) but this was no problem and the second trimester was by far the easiest for fieldwork. I was installing equipment so found ladders quite tricky (my balance was off) and by the last week climbing over fences was becoming less easy. It was good I always had other people with me, and I didn’t mind not carrying things.
    I’d borrowed maternity shorts from my sister which I needed by the end but forgot about UK winter pregnancy clothes when I got back (I didn’t need them when I left) – so had to style it out for a day or so in my thicker pyjama bottoms until I got to the shops! So Top Tip 2: Plan ahead!
    Its worth treating yourself carefully during pregnancy but I don’t regret the fieldwork, its the longest time I’ve spent in the field for the last 13 years, and the last time for 12 my husband and I were able to do fieldwork at the same time (in separate places) – even for a few days! If you can enjoy fieldwork while pregnant then go for it, its not long before you find yourself in an even bigger adventure!

    • Hi Jenni and thanks for your comment! I love your comment about the fences – fieldwork would be so much easier if you could just walk along a path, but they always seem to put the most interesting rocks behind fences. It was fine in the field but getting more challenging now!

  2. Hi Bethan, I was living and working in Switzerland while pregnant, and was doing a lot of day-trip field work (as well as hiking at the weekend), even up to my 8th month. It retrospect the steep trails were maybe not ideal while with such a big bump. It’s not the same as being away for field work. For me, it mostly meant I was slower and couldn’t get as far in a day. Also my balance wasn’t great – walking sticks helped with that!! Congratulations!!

    • Hi Melissa it’s so great to hear all of these supportive and encouraging stories! I’m impressed you managed to keep going to 8 months, very inspiring 🙂

  3. I don’t have a story to share as I was kicked off a feildwork project because of my “sickness” aka pregnancy. Thanks for the story.

  4. I was pregnant during the fifth field season of my phd. I found out that I had received an amazing grant to support my usual twelve weeks of research about two weeks after I found out that I was pregnant. After the crushing exhaustion of the first trimester, my pregnancy was pretty easy and my midwife was very supportive of my fieldwork. I had been running consistently through the first trimester, which helped me to feel ready & capable as I prepared to spend my second trimester hiking ~3-6 miles 5x a week in Acadia National Park. And since this was my fifth season in Maine, I felt very at ease in this familiar place where I already had a local network of friends, colleagues, and support. I already had a yoga teacher that I loved, and I found another prenatal class on the island. I already knew where the best ice cream was (MDI Ice Cream), and I developed a standing milkshake order there (Wingnut — their coffee plus awesome flavor).

    My field site is a five hour drive from home, so I easily traveled home for the twenty week scan and I worked with my midwife to schedule other appointments around the field work. My grant enabled me to hire two undergraduate assistants (in the past I had worked with just one, though this year my field studies expanded) and I trained them well, with the hope that I wouldn’t need them to take over the hiking, but that the data would be collected if I had to slow down or stop hiking later. I bought a pair of elastic-waist “joggers” and a pair of carhartt overalls, because I knew my field pants wouldn’t fit for the whole season, and I packed a stack of my husband’s capilene shirts, and one of his fleeces.

    The field work was great. I was so happy to be outside, with my plants, kicking ass and taking names. My transect hiking times slowed from extremely-efficient to normal-person as I stopped for frequent breaks, and I packed more snacks than usual, but otherwise it was a typical field season. A couple times my undergrads messed up or couldn’t finish a transect, and I secretly relished the opportunity to swoop in, collect the data, and feel like a boss. My last day of field work involved recording hundreds of stem height measurements at three gardens with an undergrad. At this point I was just into the third trimester and the belly of my carhartt overalls were pretty much at capacity. I made it through all of the squatting, bending, leaning, and walking — but then I slept for about twelve hours that night and spend the next day recovering. Even while huddled in bed with a milkshake and a sore back that day I felt great — I had found the edge of my ability to field work while pregnant, and it was on my very last day in the field.

    • Hi Caitlin, thanks for sharing your experiences! Sounds like you have a very supportive environment around you 🙂

  5. Hi Beth,
    So glad everything worked out for you and sounds like you had a fab time. And you’ll be able to tell your little one all about the adventures they’ve already been on!
    So pleased that you had a successful time, it definitely sounds like it can work. I unfortunately had a very complicated pregnancy and didn’t have quite the same success. I went to Alaska for a conference at 13 weeks, and regretted going half way through the journey there. Flying just did not agree with me. I ended up spending loads of time off sick during my pregnancy, which I hated as I’ve never taken time off work for illness before, and had to miss a teaching field trip at about 20 weeks as I was just too ill and not physically capable. If you can do it though, it definitely sounds like you made the best decision.
    Hope you manage the family, work balance once little one arrives, it’s certainly not easy, but is definitely doable! Hope everything goes well.

    • Hi Emma and thanks for your comment. I think you’ve highlighted a very important thing, which is that every pregnancy is different and that some are much more difficult than others. I guess the only option is that you have to be aware and flexible – being pregnant doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cancel fieldwork (or conferences, or other travel, or lab work etc) but it certainly does mean that it’s a possibility and that you have to be flexible.

  6. On the subject of interweaving fieldwork, family life and friendships, I’d really recommend the 57 varieties of fieldwork experience presented in a special issue of Geographical Review, vol. 91 (2001), edited by Dydia DeLyser and Paul Starrs. I can’t recall if pregnancy is mentioned – I bet it is – but you will find a lot to mull over, react against and sympathise with in this collection of essays which covers a wide range of situations and types of field research in physical and human geography, finally bringing the researcher back into the story…..
    The link is here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gere.2001.91.issue-1-2/issuetoc

  7. That was quite an experience in the field work while you were in your second trimester. I have always wanted to understand field work while one is pregnant whether it poses a threat to pregnancy but now I’m in the know after reading your post.

  8. Hi, I did a field work as well during my pregnancy I guess it was also the second trimester although I began when ending the first trimester. My field work was little different, I was supposed to conduct an interview and approaching young men which in my culture I felt would be inappropriate but I feel my pregnancy has made this easier, I am looking for similar experience but can’t find any writing out there, please can someone help? Please, I need some evidence to support some of my assumptions of being pregnant and conducting research, since I am writing my PhD thesis now. Thanks

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