Swimming, Scuba Diving, and Snorkeling While Pregnant – What You Should Know

Expecting mothers have twice the responsibility to take care of their health for the sake of their baby’s well-being. For the next nine months, sea or ocean loving women should be aware of what water sports they can still partake in and which ones they should take a 9-month leave of absence from. In this article, we will be discussing whether it is still safe to swim, snorkel and scuba dive during one’s pregnancy, as well as provide some general advice to help pregnant women stay safe in the water.

Based on the literature, swimming and snorkeling while pregnant is accepted as generally safe as long as pregnant women do not overexert themselves or dive down. On the other hand, scuba diving is NOT recommended due to complications which may arise after decompression such as an increased risk of the fetus suffering from malformations or fetal gas embolism.

Swimming and Snorkeling While Pregnant

If your preferred water sport is swimming or snorkeling, you’re in luck! While the literature recommends swimming and snorkeling with caution, both activities are safe enough to do while pregnant.

In their 2020 edition of the Yellow Book (Health Information for International Travel), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended “[pregnant women] be discouraged from undertaking unaccustomed vigorous activity. Swimming and snorkeling during pregnancy are generally safe.”

In other words, if you’re not a particularly strong swimmer or snorkeler but want to improve your skills while pregnant, you couldn’t have picked a worse time! However, those who already know how to properly snorkel can continue to do so as long as they take the necessary precautions to stay safe such as wearing a personal flotation device or staying in shallow water and not overexerting themselves. Let’s go over some considerations pregnant women should take before snorkeling.

Fitness Level

Since pregnant women should not overexert themselves, their fitness level prior to their pregnancy dictates what activities they can do. Thankfully, swimming and snorkeling are not considered vigorous activity, especially if done while wearing fins and a flotation device in calm water. To add to that, swimming is often recommended as a form of exercise for pregnant women and may “slightly reduce the risk of giving birth preterm or giving birth to a child with congenital malformations.”

As long as the conditions for swimming and snorkeling are ideal, it should be easy not to overexert oneself even for women who are not accustomed to swimming and snorkeling.

Proper Breathing

Part of the fun of snorkeling is doing the occasional dive to get a closer look and to swim among the sea creatures. As tempting as this may be, once pregnant, it becomes a risky move to do. After all, the fetus requires a constant supply of oxygen, and holding your breath reduces the oxygen supply and puts the baby at risk.

In a similar vein, make sure that you are comfortable with the snorkel you plan on using before heading out to the reef. A snorkel that is too long may make it hard to get sufficient oxygen, or may trap stale air, causing you to breathe recycled oxygen. You may find yourself holding your breath too long or breathing irregularly to compensate.

To keep breathing at a normal pace, consider wearing a flotation device and fins to make staying afloat effortless as well as reduce overall energy expenditure for more controlled breathing. The goal of snorkeling is not to move a lot, but to float and observe, and that should not require much effort.

Body Temperature

Most snorkeling is done at tropical locations in warm water under the blaze of the scorching sun. All of these conditions make it easier for one to overheat. Take care not to let this happen, particularly during the third trimester where birth defects are more likely to occur in women as a result of high body temperatures.

We always recommend snorkeling in the morning for a few reasons.  One, the waves are calmer in the morning. Two, the sun will not be at its zenith yet, so you will not be exposed to as much harmful UV radiation or heat. As midday approaches, the temperature and currents will increase, which only spells trouble.

Furthermore, it is easy for one to underestimate their body temperature in the water. The water will feel cool to the touch, however your internal body temperature can still be high. Thus, take frequent breaks to drink water in the shade and reapply sunscreen to reduce the likelihood of overheating and getting sunburnt.

If you are snorkeling in cold water, then you should wear a 3mm or thicker wetsuit or a reliable rash vest to keep your body temperature high.

Additional Concerns

As always, there are the usual dangers of the ocean or sea one should be wary of while snorkeling. Furthermore, getting injured thousands of miles away from your usual doctor isn’t ideal. So pay extra attention to the warnings given by other snorkelers. Watch your step to avoid the pointy spines of sea urchins that are often obscured by rocks and coral.

Consider wearing at least a rash vest to protect yourself from stinging jellyfish or other potentially dangerous sea creatures, depending on where you are snorkeling. Unless you are snorkeling in a protected area, you should leave a dive flag to let others know your location and avoid a collision as you’re laying flat, snorkeling along the surface of the water.

Diving While Pregnant

While the literature seems to have given swimming and snorkeling while pregnant a pass, unfortunately the same cannot be said about scuba diving due to the high risk of complications that may arise.

In this study that analyzed reports of diving injuries involving pregnant women, the authors concluded that “pregnant females should refrain from diving, because the fetus is not protected from decompression problems and is at risk of malformation and gas embolism after decompression disease.” Unsurprisingly, there are no issues for non-pregnant women scuba diving.

However, what about women who are in the early stages of pregnancy or don’t realize that they are pregnant? The same study has this to say: “Should a woman have completed a dive during early pregnancy because she was unaware she was pregnant, the present evidence is not to recommend an abortion, because several normal pregnancies have been documented even if diving is continued.”

While there is evidence that women can scuba dive while pregnant with no issues to themselves or their unborn baby, these appear to be the exception and not the rule. It is better to err on the side of caution and stop scuba diving until after the pregnancy is over.

Benefits of Swimming and Snorkeling While Pregnant

We’ve talked a lot about things you shouldn’t do while swimming and snorkeling due to the potential risks involved, but are there any benefits to be had? Turns out, there’s lots, and here are some reasons why you should consider going for a dip every once in a while.

It Lightens the Load

Literally. It’s not so bad the first few months, but heavily pregnant mothers will eventually feel the burden that having a few extra pounds adds to their body. It’s common for women to experience back pain when expecting. That is why spending time in the water can help them reduce their back pain and unwind in that weightless environment. Furthermore, swimming can improve muscle tone and alleviate rounded posture caused by the extra weight.

Swimming and Snorkeling are the Ideal Exercises

Even while pregnant, one should try to exercise to stay healthy. And exercising in the water is fantastic because of how low-impact it is on the joints. We’ve already mentioned above that swimming and snorkeling are, indeed, quite safe while pregnant. But to go into that a bit more, pregnant women sometimes find that their balance is off from the extra weight they are carrying.

When exercising on land, this can be concerning, because a fall that damages the abdomen could have catastrophic consequences. With swimming, this risk is completely avoided. Furthermore, overheating can sometimes occur when pregnant women are trying to stay fit. Thanks to the cool temperature of water, this is less likely to happen.

Exercising When Pregnant Decreases Labor

This doesn’t apply to swimming specifically, but studies have found that “regular exercise may shorten the duration of labor and reduce the risk of Cesarean section”. This is incredibly important, because prolonged labor has many health risks as does surgery. By lowering the chances of this happening through swimming, pregnant women are potentially saving their own life as well as that of their child if they stay active.

Conclusion

If you are pregnant and enjoy swimming and snorkeling, you can continue to do so while pregnant. However, make sure not to free-dive, hold your breath, or overexert yourself. And under no circumstances should you scuba dive or partake in any of the more strenuous water sports.

Always wear a personal flotation device and fins to stay buoyant and move effortlessly without overexerting yourself. And of course, continue to enjoy your snorkeling adventures. Who knows, maybe next time you can swim with dolphins while pregnant. Or you might be bringing a newborn child to experience the reefs for the first time.