Early signs of pregnancy: when you know before the test says yes

"As kooky as this may sound, I could feel each baby's energy": Kristin, mum of five.
"As kooky as this may sound, I could feel each baby's energy": Kristin, mum of five. Photo: Getty Images

It wasn't a pregnancy test or missed period that told me I was pregnant with my second baby; it was too early for those things. A doner kebab told me I was going to be a mum again.

As I watched the greasy chicken being carved off the rotisserie and the watery hommus being slopped on, I couldn't wait to begin the feast. But as I threw it all back up minutes after polishing it off, I started to puzzle over my lunch choice.

I hadn't eaten a doner kebab for a decade. And despite having thrown up, I didn't feel like I had an upset stomach. I felt pregnant, the incident more reminiscent of the morning sickness that had been my companion through my first pregnancy.

I was a week away from my expected period but I tested anyway. Unsurprisingly, the result was negative. It was too early.

Several tests and days later, a faint second line finally appeared. The line, along with the queasy feeling, grew stronger over the next few days and confirmed, in my mind, that the doner kebab incident was my first sign of pregnancy.

Jess, a mum of one, says her body also told her she was pregnant before any test provided confirmation. Sore breasts, something she didn't usually experience before a period, set off the alarm bells she'd been hoping to hear.

"When the test first came up negative I was really disappointed because we were trying and I was sure what I was feeling must have been early pregnancy. I was so excited when the test came up positive the second time. And I was glad that what I was feeling and thinking wasn't just all in my head."

However, some experts suggest these very early symptoms are probably just "in our head" – or a result of confirmation bias.

Dr Terri Foran, a sexual health physician and lecturer in women's health at the University of New South Wales, explains: "I see quite a number of women who come to me with symptoms and are convinced they are pregnant and are actually not. I guess if you are trying and hoping for a pregnancy you may be hypersensitive to any symptoms or feelings experienced before that pregnancy is actually confirmed. When it is, those feelings then have a context and meaning."

Foran says that early pregnancy symptoms such as breast tenderness and nausea commonly start about a week after a missed period. "The pregnancy doesn't even implant into the uterine lining until about 10 days after conception or, at the maximum, four days before the expected period date."

Until implantation and the "hormonal explosion that is early pregnancy begins … you really shouldn't get much in the way of symptoms," she says.

However, registered midwife and childbirth educator Pip Wynn Owen says there may be subtle changes that occur between conception and a missed period. It's not unusual for women "who are really in tune with their bodies or who have already had babies" to pick up on a pregnancy during this early period, she says.

Wynn Owen admits that symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and other lifestyle events can easily be confused for the common early pregnancy symptoms, such as swollen, tender or tingly breasts, tiredness, mood swings, bloating, headaches, constipation, backache, frequent urination, a heightened sense of smell, food aversions, nausea, increased vaginal discharge, dizziness and fainting.

Implantation bleeding or cramping is another physical symptom that can be a first sign of pregnancy, generally occurring a few days before a missed period. It was something Lucy discovered during her third pregnancy, first thinking it was the start of her period. "It was only very slight spotting, not even enough to use a pad, and was a light pink/brown colour. I had some very mild cramping as well."

The scientific debate about whether a pregnancy may be detected before a missed period or positive pregnancy test is likely to continue, but for many mums there is nothing to debate. They say there's a less-scientific ingredient involved: mothers' intuition.

Kristin says she knew she was pregnant before a missed period for each of her five pregnancies. "Honestly, as kooky as this may sound, I could feel each baby's energy ... I've always just put it down to really good mummy senses."

Another experienced mum, Paivi, says a pregnancy test has always been "just a formality" for her: "The feeling of knowing is really strong. All the signs and symptoms then confirm or strengthen that feeling of knowing, and the final confirmation comes from the test itself."

But "knowing", at such an early and fragile stage of pregnancy, can come at a cost. While she has had five confirmed pregnancies, Paivi says, "There is another one that I knew about from the word go. I lost this one before the test could confirm it, yet I know it was there."