Singing and Pregnancy: What we know
Pregnancy and its impact on the body has been well documented. However, the way these changes impact the pregnant singer have not been so thoroughly explored. Unsurprisingly, many of the changes women undergo during pregnancy have a direct impact on the singing body. Like dancers and athletes, singers are particularly in-tune with their bodies. Since our bodies are our instruments, we have been trained to tune into the slightest changes, physical and emotional. This helps us not only to understand our own technique and vocal function, but also to produce a consistent sound despite life's natural ups and downs. Whether you are a professional singer or someone who simply sings in the shower, when you sing you tune into your body in a unique way which deeply connects us to our current state, both physical and emotional. This is why the experience of pregnancy and its ramifications for the singer are so important to explore! And we haven't even mentioned the career implications...
Below I share what we know about pregnancy and its impact on the body, as well as link to other researchers who are exploring the subject. Much of the physical changes which occur during pregnancy have been studied from a non-singing perspective - the following list is simply a review of what occurs during pregnancy and which may have an impact on the singer. Explore my data pages to find out what 444 participants of my study felt about these physical symptoms.
The Physical Impacts of Pregnancy on the Singing Voice
Hormonally, our bodies undergo major changes while pregnant. Hormonal changes during pregnancy not only impact the genital tract and reproductive system, but also the larynx. Did you know that the larynx houses hormonal receptors? In a study by Jean Abitbol and others, women were given cervical and laryngeal smears on the same day. Abitbol and her team found that the same hormones were present in both the larynx and the cervix! These hormonal changes influence the tone and timbre of the voice.
When a woman becomes pregnant, the normal balance of progesterone and estrogen changes, resulting in fluid retention and the widening of blood vessels, both of which can cause a thickening of the vocal folds and possibly a feeling of heaviness and/or hoarseness. (Check out my resources page to link to more studies which confirm this finding).
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive ailment which allows gastric juices to rise up into the esophagus. Singers are especially concerned about GERD because the acid can burn or irritate the vocal folds and cause vocal challenges. When women become pregnant, instances of GERD can increase because of changes in the physical barriers which prevent the reflux of gastric juices and the decrease of abdominal space as the pregnancy progresses can push acid up towards the esophagus. Over 50% of women report experiencing GERD during pregnancy.
Morning sickness is also a concern for singers. Vomiting brings the gastric juices up past the vocal folds which can cause irritation. 50-75% of women experience morning sickness, making this pregnancy symptom a concerned for singers.
The abdominal muscles are another area of concern for the pregnant singer. When the fetus grows, the linea alba stretches and can become weaker. Maintaining the strength of the linea alba is important for singers because its weakness can cause difficulty in the proper functioning of the abdominal muscles and in supporting the tone. (Andrea Pitman Will writes a great dissertation on this subject, as well as defines clear exercises and techniques to help strengthen the linea alba. Find it here.)
Adjustments to postural alignment as the fetus grows can cause difficulties for the pregnant singer as they aim to maintain proper support and the centre of balance moves forward. Dr. Jahn, an ENT and a regular columnist for Classical Singer Magazine, says that the slight extension of these muscles can initially make breath support easier, although difficulties may arise later in the pregnancy. This article by Dr. Jahn discusses the physical impacts of pregnancy on the singing body.
In addition to the singing challenges brought on by postural changes and stretching abdominal muscles, decreasing lung capacity is another factor which can impact the pregnant singer. The severity of these symptoms vary during the stages of pregnancy and are also related to the mother's height, pelvis size and position of the baby.
According to a study by Hamden and others, pregnant women can experience swelling of the mucosa in the nasal cavities, accounting for the fact that pregnant women tend to experience an increase in rhinitis (nasal congestion). Rhinitis can cause the sensation of plugged resonators, irritation of the vocal folds and hoarseness.
A general sense of fatigue is common for pregnant women and can be an issue for the pregnant singer, who may need to perform high energy staging, concerts or repertoire. In the National Sleep Poll's study "Women and Sleep," 78% of women reported that their sleep was disturbed during pregnancy more than any other time in their lives - (though as a mother to a toddler, I might argue that motherhood certainly interrupts and shortens sleep!)
The idea of "mommy brain" is still a hotly disputed topic: Some researchers say that the capacity of a woman's brain is not impacted by pregnancy, while others have shown that appreciable changes occur. This article and this article share some new findings and highlight the inconsistencies in this subject. Like many of the above physical symptoms, studies on pregnant singers and their experience memorizing lyrics and staging have not been the focus of researchers. This subject is simply in its early stages of exploration.
The Emotional Impacts of Pregnancy on the Singers: What we know
The Social Impacts of Pregnancy on the Singers: What we know