There are perhaps no greater changes that occur in a woman’s body than those experienced during pregnancy. From hormone levels to bone density, all areas of health are subject to changes and fluctuations. Providing the all-important time to rest, repair and recharge, sleep plays a vital role in an expectant mother’s (and her baby’s) health and wellbeing throughout the nine months of pregnancy.
Thomas Høegh Reisenhus, TEMPUR® sleep specialist & sleep counsellor says: “Carrying and growing a brand-new human being is an incredible experience, but for a number of women it also brings unique physical and mental health challenges.
“Sleep is hugely important for everyone’s physical, mental and emotional health, and when the body goes through significant changes – such as those experienced in pregnancy – the importance of quality rest only increases. Achieving much needed sleep can often evade expectant mums, as pregnancy presents a whole host of new challenges. From temperature fluctuations and heartburn, to restless leg syndrome or joint pain, drifting off into a restful sleep can become much more difficult.
“Having a greater awareness of the challenges that pregnancy brings will allow you to adjust habits accordingly to achieve a slumber that is not just more comfortable, but also deeper and longer; essential for the overall wellbeing of both you and baby”.
Read on for our guide to sleep during pregnancy…
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep forms the foundation of so many of our body’s functions, from regulating hormones to muscle recovery. The smooth running of these biological processes is even more necessary when pregnant as your body is under increased physical, mental and emotional strain.
During non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the brain is resting, so more blood is available to circulate to the rest of the body, bringing oxygen supplies and nutrients to the cells that are then used to heal your body and help with your baby’s growth development in the womb.
Sleep’s ability to bolster the immune system is vital during pregnancy. In these nine months so many of the body’s resources are directed towards the baby to ensure it has everything it needs to develop healthily. This means the immune system can become weaker and this can be exacerbated further by a lack of good quality sleep.
Sleep also facilitates the process of ‘nocturnal dipping’, which is a natural reduction in blood pressure that we all experience through the night. Expectant mothers can suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure) during pregnancy, so it’s even more important to ensure that nocturnal dipping functions effectively to allow blood pressure a chance to level off. Compromised sleep could be a contributing factor to hypertension, which can lead to health issues for both mother and child.
Of course, sleep isn’t the only thing to prioritise when it comes to ensuring a healthy pregnancy; eating a balanced diet, enjoying regular exercise, and managing stress are all so important too, but for a 360 degree approach to optimal health throughout pregnancy and beyond, ensuring the right amount of quality sleep could make a big difference.
And don’t forget to consider mental health too. Good quality sleep will boost the strength and functional connectivity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is vital for a rested mind and thus, good mental and emotional wellbeing.
During pregnancy many sleeping positions are either physically impossible or prohibited by medical professionals. Lying on your front is not an option past the first couple of months and sleeping on your back is advised against, especially in the third trimester, due to the pressure it can put on blood flow.
This leaves just one option – lying on your side. And if this isn’t your preferred sleep position it can be difficult to adjust to.
The best way to ensure you can drift off comfortably is to get creative with pillows to make sure bump and joints are fully supported and spine alignment is optimal. A pillow placed under your bump and another between your knees will leave you feeling supported and gently cocooned as well as relieving pressure points from the additional weight you’re carrying. Equally, ensuring you have a supportive pillow for your head and neck is just as important, as it allows your spine to remain aligned.
Restless leg Syndrome
A prevalent night-time symptom for many pregnant women is restless leg syndrome (RLS), which is the urge to move your legs or the sensation of crawling over the legs and feet. Understandably, this is a very uncomfortable and disconcerting feeling to have, especially as you lay in bed at night and try to sleep.
As RLS affects about 1 in 5 women during their third trimester the issue is clearly a pressing one, especially at a time where quality sleep is so vital. The exact cause of this development in pregnancy isn’t certain, but it may stem from an iron deficiency, an imbalance of dopamine in the brain, or other hormonal changes.
Your bloods will be monitored regularly throughout pregnancy and if you have an iron deficiency, you will likely be prescribed a supplement, which may decrease the symptoms of RLS. Foods rich in iron, such as red meat, green leafy vegetables like kale, and dried fruit are also an easy way to bolster your body’s iron levels.
