IBD Parenthood Project: How to Take on a Postpartum Flare—The Fear and the Reality

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

While bringing a child into this world is one of the greatest miracles one can witness, it also brings about a world of worry for women with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From the moment family planning begins, throughout pregnancy, and during postpartum, when you live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis it can feel like you’re just constantly waiting and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. The looming fear of a flare during pregnancy and once baby is here is valid, and it’s real.

The unpredictability of IBD is amplified ten-fold when you have another life to care for and another life on the line. As a mom of three kids, ages four and under, who’s lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years, flaring and being forced to leave my family to be hospitalized is something that’s always in the back of my mind. I know in my heart of hearts, it’s not a matter of if, but when. So how can we thrive through the unknown and not allow this fear to rob us of the joy of motherhood? The American Gastroenterological Association’s IBD Parenthood Project aims to serve as a resource every step of the way to help you feel less alone and more in control of your wellbeing.

Reading Between the Positive Pregnancy Lines

When you receive a positive pregnancy test, your world changes forever. It’s at this point that your IBD directly impacts another life. Prior to becoming a mom, I used to wait until the last possible moment to head to the emergency room. For one of many hospitalizations in my 20’s, I waited so long that my dad had to carry me as a grown woman through the hospital doors like a groom carries his bride. Fast forward to present day, and I’ve learned that it’s in my best interest to wave the proverbial white flag when I start experiencing symptoms that are sidelining me more than they should. The moment you relinquish control of your illness and see it less as an adversary and more as an ally, is the moment you won’t constantly feel pushed up against a wall. While it’s not easy to admit you are struggling, it’s empowering to know you’re being proactive and doing all you can to thrive.

When I write my gastroenterologist (GI) on the patient portal and express concerns about how I’m feeling, she calls me back and we come up with a game plan that makes the most sense. After I had my daughter, Sophia, I started feeling abdominal pain shortly after bringing her home. My GI knew I was breastfeeding and called me with safe options so that I could continue to do so. Because we nipped that minor flare in the bud, my remission was maintained, I didn’t land in the hospital, and I was able to be home and be present for my growing family.

I delivered my third baby, Connor, in July, and since then I’ve noticed an uptick in bathroom trips and abdominal pain. Since Connor is my last baby and I know I’ll never feel as well as I did when I was pregnant, it’s a bit more emotional for me. Luckily, with all three of my pregnancies, my Crohn’s was completely silent. I felt like a “normal” person. Knowing that it’s just me and my Crohn’s from this point forward hits differently. There have been countless days where I have been forced to keep a baby carrier in the bathroom, readily available, with space for my two older children to stand or play while I sit in anguish on the toilet wondering if this is it as I look with tear-filled eyes at my three healthy children before me. I won’t be surprised if I reach out to my GI in the days ahead for guidance, just to be cautious. I have a heightened awareness right now about the extra bathroom breaks and the gnawing pain that’s coming and going after I eat. Whether you are beginning the family planning process or postpartum, ongoing communication with your GI through all stages of having children is so important.

Addressing the Fears of IBD Women

The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address misperceptions about IBD and fears many women with IBD can experience through all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery).

Patients can find answers to common questions like:

  • Can I get pregnant with IBD?
  • Does IBD affect my fertility?
  • Will I pass IBD on to my baby?
  • Can I stay on medicine during pregnancy?
  • What if I flare during pregnancy?
  • Is it possible to have a vaginal delivery?
  • Can I breastfeed while on medicine?
  • Does my medicine change how I vaccinate my baby?

When it comes to the postpartum period, there’s a guide for postnatal care. The toolkit is a direct response to survey findings that reported women with IBD want more and better information about managing their disease. Being proactive and advocating for yourself throughout the pregnancy journey and as an IBD mom will not only make you feel empowered, but provide you with a sense of control, despite the unpredictability of your disease.

