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Sleep Soundly During Pregnancy

When you're pregnant, a host of discomforts conspire to rob you of sleep. From heartburn to leg cramps to endless bathroom trips, catching those much-needed ZZZs can be a big challenge. Here's help.

Sleep Disorders

The most serious sleep disorder a pregnant woman can develop is sleep apnea. In sleep apnea, the airway closes and breathing stops many times during the night. The ensuing lack of oxygen can be harmful to the developing fetus. It also causes sudden awakenings, which makes for fitful, restless sleep and fatigue the next day. What's more, D'Ambrosio says there is some evidence that sleep apnea is linked to another condition called preeclampsia, in which a pregnant woman has abnormally high blood pressure, swelling, and protein in her urine. Preeclampsia can lead to low birth weight, premature delivery, and in some cases, death.

Loud snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea. Women who didn't snore before becoming pregnant and who have trouble breathing at night may have the condition. "They should get that evaluated," D'Ambrosio says. Those who suffer from sleep apnea usually don't notice the symptoms. It's their bedmates -- awakened by their ripping snores and gasping for air -- who bring the problem to their attention.

Pregnant women commonly suffer nasal congestion that can also make it difficult to sleep. During pregnancy, the body releases hormones that can sometimes dry out the lining in the nose, making it feel inflamed and swollen. Fortunately, there are some natural remedies than can help:

  • Try wearing nasal strips to widen your nasal passages at night. Studies show these strips can make it easier to breathe when congested.
  • Apply a warm, wet washcloth to your cheeks, eyes, and nose to reduce congestion.
  • Don't use over-the-counter nasal decongestants; they can aggravate your symptoms.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (at least six to eight glasses of fluids a day) to thin mucus.
  • Elevate your head with an extra pillow while sleeping to prevent mucus from blocking your throat.
  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer to add moisture to the air.

Restless legs syndrome is another sleep problem that may be brought on by pregnancy. People with this problem describe having an unpleasant "creepy crawly" sensation in their legs that only goes away when they move them. It's worst when the sufferer is relaxed, so it disturbs sleep. Lauren Broch, PhD, a sleep specialist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, says restless legs syndrome during pregnancy may be related to iron deficiency, but that's not known for sure. "I don't think we understand it yet," she says.

Taking folate supplements may help restless legs syndrome, Broch says. Doctors urge all women to take folate during pregnancy to prevent birth defects, too.

Sleep Aids

Prescription sleep aids are out of the question for pregnant women, unfortunately. Over-the-counter sleep aids like Sominex and Nytol, and the allergy remedy Benadryl (all of which contain the same active ingredient, diphenhydramine) may be safe in the later stages of pregnancy but Broch says she does not generally recommend them. Diphenhydramine stays in the body for about 12 hours, which can make you feel drowsy and sedated all morning if you take it late at night. And like all medications (including vitamins and herbal supplements), these over-the-counter drugs should be approved by your doctor before taking.

Exercise is a good substitute for sedatives. Exercise during the day -- not right before you go to bed -- and you will sleep better for it.

Originally published Sept. 2, 2002.

Medically updated February 2005.



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