Pregnancy is a unique time in a woman’s life, and puts unique stresses on her body. She is expending extra energy growing a human being, and that, combined with hormonal changes, make for a very tired woman. It is imperative that she sleep well during this time, as a well-rested mother means a healthier baby.
Unfortunately, the reason she needs extra sleep is often the reason she is unable to get it. A changing body mean that the pregnant woman is having to adapt her sleeping positions into ones she is unfamiliar with. Extra blood flow heats the body, making sleep uncomfortable. Shifting ligaments contribute to muscle strain and soreness, and the aches and pains can interfere with good sleep.
As if preparing your birth plan, hospital bag and the nursery weren’t enough, you also need to think about your sleep during pregnancy – both in terms of its quality and duration. So what is a pregnant woman to do, when she knows she must attempt to rest, but that rest seems so elusive? Today we will be looking at some of the best sleeping positions during pregnancy, and giving some pointers on how to best help the pregnant body rest and achieve restful sleep during this time.
The need for sleep
Now that you are pregnant the importance of getting decent rest cannot be overstated, and this goes well beyond the “get sleep while you can” mentality that seems to assume all expectant mothers are able to sleep like, well, babies, while all new mothers struggle with their newborn’s sleeping patterns or lack thereof. Neither is true, and a 1998 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 78% of women suffered more disturbed sleep while pregnant that at any other time during their lives – which is hardly surprising, given the many changes our bodies are about to undergo.
Unfortunately it’s been shown that poor sleep in pregnancy can lead to elevated blood pressure and increased risk of preeclampsia, that pregnant women who slept more than six hours per night were less likely to experience a longer labor or undergo a C-section than mothers-to-be who didn’t and that decent sleep in general is proven to aid a healthy immune system, stave off depression and reduce the risk of birth complications. In other words, decent sleep in pregnancy goes a lot further than a quick rest top-up before baby arrives and it’s crucial that you pull out all the stops to achieve it for everyone’s sake.
But this is much easier said than done. Along with an expanding bump – which alone may cause awkwardness and overheating between the sheets – we can look forward to the strong likelihood of back pain (affecting some 50-80% of mothers-to-be), potential heartburn (30-50%) and Restless Legs Syndrome/RLS (26%). Many of us will also experience piles, disturbing or vivid dreams, insomnia caused by discomfort or anxiety, increasingly frequent visits to the bathroom, snoring and sleep apnoea, and all of these conditions can affect the quality and duration of our sleep.
Even so, try not worry. The more we stress about the good rest we’re not getting, the more the situation can spiral (and of course, like many medications, sleeping pills are a big no-no without your doctor’s explicit consent).
Importance of Good Sleep during Pregnancy
Sleep is the body’s way of recharging itself, and gives the body time to recuperate and gives the pregnant woman’s body the energy to help the new baby grow. Unfortunately, several problems can plague pregnant women during pregnancy, making sleep difficult. Heartburn, nasal congestion, insomnia, and general aches and pains can all contribute to difficulty sleeping while pregnant. Most of the problems, though, can be remedied through better sleep positions, and some home remedies.
You’ve probably heard this so-called information before, but it’s important to get the facts right now you’re sleeping for two. For more details, please visit the National Sleep Foundation.
- Sleep myth #1: Your snoring might be irritating, but it isn’t harmful. Actually, it could be. Although snoring is harmless in most cases (apart from the harm being done to your partner’s sleep and sanity, of course) in others it could be a sign of sleep apnoea, which is characterized by pauses in breathing, can be very dangerous and has been linked to cardiovascular disease. For pregnant women, sleep apnoea has also been associated with such complications as low birth weight, gestational hypertension and preeclampsia – so if you are snoring excessively, ask your doctor.
- Sleep myth #2: Insomnia means difficulty falling asleep. As many pregnant women suffer from insomnia, it’s important to know how the condition is actually characterized for diagnosis. Lying awake in bed is only one of the four symptoms: the others include waking too early, frequent re-awakenings and not waking up feeling refreshed. If such symptoms occur regularly, ask your doctor for advice but do not take over-the-counter sleep aids without his/her explicit medical consent.
- Sleep myth #3: If you feel tired, you must need more sleep. Sometimes daytime drowsiness is not just a result of lack of sleep at night. It could signal an underlying medical condition (e.g. anaemia) or sleep disorder (e.g. sleep apnoea). While fatigue is a very common symptom of pregnancy, please don’t ignore excessive feelings of exhaustion. Again, ask your physician for advice.