Thriving in the Face of the Unknown

Whether you were diagnosed with IBD prior to starting your family or after you delivered, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis force us to wake up each day without knowing what the next hour will bring — all while raising children. Trust that your IBD will serve as a foundation for strength and that your kids will be your greatest motivators to push through and see the beauty that exists in your life despite your chronic illness. The IBD Parenthood Project is an exceptional tool that’s a reminder we are not alone in our worries, our dreams, and our struggles. I’m grateful our community has a resource that removes the gray area so many of us have encountered as IBD moms and helped be a light to lead us on our way to successful pregnancies, families, and motherhood journeys.

IBD Parenthood Project: Proactively Planning Your Roadmap to Motherhood

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

Whether you’ve been daydreaming about being a mom since you were a little girl or found your lifelong partner and are exploring the possibility of a future that includes pregnancy and motherhood, creating a family when you have IBD takes a bit more planning than for the average person. My journey to motherhood unfolded differently than I had anticipated. For as long as I can remember, long before my Crohn’s disease diagnosis at age 21, I aspired to one day have children.

After I received my IBD diagnosis in 2005, and then when I was put on a biologic in 2008, my mind often raced when it came to reaching the milestone of motherhood. But being that I was only in my early 20s and single, I didn’t feel much pressure and figured I would cross that bridge when it was time for me to walk it.

Fast forward to June 2015, I had just gotten engaged to the love of my life, Bobby. Less than a month later I was hospitalized with my third bowel obstruction in 16 months. Surgery was the only option. On August 1, 2015, while planning my wedding, I had 18 inches of my small intestine removed, along with my appendix, Meckel’s diverticulum, and ileocecal valve. Up to that point, surgery had been my greatest fear, but my care team comforted me by saying the bowel resection would provide me with a “fresh start.” A fresh start that would help when it came time for family planning. A fresh start that put me into remission for the first time in my decade-long battle with the disease, paving the way for married, family life.

Leaning on the IBD Parenthood Project for Guidance

When you’re a woman with IBD who hopes to be a mom one day, it’s not unusual to feel lost and confused about how to navigate family planning, pregnancy, and beyond. Even though the thought of having a family can feel daunting—believe me I get it—with proper planning and care, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. But sadly, many women with IBD decide not to have children based on misperceptions about their disease and pregnancy. The number of women with IBD who are voluntarily childless is three times greater than that of the general population. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the women with IBD who could be moms but are not because they aren’t aware resources like the IBD Parenthood Project exist.

Openly communicating your future plans with your care team long before you want to start trying for a baby helps set the stage for what lies ahead and enables your gastroenterologist (GI) to tailor your treatment plan accordingly. When I had my post-operative appointment with my GI in November 2015, eight months before my wedding, my husband and I let her know we wanted to capitalize on my surgical remission and get pregnant as soon as we could after our wedding day. With that intel, my GI put me on a prescription prenatal vitamin, folic acid, and vitamin D, along with my biologic. Now as a mom of three healthy children, who had three healthy pregnancies while living with Crohn’s, I credit my GI for her proactive efforts that set me up for success and deep remission over the past six-plus years. Prior to trying to conceive, I also scheduled a colonoscopy to further confirm that my Crohn’s was under control. My GI would walk in after each procedure with a big grin on her face and would give us a thumbs up and say we had the green light to try for a baby. Having her stamp of approval made me feel much more at ease.

Time is of the Essence

I know I was extremely fortunate with the timing of my surgery and remission and the fact that I did not have any issues getting pregnant. It can be much more challenging and heartbreaking for others. If you’re flaring or symptomatic, the likelihood of those issues presenting in pregnancy is significant. When it comes to the “rule of thirds”— one third of women with symptoms improve, one third get worse, and one third experience the same symptoms as prior to pregnancy — you want to be mindful of how you’re feeling. I understand remission doesn’t happen for everyone. I get that it’s hard to be patient when all you want is to have a baby and your biological clock is ticking. But don’t rush into a pregnancy unless your health is in check.

