For months this question stuck out in my mind like a song I couldn’t get out of my head: Is a chemical pregnancy a miscarriage? I had always heard the term “chemical pregnancy” used in its own context, separate from a miscarriage. Doctors are quick to differentiate the terms. When I began talking about it, I was surprised to hear the number of people who have experienced them. One thing seems consistent with all discussion regarding chemical pregnancies. They are not meant to be a big deal.
In this post, I will delve into this topic and clearly explain what “chemical pregnancy” means, how it relates to miscarriage, and that it IS in fact a big deal.
If you want to skip all the terminology-talk, you can scroll down to my story at the bottom of the page.
What is a chemical pregnancy?
Ironically, the term “chemical pregnancy” refers not to a period during which one is pregnant but rather an early pregnancy loss. Specifically, this is what a pregnancy loss is referred to when it occurs within the first 6 weeks of pregnancy. Basically, it is a miscarriage that happens before doctors will call it a miscarriage.
Why is it called a chemical pregnancy?
- Within 3 days of “doing the deed”, the egg and sperm have united, formed into a blastocyst, traveled to the uterus, and implanted in the uterine lining.
- This is when you may receive a positive pregnancy test with an early detection kit – around Week 4 – due to the HcG created by the placenta after implantation.
- The next week, Week 5, is when the blastocyst is officially considered to be an embryo.
- During Week 6, the embryo’s heart begins to beat. From this point on, a pregnancy loss may be considered a “miscarriage”.
Losing a pregnancy during any of the above stages may be heaped into the category of “chemical pregnancy” due to the underdeveloped status of the embryo. Oftentimes women don’t even realize they are pregnant if they experience a chemical pregnancy before week 5 or 6. However, it is still a pregnancy and therefore a pregnancy loss.
Is a chemical pregnancy a miscarriage?
Medically, pregnancy loss before 6 weeks gestation will be referred to as a chemical pregnancy. However, starting at Week 6, pregnancy loss will be termed a “miscarriage”. The only difference after you’ve seen those two lines on the pregnancy test is a single week.
While your doctor may not call it by the same name, losing a pregnancy is a miscarriage. Even though they will tell you it is more like having a menstrual cycle than losing a baby, it is a pregnancy loss. It is a miscarriage.
My chemical pregnancy
I’ve wanted to talk about this for awhile, months really, but I didn’t feel ready yet. Now, in light of abortion in the news every single day, I want to talk about what happened. I’m going to tell exactly what happened, how it felt, how it still feels. I’m not talking about this to get sympathy or to make a statement…rather this is a tribute to the baby that I only knew from a positive pregnancy test. So that others can know about that little life that was inside of me for such a short time. It was October 2018.
We had been trying to conceive for a couple of months, so I had a few pregnancy tests on hand. Once the bare minimum amount of time had passed (according to Google), I took a test. Negative. Oh well, it was okay, we weren’t too disappointed. I waited for my period to come. Days passed, and nothing. Hope began to creep its way back into my heart, so I took another test, and just to make sure, and another one.
6 negative pregnancy tests and four days later, I still hadn’t started my period. Ryan left for a work trip, and I resolved to not find out I was pregnant if he wasn’t there. However, my tortured mind wouldn’t let me sleep! I texted Ryan early on a Monday morning, and he gave me the go ahead to take another test. This time I used one of the early detection tests instead of the strips you can buy in bulk.
Low and behold, 2 pink lines! It was a whirlwind day. Ryan managed to get out of his job early and came home the next day. He was so excited he couldn’t help telling the manager at the plant where he was working. I told my best friend, and she screamed. She kept saying she couldn’t believe it, and I had to agree. Yes, I was excited, but something was also holding me back. That familiar feeling I had when I was pregnant with Genny: fear.
Miraculously, I got in to see my doctor the next day for a pregnancy confirmation appointment. It all felt routine, and I was starting to convince myself that the chances of something going wrong were slim. Young, healthy, active…there was no reason for me to think otherwise.
After leaving my urine sample, I waited in the room for my doctor to come in. A nurse took all my information, first day of my last period (it had been 43 days), vitals, etc. She also gave me a due date – July 2019.
About ten minutes later, my doctor came in, bringing the usual doctor greeting – “How are you feeling?” I told her honestly I felt pregnant! Over a week of being overly emotional, some light cramping, and a bit of spotting the day before. And of course most indicative of all, a positive pregnancy test.
