Some commuters don't give up their seats for pregnant women because they fear offending someone who is just overweight, it has emerged. Here, expectant mothers give tips on how to tell the difference.
It's a minefield of mixed signals, indecision, guilt and offence. All played out painfully in public on a crowded bus or train.
Some people are just selfish, yes, but the average commuter would probably give up his or her seat for a pregnant woman, with good grace. It's just not that straightforward.
For a start, he might not have noticed her, and is instead lost in a book or World Cup supplement. Few people repeatedly scan for those more in need of a seat at every stop. And where does his area of responsibility end - shouting distance?
Then there's that nagging doubt - is she pregnant, fat, or just wearing a baggy top?
Whatever the discomfort of offending a pregnant woman by staying seated, is it preferable to the excruciating awkwardness of effectively telling a woman, within earshot of about 20 people, that her tummy is so inflated it looks as if there's a baby inside?
The same dilemmas apply to seated women, of course, but society's expectation to be chivalrous still falls more heavily on men. And women, perhaps, are more adept at spotting the signs.
No wonder some passengers are frozen by agonising indecision. A survey by gurgle.com, a website owned by Mothercare, says 84% of pregnant women regularly have to stand - and one of the reasons under discussion on its messageboard was that seated commuters don't want to offend the non-pregnant. To help make things clear, Mothercare gives away "Baby on Board" badges.
Here are some tips from pregnant women:
1. Listen for huffing and puffing, says Ellie Dixon-Jackson, 33, who is eight months pregnant and lives in Manchester, because your internal organs get a bit squashed. Plus carrying extra weight causes you to feel more out of breath. "I would say however, that it is difficult to gauge with some people until the later months when they are clearly showing a bump. My advice would probably be to say nothing if you are unsure and wait for a clear signal."
2. Belly or back-rubbing are other giveaways, she says, and a coat that doesn't fasten. "My experience on the Manchester Metro has generally been really good. I find leaning back a bit and rubbing the belly and having a tired expression works wonders."
3. Check the feet, says mum-of-two Nifa McLaughlin, editor of gurgle.com. "You won't often find a pregnant woman wearing stilettos or any kind of dangerously high heels. Nope, I'm afraid it's flat ballet pumps, baseball boots or (gulp) Uggs. If she's paired up her work suit with comfortable footwear, or just slippers, then it's a safe bet that she's eating for two."
4. What's she reading? "What with holding her bump, rubbing her back and working tirelessly to keep steady on her feet, she probably isn't actually reading," says Ms McLaughlin. "There will be a book sticking out of her bag, though, and it probably won't be a thriller or the real-life story of a serial killer. Her hormones are all over the place so she's more likely to be sticking to something light-hearted or a spot of chick-lit. There's a big hint if she's reading a pregnancy magazine or baby book."
5. Inflated ankles, says Justine Roberts of parenting website Mumsnet. "Look out for signs of extreme exhaustion and/or ankles the size of cabbages. But if in doubt just go ahead and offer your seat anyway. If she is pregnant she'll be deliriously grateful. If she isn't, then you've just done your good deed for the day anyway."
6. A waddling walk is another sign, says pregnant Joanne Fenwick, 32, from Newcastle. "The tell-tale signs would definitely be the holding or hugging of the bump, even before the bump is visible. Then after about 35 weeks [about eight months pregnant], the waddle takes over. When standing still, women tend to sway from side to side - or at least I do."
7. A well-defined and solid bump will clearly not be squishy fat, says mother-of-two and Londoner, Cato Pedder. "In the early months when you just look fat, you don't need to sit down anyway. By the time you do need to sit down, by six or seven months, the bump is so round and defined that only a fool would mistake it for fat. I always found people stood up on buses and trains, especially the elderly, who could do with the seat even more than me. But never on the Tube, even when I was eight months pregnant and looked like I had a hippo up my frock."
It would be even clearer, of course, if more pregnant women asked politely for a seat, rather than suffered in seething silence.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Unfortunately people do make mistakes on this. I am not pregnant but I am somewhat overweight and absolutely hate my saggy tummy. Twice recently on the central line, people have offered me their seat: one male, one female, both youngish. It really is pretty embarrassing, but it was well-meaning and at least shows that some people do care and are aware of others around them - even if they are mistaken in their assumptions!
Caroline, London, UK
After being verbally abused for offering my seat to a woman who very much looked like she was nine months pregnant, I haven't done it since, unless i am completely sure. Using the seven steps given would not really have helped as the only thing she wasn't doing was reading was a baby book!
Richard, London, UK
Why is it so important to give up seats to pregnant women? What about people with conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or those who've recently had surgery? They're on public transport too. They never stand there choking back tears of indignant anger when no one offers them a seat, and they're in far more need of one than pregnant women are. This I know from personal experience.
The last sentence in this article is a breath of fresh air. On a few occasions I have not noticed a pregnant lady and felt guilty about not letting her have my seat, and some times even been the victim of an angry glance or tut from the lady herself or someone else on the train but i do wonder why people don't just ask? On the tube for instance there are seats specifically for people who are less able to stand and so no one should feel ashamed or shy about asking someone for these seats. And even if some terribly anti-social individual were to say no, someone around them would surely offer theirs instead. So pregnant ladies, please, JUST ASK!
Ankles is a good tip. I thought I was the only guy who couldn't tell the difference between early pregnancy and overweight. I'm relieved to know I am not alone. I have given up my seat to an overweight lady mistaking her as pregnant and offered a seat to a pregnant lady who wanted to stand. And had a pregnant lady standing behind me who I didn't even see until I got up to leave the train. All rather embarrassing. Some train companies allow pregnant women to travel first class at no extra cost. A work colleague of mine applied for this benefit and the rail company took so long to process the request that the baby was born before she got the reply!
