Personal Space in Pregnancy

If you have ever been pregnant or have been the partner of someone who is, you will understand that there is a period during the pregnancy when the mother-to-be just wants a little bit of extra space.

Until recently this phenomenon has only ever been anecdotal; now, however, a study by obstetricians and gynaecologists at Anglia Ruskin University and published in Scientific Reports has confirmed that women in the third trimester display increased sensitivity to nearby objects compared to women who are postpartum or are at an earlier stage of pregnancy.

The researchers were looking specifically at how a woman’s sense of “peripersonal space” (the space immediately around them) changes during pregnancy and studied the experiences of 85 pregnant women aged between 21 and 43. The participants were each asked to take an audio-tactile reaction time task at various stages in their pregnancy and childbirth journey: at 20 weeks, 34 weeks, and eight weeks postpartum.

During each session the women were exposed to threatening sounds, and a small tapper was attached to their abdomen to provide a sensation of touch. When in the first two trimesters or the eight weeks following childbirth, the women required only the arm’s length average typical to all humans. However, when pregnant, the women required more personal space – in some many cases by as much as 26 inches.

“Peripersonal space is considered a ‘safety bubble’ and it’s possible that the observed expansion of this at the late stage of pregnancy might be aimed at protecting the vulnerable abdomen during the mother’s daily interactions,” the researchers stated in a press release. “So as the mother’s bump grows, in effect the expanded peripersonal space is the brain’s way of ensuring danger is kept at arm’s length.”

Don’t be afraid to keep your “space bubble”

Pregnancy is the most important biological time in human life. If you are pregnant, you should not feel afraid of laying out your needs for extra personal space.

In fact, what the Anglia Ruskin University study does is underline what most cultures know experientially anyway: pregnant women are in a unique situation and require space, support and understanding, particularly as they move to the latter stages of pregnancy and ready themselves for childbirth.

Society, families and workplaces also have an important role to play here. Everyone should seek to understand the circumstance of pregnant women and to accommodate their need for extra space. For example, employers can provide additional workspace, partners of pregnant women can help ensure that younger family members are respectful of personal space, and those sharing public transport with mothers-to-be should seek to ensure that they are comfortable.