It’s likely no surprise to anyone who has had an infant that pregnancy and parenthood are disruptive to your sleep. In fact, a recent study found that even though new mothers face drastic changes to the amount and quality of their sleep in the first three months after giving birth, it actually takes an average of six years for sleep duration and satisfaction to return to pre-childbirth levels.
Unfortunately, problems with sleep start long before a baby is even born for most women. Despite the fact that pregnant women need more rest—after all, growing a tiny human is a lot of work—few things can disrupt sleep like pregnancy. Understanding how pregnancy and the postpartum period can affect your sleep, and what you can do to increase the chance of getting plenty of rest, can go a long way toward supporting a healthy pregnancy and surviving the first few months of life with a newborn without turning into a zombie.
The tossing and turning and to get comfortable. The overheating. The leg cramps and back pain. Heartburn and nausea. Endless trips to the bathroom. Vivid dreams. With all of the potential ways that pregnancy can disrupt sleep, it’s actually a wonder that women can get any rest at all, even if they are more exhausted than they have ever been before. In fact, according to a study from the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 80 percent of women report sleep disturbances during pregnancy.
For some women, sleep troubles are simply a matter of being unable to find a comfortable position in bed. Doctors recommend that pregnant women sleep on their left sides, as that helps ensure good circulation. For someone used to sleeping on their back or stomach, just that simple adjustment can mean sleepless nights. Even if you are normally a side sleeper, though, the weight of your growing belly can make it difficult to find a comfortable position.
Sleep disorders are also common during pregnancy, with some women reporting that they develop Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) or sleep apnea while pregnant. Even more common, though, are symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or heartburn. Nearly half of pregnant women experience GERD almost constantly during pregnancy, which will keep you awake.
Unfortunately, research from the University of San Francisco discovered that poor sleep quality during pregnancy can actually affect the baby’s delivery. According to the study, pregnant women who routinely average fewer than six hours of sleep per night are 4.5 times as likely to give birth via C-section.
Supporting sleep during pregnancy clearly needs to be a priority. While some problems, like GERD, can be alleviated with over-the-counter antacids (talk with your doctor before taking anything), many of the common treatments for other problems can be risky to the fetus. If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is safe and effective, but medications for RLS, as well as most sleep aids, are not safe during pregnancy.
For that reason, much of the “treatment” for sleep problems in pregnancy focuses on improving overall comfort and creating an environment conducive to sleep. Using pillows for support under the belly and hips, for instance, can alleviate the aches and pains that keep you awake and help sleeping while pregnant. Other ways to improve sleep include:
Once your bundle of joy arrives, your sleep will continue to be disrupted, but for a whole different set of reasons. Newborns rarely sleep longer than a few hours at a time, and you will likely find yourself awake at all hours of the night breastfeeding, changing diapers, and snuggling.
And while you should expect a certain amount of sleep deprivation, you can get in a little extra shuteye if you make a few changes. For starters, it sounds cliche, but sleep when the baby sleeps. Resist the temptation to spend those precious hours doing laundry or catching up on the latest episode of “The Bachelorette” and instead take a nap. If you can, make a schedule with your significant other to take shifts with the baby, ensuring at least one of you gets a full night’s sleep. If that’s not possible, trade off the early morning feedings, or weekends so you can get some much-needed sleep.
Other tips from experienced moms include co-sleeping with your baby so you don’t need to get out of bed for feedings, accepting help from friends and family, and as your baby gets older, letting him cry for a minute or two to see if he will settle on his own. Above all, realize that this phase is temporary, and eventually your sleep will return. Enjoy those nighttime baby snuggles, and look forward to the day when everyone is sleeping through the night.