- Sleep myth #4: If you wake during the night, you should stay in bed until you fall back to sleep. You’ve counted two hundred sheep and are feeling more and more upset that you’re still conscious. There’s a hundred different things on your ‘To Do’ list, and suddenly you can’t seem to stop worrying about the birth. While it may seem counter-productive, getting out of bed and doing something relaxing until you are ready to return may see you slumbering sooner than if you had just stayed there gnashing your teeth. If you’re awake due to discomfort, you might want to consider a different sleeping position or sleep support aid like a pregnancy pillow as well.
Different sleeping positions
Pregnancy can be a wonderful experience filled with elation, excitement and joy. It can also, at times, feel like your baby has taken over every aspect of your life before he or she is even born. Take sleeping positions, for example: you used to sleep however you wanted to but now, your growing discomfort and the practicalities of an expanding bump (not to mention the advice of your doctor or midwife) dictate even this simple choice.
Sleeping on your back while pregnant
If you are used to sleeping on your back – you may find it uncomfortable long before your stomach starts to grow thanks to the pregnancy hormones oestrogen and relaxin that surge through your body and make everything more relaxed and flexible, causing some women back pain before the first trimester is over. Later, of course, lying on your back could make you feel as if some round and heavy object were sitting on your stomach all night – which is hardly conducive to a relaxing slumber!
Back sleep, like front sleep, is usually fine during the first few months, and even occasionally during the final months. However, it is best to transition away from this sleep position in the later parts of pregnancy for several reasons. First, many pregnant women find it difficult to breathe when lying supine, due to extra pressure on the lungs and diaphragm. Secondly, this sleep position puts extra pressure on the vena cava, which is a major vein carrying blood to the lower body from the heart.
It is important to maintain good circulation during pregnancy, and lying on your back can prevent proper blood flow to your baby and lower body.
In the unlikely event that lying on your back remains comfortable to you throughout the trimesters, know that it is not recommended in later months when the growing weight of your uterus can press down on the vena cava, the main vein that carries blood to the heart. Pressure on this vein may cause you to feel faint and the blood pressure to drop (although for some women it can also make the blood pressure go up). Sleeping on your back has also been associated with snoring and sleep apnoea, and could even increase your risk of suffering from haemorrhoids (piles). Anything with the potential to interfere with blood circulation is hardly good news for baby, so it is advisable that you avoid lying on your back if you can help it.
Don’t lose sleep, though if you find that you don’t always sleep on your side. Many women find that although they go to sleep in a different position, they wake up on their backs during the night. If this happens to you, don’t panic – just turn back onto your side and go to sleep. You probably woke for precisely this reason, and no harm will have come to you or baby in such a short time.
Sleeping on your front/stomach while pregnant
If you are used to sleeping on your front – for fairly obvious reasons, and unless you are in possession of a pregnancy massage table or perhaps an Earthlite Pregnancy Cushion, this will become more and more impossible to keep up unless you have a lot of surround support. Even in early pregnancy it may prove difficult – as many women will experience sore breasts as an early symptom.
Some expectant mothers find that they cannot sleep any other way than on their front while pregnant and will make a “bump nest” using lots of cushions or a full body maternity pillow folded into shape. It’s not the optimal sleep position for pregnancy and could get hot in summer, but as long as no additional pressure is exerted on the uterus it shouldn’t put your baby at risk to lie on your front.
Sleeping on your stomach may be possible during the first few month of pregnancy, before your belly begins to grow, and it will probably not harm a developing baby, who is encased in water inside your uterus, making them almost impervious to the outside pressure of sleeping on your stomach. They are also incredibly small at this point, and so the tighter conditions inside caused by stomach sleeping won’t be noticed by the baby. However, as pregnancy advances, you will almost certainly find that stomach sleeping becomes an impossibility, unless you have a slatted foam mattress or a mattress specifically designed for a stomach-sleeping pregnant woman. They exist, but they are hide to find and expensive. Have caution investing in an entirely new mattress simply so that you can continue in your preferred sleeping position during pregnancy.
Sleeping sitting upright while pregnant
Upright or semi-upright sleeping is worth mentioning due to two conditions that often plague pregnant women: Nasal Congestion and Heartburn. Both can be a huge annoyance during pregnancy, especially as there are limited solutions for both that are recommended for pregnancy. Nasal decongestants and antihistamines are not recommended for pregnancy, and only mild antacids are allowed for heartburn. One solution for these conditions is to sleep with your head elevated, in a sitting or semi-reclined position.
The problem with this, of course, is that, while it may help your congestion and heartburn, it is almost impossible to sleep well sitting up. If you find the position difficult, try nasal strips for your nose and a few drops of peppermint oil to help with congestion, and a mild antacid and glass of milk to assist with heartburn.
