Your body during weeks 21 to

This month you're starting the second half of your pregnancy. Your uterus will expand beyond your navel, and you'll probably feel your baby's first kicks. These are a far cry from the fluttery, butterflies-in-the-stomach movements of last month. Here's an overview of what's happening and where.

Your hormones

Different hormones are being produced at varying rates to meet the demands of your growing baby. As you move through your pregnancy, your levels of estrogen and progesterone increase to amounts 10 times greater than those of a woman who isn't pregnant.

Throughout the first five months of your pregnancy, your level of progesterone was slightly higher than your level of estrogen. This month your estrogen level is catching up. At 21 or 22 weeks, the two hormones will be at about the same level. By your 24th week, your estrogen level will be slightly higher than your progesterone level.

Your heart and circulatory system

Your blood pressure will probably continue to stay lower than normal this month. After your 24th week, it will likely return to where it was before you were pregnant. Your body is also continuing to make more blood this month. By this time, production of red blood cells should be catching up to production of plasma — if you're getting enough iron. If you're not getting the 30 milligrams of iron you need each day, you may be at risk of developing iron deficiency anemia.

You may be continuing to experience nasal congestion, nosebleeds and bleeding gums when you brush your teeth. These changes are the result of continued increased blood flow to your nasal passages and gums.

Your respiratory system

To accommodate your increasing lung capacity, your rib cage is enlarging. By the time your baby is born, the distance around your rib cage will have expanded by two to three inches. After your child is born, it will return to its pre-pregnancy size.

Changes in your respiratory system are likely continuing to cause you to breathe slightly faster, but any shortness of breath has probably lessened. Sometimes your breathing will become even easier late in your pregnancy, when your baby begins to move down into your pelvis in preparation for birth.

Your breasts

Your breasts are continuing to grow larger this month and are now probably ready to produce milk. You may see tiny droplets of watery or yellowish fluid appearing on your nipples, even this early. This is early milk (colostrum). It's loaded with active, infection-fighting antibodies from your body. If you breast-feed, colostrum will be your baby's food for the first few days after birth.

Blood vessels in your breasts are continuing to be more visible, too, showing through your skin as pink or blue lines.

Your uterus

This month, perhaps around your 22nd week of pregnancy, your uterus may begin practicing for labor and delivery. It starts exercising its muscle mass to build strength for the big job ahead. These warm-up contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions. They're occasional, painless contractions that feel like a squeezing sensation near the top of your uterus or in your lower abdomen and groin.

Braxton-Hicks contractions are also called false labor. That's because they're very different from the contractions involved in true labor. Braxton-Hicks contractions occur on an irregular schedule and vary in length and intensity. True labor contractions follow a pattern, growing longer, stronger and closer together. Braxton-Hicks contractions tend to be concentrated in one area. True labor contractions tend to radiate throughout your abdomen and lower back.

That said, it can be easy to mistake Braxton-Hicks contractions for the real thing. Contact your health care provider if you're having contractions that concern you, especially if they become painful or if you have more than six in an hour. Painful, regular contractions at this stage of your pregnancy may be a sign of preterm labor.

The biggest difference between true labor and Braxton-Hicks contractions is the effect on your cervix. With Braxton-Hicks, your cervix doesn't change. With true labor the cervix begins to open (dilate). You may need to see your health care provider to determine whether the contractions are the real thing.

Your urinary tract

You continue to be at risk of developing a urinary tract infection this month. This is a result of the normal body changes of pregnancy. Slowed urine flow is caused by your growing uterus and "flabbier," progesterone-induced muscle tone in the ureters, which carry urine from your kidneys to your bladder.

If you're urinating even more often than usual, feeling burning on urination or experiencing a fever, abdominal pain or backache, contact your health care provider. These are signs and symptoms of a urinary tract infection, which is a common cause of preterm labor.

Your bones, muscles and joints

The ligaments supporting your abdomen are continuing to stretch this month, and the joints between your pelvic bones are continuing to soften and loosen in preparation for childbirth. In addition, your lower spine is likely continuing to curve backward to help keep you from falling forward from the weight of your growing baby. Together, these changes in your bones, joints and ligaments may be continuing to cause back pain.

Your vagina

You're probably continuing to have thin, white vaginal discharge with little or no odor. It's normal. Many women have increased vaginal discharge during pregnancy.

If, however, your vaginal discharge is greenish or yellowish, strong-smelling or accompanied by redness, itching or irritation of the vulva, there may be cause for concern. These are signs and symptoms of a vaginal infection, also one of the side effects of pregnancy hormones. Call your health care provider if you experience any of these problems.

Weight gain

Once again, you'll probably gain about a pound a week this month, for a total of about 4 pounds. You may gain 11/ pounds one week and only half a pound the next, but that's not cause for concern. As long as your weight gain is remaining relatively stable, without any sudden increases or decreases, you're doing great.

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