Pregnancy complications: What you need to know

Having a baby in Australia is usually safe, but there are problems that can arise when you’re expecting – we look at some common complications during pregnancy. 

There’s a baby born every minute and forty-one seconds in Australia, and while many women will have a normal pregnancy, some may experience pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes.  We look at some common complications during pregnancy and put together a quick pregnancy complication list for you: 

Pre - eclampsia 

Pre-eclampsia is a problem that starts in the placenta, affecting the baby’s supply of nutrients and their growth. 

Around five to ten percent of pre-term (early) deliveries in Australia are due to pre-eclampsia or associated complications. The exact cause of this pregnancy complication isn’t known. 

Common symptoms of pre-eclampsia include high blood pressure, protein in the urine and sudden swelling of the feet, ankles, face and hands from fluid retention. 

“[Pre-eclampsia is] a condition with a broad spectrum,” says obstetrician Dr Bernadette White from Melbourne’s Mercy Hospital for Women. “A little bit of blood pressure at the end of pregnancy when you’ve otherwise been absolutely fine may mean a need to have labour induced a little early, but should have no ongoing concerns. As opposed to someone who gets pre-eclampsia early, which has very serious complications for the baby and the mother too. We need to diagnose [pre-eclampsia] as early as possible because the only final treatment is delivery.”

To find out more detailed information about pre-eclampsia and some of the symptoms to look out for read our guide here.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is one of the more common complications in pregnancy and occurs when your body is unable to cope with the extra demand for insulin production, resulting in high blood glucose levels. 

Gestational diabetes is a pregnancy-specific form of diabetes. It normally occurs around the 24th to 28th week of pregnancy, and affects between five and ten per cent of pregnant women. It can be managed with blood glucose monitoring, healthy eating and regular physical activity to reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy and birth. In some cases, regular insulin injections may be required for the rest of the pregnancy. 

“The message is, sure, no one wants gestational diabetes… but if you are diagnosed with it, provided you follow the advice on diet, exercise and blood sugar monitoring, the outcomes are good,” Dr White says. “It means the pregnancy is being watched very closely.”

To find out more about gestational diabetes, read our article on Understanding Gestational Diabetes here. 
Woman looking out of the window

Ectopic pregnancy

One of the more common early pregnancy complications is where the pregnancy grows outside of the womb (uterus), implanting instead in the ovaries, fallopian tubes or abdominal cavity. Called an ectopic pregnancy, it occurs in around one to two percent of pregnancies. Unfortunately, there is no way of saving an ectopic pregnancy and medical intervention may be required to end the pregnancy.

There are a range of risk factors for ectopic pregnancy, including smoking, the expectant mum’s age and a history of infertility, but in half of all cases, there is no obvious cause. Symptoms of ectopic pregnancy may include one-sided abdominal pain, vaginal bleeding, shoulder tip pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and bowel pain. 

“Ectopic pregnancy is potentially very serious but usually you get a bit of warning something’s going on before it becomes serious,” Dr White says. “If you have pain and bleeding early in pregnancy, it should be assessed.”

For more information on this early pregnancy complication read our in-depth guide on ectopic pregnancy here. 


Having a miscarriage can be one of the most devastating complications in pregnancy. A miscarriage occurs when the pregnancy is lost during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Unfortunately, it is relatively common, occurring in around one out of five confirmed pregnancies. 

As any woman who has experienced this will know, a miscarriage is a devastating thing to go through. Although many parents blame themselves, stress, work and normal day-to-day activities have no proven link to miscarriage. 

The warning signs of miscarriage may include cramping, vaginal bleeding and severe abdominal pain. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek medical help right away. 

“Pregnancy is a very complicated process and sometimes things go wrong,” explains Dr White. “It’s really important for women to know it wasn’t something they did or could have prevented, it’s just nature’s way of dealing with something that wasn’t right.”

Although health workers can’t stop a miscarriage, they can support you and make sure you aren’t at risk of developing serious health problems. And if you or someone you love is struggling with the aftermath of a miscarriage, make sure you speak to a health professional for support.

For more information on miscarriages and to hear from other parents who have been there to read our article here.  

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