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.
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
- Don't use over-the-counter nasal decongestants; they can aggravate your
- Drink plenty of fluids (at least six to eight glasses of fluids a day) to
- 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.
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
Exercise is a good substitute for sedatives. Exercise during
the day -- not right before you go to bed -- and you will sleep better for
Originally published Sept. 2, 2002.
Medically updated February 2005.