Pregnancy Symptoms: What Are The Early Signs of Pregnancy?
Medically reviewed by Rachel Liberto, RN on November 5, 2019
- The most common signs of pregnancy following a missed period are nausea, fatigue, frequent urination, and breast changes.
- Most—but not all—women start to experience the first signs of pregnancy around 6 weeks of gestation (or 2 weeks after your missed period).
- There is no way to tell the difference between early pregnancy symptoms and premenstrual symptoms because they are both caused by the same hormone: progesterone.
The most commonly felt early pregnancy symptoms following a missed period are nausea, fatigue, frequent urination, and breast changes. But the only way to know for sure if you’re pregnant at the very early stages is to take a home pregnancy test or get a pregnancy blood test from your doctor.
What are the early symptoms of pregnancy?
The most common early pregnancy symptoms are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased sense of smell
- Breast and/or nipple tenderness
- Frequent urination
- Trouble sleeping
- Spotting or brown discharge
The most common symptoms from the list above are nausea, fatigue, frequent urination, and breast changes. But each of these symptoms can arise from other causes and are not exclusive to pregnancy.
Nausea or fatigue could be from a virus, frequent urination could mean you drank too much coffee, and breasts changes can occur throughout your menstrual cycle.
If you’re pregnant enough to be having symptoms, you’re pregnant enough to get a positive pregnancy test. Otherwise, your symptoms are most likely a result of the hormone progesterone, which is elevated during the premenstrual phase whether or not you have conceived.
When do early pregnancy symptoms start?
For most women, pregnancy symptoms don’t start until about two weeks after their missed period.
The most classic pregnancy symptom is nausea, often called morning sickness. When does morning sickness start? Usually between 6 and 8 weeks of pregnancy, or two to four weeks after you miss a period.
Some women don’t experience symptoms until later. Others start experiencing symptoms earlier—as early as 4 – 5 days before their period is due.
When will I feel the first signs of pregnancy?
It’s hard to say when you’ll start to feel the first signs of pregnancy because every woman and every pregnancy are different. Pregnancy symptoms can vary in frequency and intensity.
In this study which examined 136 women for the onset of pregnancy symptoms, half of the women felt symptoms by the end of the fifth week and 89% did so by the end of the eighth week.
The study also found that women who smoke tobacco or marijuana (which is obviously not recommended when you’re trying to conceive) tend to have a delay in the onset of symptoms.
According to this study:
- 59% began feeling symptoms between the beginning of the fifth week to the end of the sixth week
- A total of 71% reported symptoms by the end of the sixth week
- A total of 89% reported symptoms by the end of the eighth week
Will I be able to feel pregnancy symptoms right after conception?
If you know when you ovulate, you might start looking for pregnancy symptoms a few days later. But even if your egg was fertilized by your partner’s sperm, it still has to implant in your uterine lining before pregnancy begins.
The process of implantation usually takes 9 days. This means that the absolute earliest you’ll start experiencing pregnancy symptoms is 4 – 5 days before your period is due.
Even if you turn out to be pregnant, any symptoms you experience earlier than that are likely to be caused by progesterone, which is normally elevated at that point in the menstrual cycle.
Can you feel conception?
No. When a sperm fertilizes an egg and conception occurs, the now fertilized egg is so small that you can only see it with a microscope.
The fertilized egg travels down the fallopian tube and implants into your uterine lining. Once it implants in the uterine lining—which usually occurs eight – 10 days after ovulation—it rapidly begins producing the hormone hCG.
In a non-pregnancy cycle, progesterone levels would be falling at this point, but hCG sends a signal for progesterone production to increase.
The increase in progesterone levels is responsible for many early pregnancy symptoms, as opposed to the fertilized egg itself, which, at about 0.1 – 0.2 mm is roughly the size of a poppy seed and not capable of producing any physical sensations you can feel.
This means that the absolute earliest that it’s possible to feel something is after implantation, which most often occurs 9 days after ovulation (and no earlier than six days after ovulation).
This doesn’t mean you can feel implantation itself. There’s likely no such thing as implantation cramps. But after implantation is the earliest that changing hormone levels might cause noticeable symptoms.
How can you tell the difference between early pregnancy symptoms and your period?
Early pregnancy can feel a lot like your period coming. That’s because PMS symptoms and early pregnancy symptoms are both caused by the same hormone: progesterone.
Whether you are pregnant or not, progesterone levels are higher during the luteal phase of your cycle (the time between ovulation and the start of your next period). If you are not pregnant, progesterone levels drop, which triggers your uterine lining to shed. If you are pregnant, progesterone levels continue to rise.
In a regular menstrual cycle where there is no pregnancy, progesterone can cause nausea, bloating, moodiness, and increased appetite—many of the same symptoms of early pregnancy.
The chart below shows progesterone levels in cycles that resulted in pregnancy versus cycles that did not. As you can see, progesterone levels are the same until 9 – 10 days after ovulation.
If progesterone is the culprit of early pregnancy symptoms and premenstrual symptoms, how do you tell the difference? The disappointing-but-true answer is that you can’t.
Related: can you be pregnant but still get a period?
Are early pregnancy symptoms different when you’re carrying a male vs. a female?
A recent study from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre found that the gender of the baby can affect pregnancy symptoms. The study examined the immune responses of pregnant women, to see if there was a variation in immune markers (cytokines) depending on the sex of their baby.
These findings (from the Brain, Behaviour and Immunity Journal) revealed that immune cells of women carrying female fetuses developed a higher number of pro-inflammatory cytokines when exposed to bacteria, compared to those of women who were pregnant with a male fetus.
The authors of the study believe that the heightened inflammatory response of those carrying female babies may have an impact on why some women experience worse symptoms during pregnancy. But more research needs to be done in this area.
Could spotting before my period be an early sign of pregnancy?
While it’s not uncommon to experience brown discharge or spotting during early pregnancy, it’s not really considered a sign of pregnancy. That’s because spotting is more likely to occur if you’re not pregnant.
In a cycle where pregnancy occurs, the fertilized egg implants itself into the uterine lining between eight and 10 DPO (days after ovulation). It’s often suggested that this process can cause spotting or light bleeding, but despite popular belief, there is no medical evidence to support the existence of implantation bleeding.
Spotting before your period can happen because of a sharp drop in the hormone progesterone. In the event of implantation, steadily rising hCG actually keeps progesterone levels elevated, so you wouldn’t experience any bleeding or spotting in relation to implantation.
Is white vaginal discharge an early pregnancy symptom?
Vaginal discharge is a normal part of a woman’s cycle. White discharge, also known as leukorrhea, also occurs during pregnancy, but it’s not a sign of pregnancy.
Whenever there are changes in estrogen levels, you can expect a change in your vaginal discharge. This can happen during early pregnancy, but it can also happen throughout the menstrual cycle.
Even if you are pregnant, pregnancy-related changes in leukorrhea usually aren’t noticeable until late in the first trimester or early second trimester, well after you’ve taken a pregnancy test.
So, while it’s tempting to examine any recent changes in your discharge after ovulation, it isn’t the best barometer to help identify an early pregnancy.
Am I pregnant?
A pregnancy test will let you know for sure by measuring the level of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in your urine. This is the hormone that signals the corpus luteum to continue producing progesterone, which will maintain the uterine lining to support the developing embryo. (Normally, this lining sheds each cycle, which results in your period.)
But don’t take a pregnancy test too early, as the embryo does not begin producing hCG until 8 – 10 days after ovulation.