How pregnant moms can get better sleep

A pregnant African-American woman lies in bed, trying to fall asleep.
Sleep problems during pregnancy affect your health, mood, and ability to concentrate during the day.

New parents usually are aware that their sleep will be disrupted after they have a new baby. But many expecting moms don’t anticipate that sleep troubles can start during pregnancy.

Nearly 28 percent of expecting moms get less than seven hours of sleep per day, according to data from The nuMoM2b Pregnancy and Sleep Duration and Continuity Study. This is less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended seven to nine hours of sleep (plus naps!) per day for optimal health during pregnancy. 

The obvious reason for sleep disruption during pregnancy is the ever-growing belly. As you get rounder, you might be forced to sleep in more awkward, less comfortable positions. But medical complications related to sleep can arise during pregnancy, and these could be health risks to you and your baby.

Let’s take a look at the most common sleep problems women face during pregnancy, symptoms that could signal a medical concern, and what to do to get better sleep. 

Why sleep is vital to health during pregnancy

It’s well-documented that adequate sleep is essential to health for everyone. But during pregnancy, your body is stressed more than usual as it changes and your baby grows. Your brain, heart, blood flow, and digestive tract can be strained, and sleep is important to “reset” the body for the next day’s activities.

Each of us has our own circadian rhythm, or natural sleep cycle. During deep sleep, your muscles relax, your blood pressure lowers, your breathing rate slows down, and your heart sends extra blood to the muscles to repair strain and damage from the day before. 

Related reading: A look at how 'sleep genes' can affect out circadian rhythms 

When you don’t get adequate sleep, you might feel moody, lack the ability to concentrate, or simply not feel like yourself. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to high blood pressure, obesity, and other serious health concerns that can complicate pregnancy and delivery. And pregnant women shouldn’t rely on an extra cup of coffee or sugary energy drinks for extra pep. Rather, pregnant women should focus on good sleep hygiene and seek help from an Ob/Gyn or primary care doctor for common and complex sleep issues.

Common – and serious – sleep problems during pregnancy

Aside from general discomfort from your increasingly rotund belly, these are five of the most common sleep problems pregnant women face:

  1. Restless leg syndrome (RLS): This is a burning or tingling sensation in the legs that can cause you to move or kick uncontrollably – which can have a negative effect on your sleep quality, not to mention that of your partner. Iron-deficiency anemia (which can be more common during pregnancy), excess consumption of caffeine, and certain medications can make these symptoms worse.
  2. Leg cramps: Painful tightness in the legs can startle you out of sleep. Leg cramps can be caused by dehydration, muscle overuse, or having low potassium levels.
  3. Frequent urination: As your baby grows, your expanding uterus presses against your bladder. This can lead to more frequent urination and having to get up more often at night when you’re trying to sleep.
  4. Insomnia: You’re exhausted, but when your head hits the pillow you lie awake for hours. Insomnia is caused by a variety of factors, such as worrying about your pregnancy or baby, stress from daily life, or hormone imbalances associated with pregnancy.
  5. Heartburn: Similar to the bladder, your stomach and esophagus have less room to work with, which can lead to acid reflux, or heartburn. Additionally, the hormones of pregnancy cause relaxation of the muscle that keeps stomach acid from washing back up the esophagus. This means when you lay flat, stomach acid that helps digest your food can sneak back up the esophagus, causing a burning sensation. This condition is highly treatable, and if you are experiencing symptoms on a daily basis, your provider can suggest ways to help reduce the symptom or recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications to give you relief. Avoiding eating late meals and certain foods also can help prevent heartburn.

While these conditions are uncomfortable, they’re not necessarily dangerous in the short term. But sleep apnea, a more serious condition that can arise during pregnancy, could increase risks to you and your baby. This condition causes the airway to be temporarily blocked during sleep, which means your breathing stops intermittently through the night.

Often, sleep apnea is related to obesity. Gaining excess weight during pregnancy (more than 25-35 pounds for a woman who was at a healthy weight pre-pregnancy) increases your risk of developing the disease. Snoring and being told your breathing stops or becomes very shallow during sleep are indicators that you might have sleep apnea. The condition has been associated with preterm birth, gestational diabetes, and hypertension. If you experience symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to your doctor.

Unfortunately, many sleep disorders go undiagnosed during pregnancy because women, and sometimes their doctors, assume sleep disturbances are just a given. Talk to your doctor about your difficulty with sleep – you might be surprised how easily some of these disorders can be treated.  

Tips to get better sleep during pregnancy

These tips are helpful for expecting moms but also are good strategies for all of us to get better sleep:

  • Avoid caffeine and electronic devices before bed: Stimulants such as coffee and tea, as well as light from your tablet, smartphone, or laptop, can keep you awake at night. Cut off caffeine at least 6hours before bedtime, and stash your devices in the evenings altogether.
  • Nap when you can: This might be laughable if you work outside the home or have small children. But when you can, ask your partner or a friend to handle childcare or household duties for 20 to 30 minutes so you can take a catnap. Keep in mind that naps longer than that can leave you feeling groggy instead of refreshed.
  • Play background noise in the bedroom: A soothing sound machine or softly narrated audiobook might help ease you to sleep. This can be especially soothing if you find your mind wandering or racing as you try to go to sleep.
  • Plug in a nightlight in the bathroom: Getting back to sleep after (multiple) nighttime bathroom breaks can be easier if you don’t flip on the lights. A soft nightlight or two should be sufficient. Just make sure you have nonslip rugs and a clear pathway to avoid falling.
  • Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day: Yes, even on the weekends. Establishing a sleep routine can help you get the full seven to nine hours of sleep pregnant women need per night.

Some pregnant women can safely use over-the-counter sleep aids such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or melatonin. There are prescription sleep aids as well, but most providers prefer you try over-the-counter medications first as prescription sleep aids can have a risk of dependency, be hard on the liver and stomach, or might interact with other medications.

Getting adequate sleep during pregnancy should be a priority, just like healthy eating and exercise. If you’re struggling with sleep, know you are not alone. As many as 98 percent of pregnant women report issues with sleep during pregnancy. However, just because issues with sleep are common does not mean you should ignore the issue. Work on your sleep hygiene and speak with your doctor. This is your time to get the rest you need to be healthy when the new baby comes – and the real sleep loss begins!

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