Gentle exercise is also recommended to counter RLS; just make sure not to exercise too close to bedtime. Going for an early evening walk is ideal and will also help with food digestion after dinner.
If you wake up with RLS, don’t feel the need to lay there and suffer. Try a body oil with a calming scent, such as lavender. Keep this on your nightstand for night-time massage emergencies to calm the muscles and ease the symptoms. Getting up and doing some gentle stretching can also be helpful if the condition persists. Just make sure you keep light to a minimum and activity calming to avoid feeling too stimulated to drift off back to sleep.
Finally, if you are sharing a bed with a partner, a motion absorbing mattress is a great way to avoid waking them.
A common ailment during pregnancy is heartburn; an uncomfortable side effect and one that also has the ability to prevent a good night’s sleep.
Heartburn or acid reflux is caused by acid from the stomach travelling up the throat, often causing a burning sensation or nausea. Heartburn is more common during pregnancy as pregnancy hormones, paired with pressure from the growing baby, relax the valve at the entrance to the stomach, allowing stomach acids to travel up the oesophagus. This can be very uncomfortable when trying to fall asleep, so taking precautions in the hours leading up to bed is a good way to reduce the likelihood of it occurring.
Avoiding large meals in the hours before bed can help curtail the onset of heartburn. So too can avoiding heavy or rich foods such as meat for dinner. Opt instead for a light and varied evening meal of fish with a side of colourful vegetables or salad with a serving of carbohydrates, which will deliver the all-important nutrients you and your baby need whilst minimising potential side effects.
Interestingly, due to the shape of our stomachs, lying on your left side may also reduce the effects of acid reflux. This is because of a dip in the shape of the stomach, allowing gravity to keep the acid down.
Propping yourself up a little using more pillows or raising the head of the mattress is also known to ease the symptoms of heartburn during the night. Just make sure you’re in a comfortable position to sleep and your joints are all fully supported.
Limit the light for toilet visits
It is a somewhat unavoidable fact that when you’re pregnant there is more pressure on your bladder, meaning you will more than likely need to relieve yourself during the night.
However, this need not disrupt your sleep cycle completely. There’s no way of fighting the inevitable, but there are a couple of tricks to ensure you’re able to return to your bed and drift back into a peaceful slumber, rather than lying awake feeling wired.
Instead of using harsh overhead lighting that will completely shock your body out of its resting state, place night lights along the hallway and in the bathroom to remove the need to turn on any bright lights. In fact, research shows that night lights that make use of red light are the best option as the red light doesn’t interfere with our body’s melatonin (the hormone in charge of our sleep-wake cycle) production. Plus, they will come in handy for all those night feeds that are on the horizon…
It’s also worth considering your use of blue light emitting tech in the time leading up to sleep. Phones and laptops should be put away one hour before sleep, giving your body time to build up its melatonin in order to allow you to drift off properly. And again, instead of relying on overhead lighting, opt for lamps, which are much softer and will create a more calming atmosphere in which to wind down in before bed.
Many women experience a rise in body temperature during pregnancy, which can hinder the ability to enjoy a restorative night’s sleep. This is due to the combination of increased blood volume and metabolism as your body meets the demands of a growing baby.
Our core body temperature needs to drop slightly for a comfortable night’s sleep, so keeping your room at around 18°C will facilitate this. For pregnant women, who are already experiencing an increased body temperature, try swapping a heavy duvet for a lighter one. Or go for a temperature regulating quilt if your bed partner struggles with the lighter bedding. It’s also worth opting for lightweight cotton pyjamas and using breathable bedding made from natural materials to help keep cool.
If you’re prone to feeling the cold at night, wearing socks will keep you that little bit warmer, whilst still allowing your core temperature to lower. When your body is too cold it panics and directs all heat towards your core to protect vital organs, so by heating your extremities, warmth is redirected away from your core, cooling it down and allowing you to drop into sleep whilst keeping your feet cosy – perfect for chilly sleepers.
By understanding the changes that occur during pregnancy, and how these may affect your ability to sleep you can adapt your routine accordingly, allowing you to sleep more easily and continue to reap the rewards of a good night’s rest.