As a trusted voice in the GI community, the American Gastroenterological Association is dedicated to improving the care of women of childbearing years living with IBD and is committed to redefining industry standards to further optimize health outcomes for mother, baby, and provider. That’s why it created the IBD Parenthood Project as a resource for women and HCPs through the pregnancy journey. 

While various providers can be consulted during pregnancy (OB, dietitian, lactation specialist, psychologist, NP, PA, midwife, and pediatrician once the baby is born), an OB and/or maternal fetal medicine specialist should lead pregnancy-related care and a GI with expertise in IBD should lead IBD care. Communication among these providers, as well as any other providers involved, is very important. During the family planning process and pregnancy, think of yourself as the point person, leading the charge and making sure each member of your care team is in the know.

Be Overly Transparent

If pregnancy and motherhood is something you are hoping to embark on as part of your life journey, be proactive and articulate your needs and wants, even if they are years down the road. The IBD Parenthood Project toolkit does most of the homework for you and lays the groundwork for your roadmap. It’s empowering to be prepared and to be well-versed on how to best manage pregnancy while taking on IBD.

Now that my family of five is complete, when I reflect on how we came to be, I’m grateful for the resources and support I had every step of the way and that my Crohn’s disease didn’t rob me of the future I had always hoped for.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Completing My Family Through Surrogacy

When IBD mom Jessie Magaro was pregnant with her first child, she knew early on she wouldn’t be able to carry another baby herself. Between the hormones from IVF and her Crohn’s disease raging, there was no way her or her doctors felt comfortable embarking on another pregnancy.

Before she got pregnant, Jessie had been in remission for more than 12 years. With pregnancy and IBD, there’s the ‘rule of thirds.’ One third of women will see their symptoms improve, one third will stay the same, and one third get worse. Unfortunately, Jessie fell into the last category. Since having her daughter, Mary Ligon on New Year’s Eve 2018, Jessie’s gotten an ileostomy and has grappled with her Crohn’s being out of control. When her and her husband started thinking about baby number two, she knew surrogacy was her safest and smartest option.

“My daughter Millie (born in April 2021) needed me more to be there as her momma once she got here than she needed me to carry her. Not only was my baby safer, but I was in a much better position health-wise to care for both my daughters.”

The Surrogacy Process

Surprisingly, the FDA controls surrogacy and has specific requirements for the IVF part of the process. Jessie recommends making sure your fertility clinic is well-versed on how everything goes down. Surrogates and biological parents go through medical testing and psychological evaluations prior to the transfer of the embryo.

“This was probably the hardest part for me mentally and emotionally. I was so frustrated and hurt that I had to pay someone a pretty penny to tell the government that I was mentally ok to have my own baby. It was just pouring salt into an already large and festering wound. Can you imagine having to have a stranger tell you if it was ok or not for you to bring your own child into this world?”

It’s important to note that surrogacy laws vary state to state, but in Georgia (where Jessie lives), you must adopt your baby back from the surrogate, even if the child is 100% genetically yours.

“You hire an attorney (one for yourself and one for your surrogate) and they actually file a lawsuit claiming your parental rights to the unborn baby on your behalf. I had to go before a judge and field questions on why I was pursuing surrogacy and whether or not I felt my husband and I were able to take care of the child once it was born. Again, insult to injury.”

There are several ways to go about surrogacy:

  • You can hire an agency to find you a surrogate and manage the process
  • You can use a friend or family member (they will still have to be medically and psychologically cleared by the clinic)
  • You can try to find one via word of mouth in your community.
  • There are tons of Facebook groups where you can “match” with one (local, regional, national, interest groups i.e., christian, altruistic, low comp, natural minded, etc). 

“Normally, you would be able to attend all OB appointments with your surrogate, but Covid made things a little trickier for us. We were unable to attend the transfer, which was sad, but I was able to go to a fair amount of the appointments. My husband unfortunately wasn’t allowed to attend any. We both were allowed to be in the room for the birth though and that was the most important thing to us.”

The experience of having a surrogate

Jessie says had she not been able to carry her first child that she feels surrogacy would have been harder on her. She feels so fortunate that she was able to experience pregnancy once.