Mark, Epsom, Surrey
Admittedly an extreme example, but I remember I was once confronted with the usual "Is she fat/isn't she" dilemma when I found myself getting in such a stew I found the easiest solution was to simply get off the tube at the next stop and get the next one! Possibly going one step too far.
Patrick White, London
I was using the Tube in London on the hot weekend in May and I was about seven months pregnant. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that every time I got on a different line, someone got up and offered me their seat. However, a friend and I were unsure last week whether to get up and offer another lady one of our seats as we couldn't decide if she was pregnant or not. In the end, we didn't as she seemed happy to stand.
What a good article. I have always wondered about this and worried about offending someone. I will look out for these signs in future (which are all obvious if you are not falling asleep after a days work or a bad night's sleep) and I will worry less about missing a pregnant woman as hopefully they will ask if they need a seat rather than suffering as I am always happy to give up my seat as I may one day need the favour returned.
Bus-user, Milton Keynes
I remember being massively pregnant with my third child and travelling home on the Piccadilly line which was fairly crowded. A woman got up to give me a seat, and someone else from the far end of the carriage leapt down the aisle and sat down before I could waddle over to it! It was another woman - which was a bit rich - and the muttering that went round was quite funny. Fortunately someone else got up instead as my feet were killing me. Overall, I found that leaning weakly against the door and rubbing the huge bump I had tended to work. Eventually.
M S, Kent
I have seen many pregnant women not want to sit down when it is busy. The risk of being smashed in the face by bags or having people falling on you is even higher and generally more dangerous than just standing up and warning people around you you're pregnant, so back off and give me space!
Kevin Symonds, Cambridge, UK
Surely, for a gentleman, the answer to the dilemma is obvious. Give up your seat for a lady, whether she's plump, thin, pregnant or is obfuscatingly wearing a bagging top.
Paul, Aberdeen, UK
As a woman who commuted from London to Herts everyday of my pregnancy, I know for a fact that if a pregnant woman is desperate for a seat, she will ask for one. There is nothing worse then a woman expecting a seat from another person. My advice: get on the train, go up to a group of four seats, and politely say "may I sit down please" you don't have to say you are pregnant, you don't have to rude or annoyed that no one noticed you, because if you are polite watch 4 people jump up at once saying "sorry sorry here have my seat" Worked every time for me. This works just as well on the tube.
Susan, Hemel Hempstead
If I were a 'plump' woman who was offered a seat I'd just play along with it, rub my belly hold my back as I took the seat and think - it's not all bad being a little overweight...
Mike Riordan, London
I once saw a girl (I couldn't tell if she was pregnant or fat, but she was very obviously not a 'lady') give a chap a mouthful of abuse for offering his seat. I cherish his response - he said "Madam, I do not offer my seat because you are a lady, I offer it because I am a gentleman."
It's the same dilemma with "elderly" people. Will offering your seat make their day with the chance to rest aching feet - or offend them by placing them in the OAP bracket? Sometimes, I find it so excruciating that I just stand up, get off at the next stop and catch the next train along. It's a good job the Tube is so frequent.
Andy Mc, London, UK
I once attended an aerobics class and asked the lady next to me when she was due as she had quite a round bump when I was promptly put in place with "I gave birth six months ago". I didn't go back to that class and stopped talking to strangers...
Anna, Alton, Hampshire
I once witnessed a guy on a tube say to an average size lady "If you're pregnant you can have my seat, if you're just fat you can stand". Quick as a flash she replied "I'm pregnant" and took his seat. Once seated she added "I'm also a very good liar and you are a *******!" I couldn't help but smile and admire her ability to turn around what could have been an extremely embarrassing situation for her.
Denise Astrella, London
I am a little overweight and unfortunately, despite my best efforts, carry most of it around my middle. I would never feel offended if someone offered me their seat (and it has happened many times) What really does offend me is relative strangers, usually other mums on the school run, asking me openly when I am due. This is not only embarrassing and hurtful but also extremely rude as if they don't even know my name what business is it of theirs anyway?
I think it is easier for all around if those who need seats simply ask politely for them. None of this watching for signs, the dilemmas of whether to risk possible offence or not, the annoyance of having to watch at every stop for those getting on. It's simple; you are pregnant or frail for some reason, you step on board and approach a designated seat that is taken by someone appearing able to stand, and you ask them politely for their seat.
I have a big tummy and was once on the tube in a bias cut dress, which emphasised it. A young man suddenly jumped up saying'oh I'm sorry, I only just noticed'. I had a dilemma - tell him I'm just fat and make him feel really dreadful and nervous of ever standing up again or play along. I swallowed my pride and took the seat. I though it was better to keep him positive and feeling good for others in the future. When I was pregnant with my first child some years previously I had a huge 8 month bump and wasn't given a seat, until I passed out and then everyone couldn't get up fast enough. I know I'm just a bit fat, but some other woman may not be and I want her to get the seat.
Natalie Coney, london
"Would you like to sit down?" "No thanks, I'm okay." Why is this exchange so excruciatingly embarrassing that grown men and women shrink in fear, and feel the need to justify themselves at length? Offer your seat out of courtesy to anyone who needs it more than you. If they refuse, it's their loss. Get a grip!
Jo Bell, Cheshire, UK
I will gladly offer my seat to an elderly person , I believe that you choose to get pregnant , but aging is one thing you cant avoid! I'm 31 and anyone that is obviously older than me gets offered my seat , but pregnant people ... not !