Overcome the difficulties of sleeping during pregnancy

Fatigue was one of the first symptoms of pregnancy I experienced and it remained with me for the duration of all three.

I can’t think of many people who need – or deserve! – sleep more than a pregnant woman, yet pregnant women are more likely than just about any other group of people to suffer from insomnia and disrupted sleep.

According to obstetrician Dr Brad Robinson, sleeping is significantly impacted during pregnancy for a multitude of reasons.

The major cause, according to Dr Robinson, is the increasing size of your baby, and the mechanical changes this additional mass imposes on your body.

This makes finding a suitable position more and more difficult and also leads to the development of lower back pain, hip pain, and restless legs – all of which make getting (and staying!) asleep more challenging.

Pregnant women also have a higher heart rate and a higher volume of blood. The combination of this along with a bladder that is unable to fully expand due to the uterus compressing it, means you’ll be getting up frequently to go to the loo.

Pregnancy also causes heartburn, which can worsen when you’re lying down, sometimes causing significant pain.

Finally, says Dr Robinson, pregnancy is often an emotional and stressful time for women, with anxiety often making sleep ever more elusive.

“Thoughts of the pending labour, or of jobs to be done before delivery, or of the challenges which await after the baby is delivered, frequently play on a woman’s mind at night when she is trying to sleep.”

According to Dr Robinson, what position to adopt when sleeping is one of the most commonly asked questions during antenatal consultations.

Sleeping safely

To overcome the difficulties of sleeping during pregnancy, he says, pregnant women certainly shouldn’t lose any sleep about how to sleep!

After the first trimester pregnant women should avoid sleeping directly on their back or directly on their stomach.

That’s because the enlarged and heavy uterus can compress the major blood vessel that returns blood from the lower body to the heart.

“If this occurs this has the potential to then impair blood flow to the placenta and hence to the baby,” says Dr Robinson.

Sleeping face down can also result in this – not to mention being incredibly uncomfortable when heavily pregnant!

Dr Robinson says sleeping on your side is the safest position during pregnancy, but says contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t matter which side you choose.

“It is very trendy to advocate the left side to the exclusion of the right but there really is no need to strictly confine yourself to this one side.

This left-sided bias arose following the publication in 2011 of a study which suggested a higher risk of stillbirth.

“But there are a large number of factors that play a role in stillbirth, and much more study is needed than this solitary small study of only 155 women before this sort of conclusion can be reached.”

Tips for improving sleep

Pillows! For me, an abundance of strategically placed pillows made a tremendous difference to my comfort.

They can also prevent you from rotating into a less safe position.

As to trying to improve the overall quality of sleep there is no magic bullet, but Dr Robinson offers the following suggestions:

  • Try and maintain consistency in the time of going to bed and rising
  • Avoid caffeine after the early afternoon
  • Cut back on fluids in the three or more hours prior to bed to reduce the desire to urinate overnight
  • Remove sources of stimulation from bedroom such as television, lights from alarm clocks, mobile phones etc
  • Use the bed only for sleeping (and special adult cuddles!) so intrinsically the body knows why it is in bed – that is to sleep!
  • Have a warm shower or bath immediately prior to going to bed as the body enters sleep more readily when it is cooling.
  • Address and treat any heartburn that worsens when lying flat and often wakes those who suffer from it
  • Try and exercise for 30 minutes a day
  • If you can’t get to sleep don’t stay in bed – get up and out of bed. Go back to bed later when you feel more ready to sleep.
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