Pregnancy and Sleep Problems

Tired of tossing and turning at night? Here are some great tips to help you cope with pregnancy insomnia.

By Ellen Michaud with Julie Bain from Sleep to Be Sexy Smart and Slim

Okay. So you’re tossing and turning, snoring and snorting, aching, kicking, getting up to go to the bathroom, and trying every which way to find a comfortable position. It’s not easy to sleep through the middle of all that—and some nights it seems downright hopeless. But here’s what will give you the best chance.

1. SKIP THE NAPS. Daytime sleepiness, particularly in the first trimester, encourages almost every pregnant woman to nap. But naps make it more difficult to sleep at night because they take away some of the sleep pressure that builds up over the day. “It’s like snacking,” says Grace Pien, M.D., a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology. “Eating even a small amount of food before a meal can take away your appetite.”

2. CANCEL THE SLEEP DEBT. Most women sleep only 6½ hours a night, so they head into pregnancy with a sleep debt. Fortunately, it’s possible to repay that debt and bring your body back into balance before pregnancy makes sleeping harder.

To avoid napping, try going to bed an hour earlier than usual on a regular basis. If 11 o’clock is your usual time, head into the bedroom at 10. So maybe you’ll miss your favorite TV show or that report you were working on just won’t get done. Just keep in mind the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), study that found that a woman who sleeps less than 6 hours a night quadruples her risk of a C-section and can add up to 10 hours to her labor. That’s a great incentive to end the day early.

3. ADDRESS ANXIETY; BUFFER STRESS. Both anxiety and stress have very real physiological components, says sleep researcher Kathryn Lee, Ph.D., the UCSF professor who uncovered the relationship between poor sleep and length and complications of labor. In fact, she’s betting that it was anxiety and stress that kept the women in her study from sleeping and, ultimately, led to increased labor and a complicated delivery.

“When you’re exhausted, your muscles are tired,” explains Dr. Lee. So if women are losing sleep because they’re worrying about the baby, or anxious about their new roles, or anxious about how they’re going to earn a living, or any one of the million and one things that run through an about-to-be mom’s head at 2 in the morning, it’s likely that the women were going into labor with tired muscles. “And if those muscles were tired, there’s a good chance they might not have been pushing as well as they needed to,” she says.

Talk to friends and family about any concerns that are keeping you up at night, or schedule a few quick visits to a therapist who can help you address the anxiety they may be generating. And learn how to use prayer, yoga, or meditation to connect with the calming stillness that lies at the very center of each and every one of us. The fruits of your efforts may be a shorter and safer labor.

4. BUY LOTS OF PILLOWS. No matter how you lie, you’ll need lots of support to get comfortable by the third trimester. Start with a full-length body pillow, then add smaller pillows for extra support. Some women like pillows under their heads and under their arms; others also like them stuffed between baby belly and bed, wedged between knees, and snuggled into the small of their backs. Suit yourself.

5. DON’T SWEAT THE DREAMS. A Canadian study recently revealed that 59 percent of pregnant women have horrific dreams that their baby is in some kind of danger. The dreams are normal, apparently part of a woman’s instinct to protect her child. If one wakes you up, don’t think it’s a premonition. Just roll over and go back to sleep.

6. WARM THE LAVENDER. Some pillows come microwave-safe and scented with natural lavender. Follow package directions for heating, then lie down, tuck the pillow wherever you ache, close your eyes, and relax into the warm scent. You’ll be asleep in no time.

7. HOLD THE LIQUID AFTER 4:00 P.M. As any potty-training mom knows, you fill your kid full of water and juice all day long until around 4 o’clock. Then you give him liquids only when he asks for them, and then in quarter-cup amounts. As a result, your kid can sleep through the night and wake up dry, rested, and proud the next day.

The same thing works with pregnant moms, says Dr. Pien. Some of those nighttime trips are due to your physiology. But there’s also another reason: Most pregnant women are busy all day long and don’t take time to drink and stay hydrated. So when they get home, they tend to tank up. The fact that they need to get up and urinate during the night is a natural consequence. A better approach is to carry a large water bottle with you all day—and finish it before you leave work.

8. REMEMBER MAMA. When your mom’s back ached, she likely reached for a heating pad and put it on her hips. You should do the same. Just keep it set on low, and don’t fall asleep while it’s on.

9. GET OUT THE BATH TOYS. Slide into a tub of warm water before bed and splash around, suggests Dr. Pien. Avoid hot water since some studies indicate that it can cause vasoconstriction, which can lead to miscarriage.

10. KEEP A REGULAR SLEEP SCHEDULE. Yes, even on weekends. Your body uses light to regulate its sleep/wake cycle. If it gets confused, you could be tossing and turning for hours.

11. DEAL WITH NAUSEA. Munch on a few crackers several times during the day. Daytime munching seems to head off nighttime nausea.

12. BAG THE FRIED FOOD. Also, spicy or acidic anything. Heartburn at 3:00 A.M. is not a good life choice.

13. EAT SMALL. Several small, light meals during the day instead of a heavier one at night will encourage deeper sleep.

14. KICK BUTTS. Say yes the next time someone asks, “Mind if I smoke?” A study of more than 35,000 pregnant women conducted at Nihon University in Tokyo found that women exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke were more likely to have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep than women who weren’t. They also had breathing difficulties and were more likely to awake at the crack of dawn.

15. WORK OUT. A 30-minute daily workout will strengthen your body and get you in shape for labor and delivery. Brisk walking, lap swimming, stationary or recumbent biking, and a low-impact aerobics class designed for pregnant women are best. Check with your doctor before you start.

If you haven’t been exercising regularly, begin slowly, say, 5 minutes a day. Add 5 minutes a week until you’re up to 30 minutes a day. Avoid exercising in hot weather, and after the first trimester avoid doing exercises while lying on your back. Otherwise, you go, girl!

16. BASK IN THE SUN. A little natural-light exposure during the afternoon will help your body clock understand when you’re supposed to be awake—and when you’re supposed to be asleep.

17. KEEP THE PARENTING BOOKS IN THE LIVING ROOM. If you read parenting books right before you turn out the light, chances are you’ll be running if-then and what-if scenarios in your head for hours to come. This is daytime work.

18. PUT AWAY THE PAINT CHIPS AND CATALOGS. Okay, we know you love poring over paint chips and baby furniture catalogs and making plans for the nursery. But right before bed? Isn’t that a little stimulating?

19. STRIP THE BEDROOM. “The bedroom is for sleep and sex,” says Dr. Pien, repeating the mantra of sleep medicine specialists everywhere. Remove the TV, computer, Palm Pilot, cell phone, and anything else that’s unrelated to those two most pleasurable activities.