“Well your test here was negative,” she said. I was surprised but not overly alarmed. It was early, I had drank a lot of water, it was possible my sample was too watered down and my HcG levels weren’t high enough yet. My doctor all but said the same and ordered a blood test to detect my exact HcG levels. She also provided me with an unwelcome list of the possibilities, among which were an ectopic pregnancy, chemical pregnancy, or just an early pregnancy.
A thought came into my head that I’ve had with every single visit to my doctor since: Can I just have a normal doctor’s visit? As I drove home, the fears started to grow and choke me. Memories of that visit to the doctor when I was pregnant with Genny flashed back, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
My doctor said she would call me with the results the next day, so the next 24 hours were basically hell. Still, Ryan and I tried to stay positive. No one else knew about what was going on except my friend and a neighbor who I’d seen in passing. Torturously, my doctor never even called, and we had to call her office the day after the get the results. It was her first week at the new practice, so I understood she was still getting settled in.
Ryan and I waited anxiously by the phone as the nurse retrieved my data. He was still so positive and supportive. Nothing seemed to shake his belief that everything would be okay, and in the midst of my worry I appreciated his excitement despite the circumstances. For a couple of days, we could be excited about our new baby, dream up names, wonder if it would be a girl or a boy, imagine Genny as a big sister.
After what felt like forever, the nurse came back with the results. “12,” she said. My heart dropped into my stomach. 12? Just 12? How was that even possible?
A normal range of HcG levels by gestation resembles this chart by americanpregnancy.org:
- 3 weeks LMP: 5 – 50 mIU/mL
- 4 weeks LMP: 5 – 426 mIU/mL
- 5 weeks LMP: 18 – 7,340 mIU/mL
- 6 weeks LMP: 1,080 – 56,500 mIU/mL
Home pregnancy tests can’t even detect anything below 20 mlU/mL.
Following a positive pregnancy test, HcG values are only indicative when they are compared after 48 hours have passed, so I’d had another vile of blood drawn. The results wouldn’t be provided for at least 24 more hours.
That day was the worst. In my heart, I knew that something wasn’t right. I’d been having a lot of cramping, and aside from that, the data just was’t conclusive. My levels had dropped, and they only drop in a failing pregnancy. I cried. A lot. Because I felt like I was failing this tiny baby. Somehow, for some reason, my body wasn’t able to provide a healthy pregnancy.
If you’ve ever had any problems during pregnancy, then you know how maddening and helpless it feels. The baby is right there, INSIDE of you, and yet you are absolutely powerless to do anything about it. It’s torture.
To get my mind off things, Ryan took me out to a nice dinner. We tried not to talk about it and have a good time, but we did end up talking about it. When we went to pick up Genny from my parents’, we told them and my brother what was going on and how we were waiting on results. I pretended like I wasn’t dying inside.
Once Genny was down for bed at home, Ryan suggested we play a game. We sat down on the living room floor for a game of Phase 10. I’d been having stomach pains all evening so I drank a lot of water and kept having to go to the bathroom. A few minutes later, I called Ryan from the bathroom and told him it was over.
I’ll never forget how it felt when I saw the blood. It was more than the start of a regular cycle, and it meant something so much more. It’s not an exaggeration to say it was like a nightmare coming true. During those weeks of being pregnant with Genny, when we didn’t know if she would survive, I waited for that moment. The overwhelming resolution and simultaneous piece of your soul that dies.
Call it what it is
Like I said, I’m not saying this to get sympathy. Others have experienced far worse than I have, and I pray for those women every day. But there is nothing worse than trying to talk yourself out of being in pain. A chemical pregnancy is a miscarriage, it’s the loss of a life. It’s a loss of what could be. It’s okay to grieve and to shamelessly call it what it is. When I told people about what had happened, I felt like I had to add a disclaimer – “It was really early on,” I’d say. As if that’s supposed to make it better. As if to say, “At least it wasn’t later on.” I’m not going to say that early pregnancy loss is the same as is later, but I do know that we owe it to ourselves to be honest about what we went through.
6 months later…
Now I’m 17 weeks along with my third pregnancy. I still fear experiencing that moment again. I trust that the Lord has all my children, born and unborn, in His protection. But sometimes, I think about the what-ifs. I think about how far along I’d be now if I hadn’t lost that baby, about what if it happened to us again. At the same time, this little one inside me now would never be if not for that painful experience.
I’m glad I knew I was pregnant. I’m glad I can remember our little October baby.
We’re all in this together, as moms and as parents. Feel free to comment below.
Love, Emily XOXO