“I had already gotten to a place mentally and emotionally where I knew the only way to get my daughter here safely was by having someone else carry her. I wasn’t ever triggered per se by seeing a pregnant belly because I knew she was safer inside our surrogate. I had so much PTSD and trauma from my first pregnancy as well that looking at another pregnant person never made me think “oh man I wish that was me again” if that makes sense. I did/do still deal with mourning though over how pregnancy played out for me and that I was unable to carry safely again. I also find myself spiraling occasionally thinking about how much it cost us to get our children here versus someone who could just have them themselves naturally. It’s been a massive financial burden/sacrifice for my husband and I (but oh so very worth it).”

The Financial Cost of Surrogacy

When looking into surrogacy, Jessie tells me you can ballpark around everything costing $100,000. There are many factors involved that play into whether that number is more or less depending on if you’ve already gone through IVF and have embryos. Much like IVF, there are some grants available for surrogacy, though much less common.

“The ways to bring the cost down for surrogacy would be to do an “independent journey” like we did where you don’t use an agency. You can also use a surrogate (whether it’s a friend, family member or even a stranger) who does not want to be compensated or wants very little. Medical bills will bring the cost up or down significantly depending on insurance plans and same with your legal fees as those will vary based on the surrogacy laws in your state.”

Defending her Decision

While Jessie says it was empowering to make the decision to utilize a surrogate to do what was best for her health and for her family, it’s been frustrating to constantly feel like she still needs to defend her decision to other people and even some doctors.

Whether it was …

“Aren’t you worried about having another child when you’re so sick?”

“Why don’t you guys just adopt??”

“Aren’t you worried the surrogate will want to keep the baby?”

“Aren’t you worried she won’t know you/you won’t be bonded to her??”

“Just one kid is great you should just be ok with having just the one”

etc …

“I know most of the time these comments don’t come from a place of mal-intent, and I try to use them as an opportunity to educate if it feels productive, but everyone is different what they’re open to accepting in their heart and their mind. In my mind, the girls are going to know the stories of how they came to be eventually, and hopefully they’ll see how wanted and loved they were. How unbelievably hard they were fought for. And how many people played a part in bringing them into this world.”

Managing IBD and Motherhood

Prior to looking into surrogacy, Jessie and her husband had to discuss at length if they would be able to handle a second child with her IBD. They also had to loop in their families knowing they would need their help when they couldn’t manage everything on our own.

“My husband and I say all the time, in all seriousness, that my illness has become a third child in a sense. There’s not a day, hardly an hour, that I don’t have to think about my Crohn’s or manage something with it in some way. It’s a difficult balancing act every day when I wake up trying to prioritize who needs the most at what moment (my kids, myself, or even my husband). I deal with a lot of guilt and grief with that. That I’m not the mom or wife I want to be … that I’m not able to give everyone what they need and deserve.”

Jessie often thinks of the oxygen mask analogy and says as an IBD mom it’s imperative to make sure her proverbial mask is on and secured first before she can help anyone else, which is very hard to do as a mother. 

Meeting Millie the Day She Was Born

It makes Jessie emotional to think about what it was like to walk into the hospital with her husband and know they were about to meet their daughter. They were able to be in the delivery room when Millie came into the world.

“I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude looking at our surrogate knowing what SHE went through and had sacrificed to get her here. All the anxiety I had been suppressing for months and months from having someone else carry her, to giving up all control, to doing it in the middle of the pandemic, to being so scared something would go wrong like it so often had for us in the past. It just all came pouring out of me uncontrollably as she was pushing. The moment she was placed in my arms it just felt like a lightning bolt connecting us. I felt bonded to her instantaneously. She was mine and I was hers and there was nothing on this earth I wouldn’t do to protect her.”

Jessie knew from the start of this journey that her surrogate would be a lifelong friend. Their families grew close through the process, and they live nearby one another. She says she’ll always hold a deep place in her heart for her and is incredibly grateful to be a family of four.