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Stretch marks: what are they?
Stretch marks are undoubtedly one of the downsides of pregnancy. With anywhere between 75% and 90% of mums-to-be developing them, the chances are that you will get some stretch marks, so what exactly are they? The marks are caused when the skin is stretched significantly over a short period of time, making pregnancy an ideal period for them to make an appearance. Pregnancy hormones can also affect the structure of your skin and make stretch marks more likely.
Sailing through your first pregnancy with no or few stretch marks is no guarantee that you will not get them during any subsequent pregnancy.
As the baby grows, you grow too and the stomach gradually gets more and more stretched to accommodate your bump. Stretch marks normally start to show on your abdomen around six or seven months into your pregnancy, but in some women they may appear around months three or four. As your thighs, bottom, hips and breasts increase in size and weight you may be prone to stretch marks on these parts of your body too.
Stretch marks begin as thin, streak-like red lines in the skin's middle layer and as time passes they will become thin and silvery. The marks may also look like scars. Over time they are likely to fade and, if you have pale skin, be less noticeable. However, this could take a few years. If you have dark skin the silvery lines may actually become more noticeable. Stretch marks are unlikely to ever completely disappear.
How to prevent them
Stretch marks can be hereditary, so if your mum or sister had them then the chances are that you will too. For these women, there are things you can do to minimise the marks, while for others these methods may reduce the likelihood of getting stretch marks at all.
While it is normal and essential to put on weight during your pregnancy, one of the key things you can do to prevent stretch marks is to make sure that your weight gain is not excessive, but slow and steady and comes from nutritious foods instead of fatty ones. By avoiding your weight going up rapidly your skin will stretch more gradually and there is less chance of stretch marks appearing.
To give you a rough guide you can expect to add one to two kilograms (or 2 to 4.5 lb) during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, then gain 300g to 400g (or 10 to 14 oz) each week between weeks 12 and 28. In the last three months, weeks 28 to 40, you can expect to add between one and three kilograms per month.
Pregnant women need to consume around 2500 calories a day but this is just 500 calories over the normal recommended intake of calories.
Massage your skin every day with moisturising creams or oils. Not only will this feel nice and help you to relax, but it also encourages the growth of new tissues. Use creams with vitamin E or vitamin A and look for creams with alpha hydroxy acids (or AHAs) which may also help. Remember there is no evidence that any of these potions will work, but using them from the early stages of pregnancy may also help to keep the skin supple.
Vitamins E and C and zinc all help to keep skin healthy so try and eat foods that include them. Lentils and tofu are good for providing zinc while vitamin E can be found in olive oil, peppers and tomatoes and Vitamin C in oranges, frozen peas and broccoli, amongst others. It is also important to drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated.
Can stretch marks be treated?
Some people with stretch marks find them distressing, although others simply just do not like the look of them. There is no medical treatment for stretch marks that is proven to work so you need to be realistic about how much you can achieve in terms of getting the lines to disappear altogether.
Laser therapy will not remove stretch marks completely, but it might help them fade and therefore appear less obvious. The treatment is not available on the NHS and can be expensive as you will probably need many sessions to achieve any visible difference.
More drastic still is cosmetic surgery, but it is unlikely that this would ever be recommended by your GP. Again, because it is cosmetic surgery, it is not available on the NHS. If you have large amounts of loose skin on your tummy then a tummy tuck operation (an abdominoplasty) can remove the excess fat and skin around the abdomen, taking the stretch marks on the skin below the belly button away at the same time. Remember that cosmetic surgery carries some risks and can lead to scarring.
In reality, most of us will learn to live with our stretch marks and adapt to them. Also, losing your pregnancy weight and toning up will help you feel better about your post-baby body. Remember that stretch marks are a sign of what your body has been through in order to bring another human being into the world. In fact, some women are very proud of their stretch marks, so don't throw out that bikini just yet!