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Summary:

I use the internet as my primary source of information about my pregnancy — and I’m not alone in that. But that’s not always a good thing. My story kicks off a new weekly feature on GigaOM called “A Digital Life.”

pregnant woman belly
photo: Thinkstock

“Let me just check the internet and see if I’m pregnant.” While my husband and I were trying to conceive, this thought would occasionally pop into my mind.

I know — it makes no sense. But I’m so used to checking the internet for everything else – a bank balance, a recipe, a flight status – that my brain assumed I could also check a website to see what was happening in my uterus. Before I even knew I was pregnant, I realized the internet was going to be an inextricable player in the process.

Later, after I was already pregnant, I had a dream that my doctor passed an iPhone over my belly to pull up an ultrasound picture.

Is this normal?

Is it normal googleI’m five months along now and I find myself Googling “is X normal” all the time. While I occasionally did that pre-fetus, I’d cautiously estimate the behavior has now increased by roughly 1,000 percent. My husband claims that since I got pregnant, the ads that we see on Hulu have changed. He’s decided that all of the cat food and baby ads that pop up while we’re watching The Office are a direct result of my weird pregnancy Googling. Like Hulu is watching me, and it knows.

I suspected that this Googling — plus my time spent on pregnancy websites — was normal, or at least not totally strange in an age when women feel comfortable talking to online strangers about their cervical mucus. So I created an anonymous online survey and asked pregnant women about the role the internet has played in their pregnancies.

I got 80 responses. (Caveat: I only posted the survey online, so I only got responses from people who are online and thus likely to be more tech-savvy.) The answers were illuminating. Most of the respondents spent at least an hour a week doing pregnancy stuff online:

In fact, nearly half of the women (44 percent) said that websites, forums and Google are their primary source of information about their pregnancy, beating out real live humans:

It’s not news that a lot of people get health information online, but I was still surprised by the internet’s supremacy here — until I really thought about it and realized I only see my OB-GYN every few weeks but I have access to the internet every day.

“The Google can of worms”

Babycenter app

BabyCenter’s iOS app

I really like my obstetrician, but I’ve only called her on the phone once. That was on the day of my nuchal translucency scan, an ultrasound they do to look for signs of Down syndrome. At my scan, the baby looked fine, but the ultrasound technician casually noted that I had a small septum in my uterus. “Oh, OK,” I said. “What is that?”

“It’s normal,” she said. “Just Google it.”

A couple hours later, I was crying. Sometimes, a septum in your uterus can be normal; sometimes, it can be really bad. Guess which search engine doesn’t distinguish between the harmless kind and the terrifying kind? I left a message with my obstetrician, then spent almost an entire afternoon glued to my couch, frantically scanning Google search result pages to find the one that would just be reassuring – the one that would let me know that my baby was going to be OK. But I really only felt better when I talked to my doctor.

“It shouldn’t affect the pregnancy at all,” she said. “Consider it a variation of normal.” I typed these sentences into Evernote and saved them so that I could refer to them later if I needed to.

I asked the women who took my survey whether they’d ever Googled a pregnancy-related query and regretted it, or been scared because of the result. Nearly two-thirds had:

Among the responses:

“This baby has been diagnosed in utero with a liver tumor. It is most likely benign, and all of the doctors involved have been completely unalarmed and calm and reassuring us that it would not amount to anything or affect the baby in any way. My husband opened the Google can of worms after we agreed not to do it, and what he read was terrifying.”

But the internet is, of course, also helpful for routine queries — and can provide needed community in more complicated medical situations. Ninety-three percent of respondents said they’d Googled a pregnancy-related query and found the answer very helpful. For example:

“I was diagnosed with a large subchorionic hematoma at seven weeks after experiencing some very scary bleeding. I was too shaken up at the doctor’s office to ask intelligent questions, so I Googled it when I got home. I found an online forum and read stories from a number of women who had experienced the same thing and went on to have healthy babies. Of course, I also read stories about losses, but just knowing that I had a good chance of delivering this baby was enough to reassure me.”

Going down the rabbit hole

A month's worth of emails from TheBump.com

A month’s worth of emails from TheBump.com

Overall, 58 percent of respondents said that they think the internet makes pregnancy easier; just 7 percent said it makes pregnancy harder, and a quarter weren’t sure. When I asked them why they find it helpful, many respondents mentioned the ease and speed of getting an answer to a basic question. But several respondents mentioned how easy it is to get sucked into the Google tunnel. “The amount of information, like everything online, is overwhelming,” one respondent wrote, “and you have to find your way to the trustworthy sites or it can be easy to get pulled down any number of unhelpful rabbit holes.”

Few respondents were particularly nostalgic for the old, pre-internet days. “I’ve talked to women in my parents’ generation who were condescended to by doctors and basically knew nothing about labor, pregnancy and delivery,” a respondent wrote, “and I’m thankful to live in an age where I do have access to valuable information, even if navigating it is its own kind of treacherous.”

Google 20 weeks pregnant

Google image search, “20 weeks pregnant”

Another noted that online, “you can pick and choose when you want to talk about pregnancy – which is not always a choice with non-virtual relationships.” And many women suggested that you just have to be smart about filtering what you read: “If you have a good set of critical-thinking skills, you can filter the reasonable/credible advice and discard the rest.”

Personally, I’ve found it a little tough to know how to filter information since I’ve never been pregnant before. And while critical thinking is key for sorting through a lot of information on the web, being pregnant isn’t like finding a restaurant or a hotel online: It’s harder to throw out the random or unusual experiences since you can never be sure they won’t happen to you. Yet, as my stomach has gotten bigger and I’ve started being able to feel the baby kick, it’s become a lot easier to trust that things are going the way they’re supposed to. In the first trimester, the only outward sign of my pregnancy was a lot of puking.

One respondent’s comment stuck with me. “I am going to have an old-fashioned pregnancy this time,” she wrote. “Let my body alone direct my actions and avoid the internet obsessing.”

But for me, that hasn’t been possible. I’m now moving into the stage of pregnancy where a lot of my internet activity involves making baby-stuff boards on Pinterest (an activity, by the way, that 50 percent of respondents say they do). Everyone says the second trimester is the golden period of pregnancy, and for me it turns out that applies to internet usage as well.

I imagine by my third trimester, when I’m bigger and more uncomfortable, the number of health queries will pick up again. I also hear that around 40 weeks, the baby is going to actually come out. At that point, I’m sure I’ll have a whole new set of questions for Google — but I may too busy hanging out with my new baby and trying to get some sleep to ask them.

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  1. Congrats on being pregnant!

  2. After Web Searches come Apps.

    I can tell you how many minutes my kids have slept, how many diapers were changed, how many calories they ingested and what color/consistency their poop was since birth through today (20 months later).

    1. Laura Hazard Owen Ash Wednesday, June 26, 2013

      That might be a story for another time :) What apps did you use?

      1. Just one app – Total Baby.

  3. Rashad Abdul-Salaam MBA, MA, CNIM Wednesday, June 26, 2013

    The internet is helping to inform and empower patients and healthcare consumers in all sorts of ways, which is why we created HappyHealth.me to help consumers store basic health information and use it to auto-fill those pesky doctor’s office forms.

    Check us out and take the 1st steps to never filling out doctor’s office forms again.

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