If you are used to sleeping sat upright – or even if you’re not, you may want to keep this position in mind during the next few months. Expectant mothers with heartburn or snoring issues may find it useful to prop themselves up with a maternity pillow during the night; in the final trimester it could also help women experiencing shortness of breath. Plus, if you plan to breastfeed you may end up in this position more often than you would ever expect, so it’s worth getting it fully comfortable and supportive now for the sake of your back!
Sleeping on your side while pregnant
If you are used to sleeping on your side – you’re already halfway to finding the best sleeping position for pregnant women. Although it’s less important than staying off your back, the most superior sidelying position of all is to lay on your left side: this promotes optimal blood flow and the flow of nutrients to the placenta. It also helps with the elimination of waste products from the body, decreasing potential swelling in your legs, ankles, hands and feet.
The universally recognized best position for sleep is on your side. For many years, the left side was preferred, as it was thought to put less pressure on the vena cava and help reduce swelling in the legs. Now, however, health providers are saying that the side you sleep on is less important that once believed, unless you have complications with circulation and swelling. The side is going to be more comfortable than other sleeping positions, and has the benefit of having special pillows designed specifically for this sleep position.
In practice, you are likely to turn back and forth on your right and left sides, and that’s perfectly OK – just try to sleep on your left side when you can.
Using Pregnancy Pillows for Better Sleep
Finding a comfortable night’s rest can be really challenging when you’re pregnant, particularly now your sleeping position has changed. However you used to sleep before, the increased weight and strain on your body is probably going to affect your acquired habits, but even the optimal sleep position recommended by doctors isn’t always comfortable without a little help.
You could try surrounding yourself with conventional pillows, placing them behind the back, under the bump and between the knees for full body support (with an extra one or two beneath your head, so basically all the pillows in your house will end up underneath you). In the middle of the night when you turn over, you can then try readjusting them all to fit – or alternatively, you could avoid all the fuss and buy yourself (or ask for the gift of) a maternity pillow.
A pregnancy pillow can be anything from a simple wedge that props up your bump to a full-on body hugger longer than you are tall. Full body pregnancy pillows may take up a lot of room in the bed, but they don’t cost as much as all the regular pillows you were using and the right one won’t need constant readjustment to support you in the optimal sleep position, cradling the bump, neck and back while keeping pressure off the pelvis and hips. A good supportive pregnancy pillow can also help to keep you lying on your left side (as well as continuing to support you when you turn over to the right), allowing you to get on with the important stuff: resting!
A good pregnancy pillow is the first step toward achieving better sleep, and certainly the most practical tool in maintaining it. The best maternity pillows will help alleviate aches and pains to make sleep more comfortable, can be folded to help prop you up if you need to sleep in a semi-reclined position, and, in the case of U-shapes, can help keep you from rolling onto your back during the night. They are a wonderful solution to myriad pregnancy-related sleep issues.
When using a pregnancy pillow, be sure to choose one that is suited to your unique situation, and buy the best quality you can afford. Look for firm filling and covering fabric with good heat and moisture transfer.
More Ideas for Good Sleep
- Try to remain active. Experts recommend moderate exercise throughout pregnancy, but even if you aren’t doing prenatal Zumba, staying physically active will help you sleep better at night.
- Don’t skip the afternoon nap. As counter-productive as this sounds, napping in the afternoon can actually help you sleep better at night, avoiding the problem of “too tired to sleep”.
- Cut the caffeine. Research has shown that caffeine in moderation is safe during pregnancy, but if you are finding sleep to be an issue, take as much caffeine as you can out of your diet.
- No Drinks after 6. Or, more specifically, nothing to drink for two hours before you go to bed, and definitely not in the hour before going to sleep. This will help keep you from being woken by a full bladder.
At a time when you’re probably more tired than you’ve ever felt before and also in genuine need of a decent rest, it’s ironic that being pregnant could get in the way of a good night’s sleep, but it often does both literally (when your bump just won’t let you lie down comfortably in your favourite position) and figuratively. Insomnia is not uncommon, nor is anxiety and a host of other non-threatening conditions like piles which can cause severe discomfort and problems getting rest.
Improving your sleeping conditions can certainly help, as could developing a sleep routine. As simple as it sounds, working out how to lie down comfortably while pregnant can take a little work – as everybody is different, you may need to tweak positions and support devices until they work for you.
If you cannot sleep, feel too tired to function or find that insomnia or discomfort is causing you severe anxiety, please do not hesitate to bring it up with your doctor.
Eat well, stay active, and nap if you need. Sleep on your side (which one doesn’t matter), and get a good-quality maternity pillow. All these things combined should earn you that good night’s sleep you have been hoping for.