Pregnancy brings with it a long list of aches, pains and inconveniences. One common complaint is that sleep can become more difficult. While most discomforts in pregnancy pose no risk of harm, a new study suggests that sleep disorders may increase the risk of preterm labor, which can in turn have very damaging effects on the unborn child. How does sleep affect a growing fetus? How can mothers safely get the rest they need?
Sleep Disorders During Pregnancy: A Common Problem
While most people know that sleep becomes elusive after birth, few realize that the sleepless nights begin in pregnancy for many expectant parents. Sleep disorders actually are incredibly common in pregnancy. Women who have never struggled to sleep may find that they suddenly have issues. Those who already had sleep disorders may see these worsen. This is due to several factors. First, emotional and physical stress increase sharply during pregnancy. Second, snoring, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, heartburn and other disorders that interfere with sleep become much more common.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, the second and third trimesters of pregnancy can bring a great deal of discomfort that interferes with sleep. Women are extremely limited in their positions and have difficulty getting comfortable. Pressure on the bladder forces many to use the bathroom several times throughout the night. With all of these physiological changes, it is amazing that any pregnant woman gets adequate sleep. However, getting enough sleep may be much more important that we previously realized.
Could a Sleep Disorder Affect an Unborn Child?
Researchers looked at the sleep habits of women who went into preterm labor compared to those who gave birth at full term. Even when adjusted for other risk factors, women who had sleep disorders were far more likely to give birth early. The differences in preterm labor risk were substantial; women with insomnia were 30 percent more likely to go into preterm labor, while those with sleep apnea had a 50 percent higher risk.
This poses a significant risk to unborn babies. Preterm infants are more susceptible to infections. They struggle to gain weight and may not even be physically mature enough to breathe unassisted. If born in the second trimester, the risk of death and lifelong disability are substantial. Preterm birth is the leading cause of death worldwide for children under five years of age. Even when premature babies survive and thrive, medical costs for their care can easily add up to millions of dollars.
New Connections: The Importance of Sleep in Pregnancy
How can sleep disorders have such a devastating effect on the health of both mother and child? The connections are likely multifactorial. Snoring and sleep apnea increase the risk of hypertension, pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, all of which have been linked to preterm labor and other pregnancy complications. Apnea, or stopping breathing for short periods while sleeping, can also reduce oxygen flow to the placenta and the fetus.
Sleep disorders also appear to affect levels of growth hormone in the fetus. This can affect the infant’s growth and development. Melatonin, which may be deficient in people with sleep disorders, has been found to be particularly important in fetal brain development. Because fetuses cannot make melatonin, low levels in the mother could potentially have a lifelong effect. Clearly sleep is very important both to the mother and her developing child.
Helping Pregnant Mothers Get the Sleep They Need
This new knowledge about the effects of sleep disorders during pregnancy may be concerning to the many pregnant mothers struggling to sleep. However, there are natural, safe solutions that can help many people to get the sleep they need. Consider the following strategies for getting a solid night of rest while expecting:
- Start pregnancy at a healthy weight, which lowers the risk of snoring and apnea.
- Eat a snack high in potassium before bed if leg cramps wake you.
- Turn off screens in the hour before bedtime.
- Use pillows to help achieve a more comfortable and supported sleep position.
- Get gentle exercise during the day.
- Eat a high-protein or high-fiber snack before bed to keep your blood sugar levels steady.
- Engage in relaxing activities before sleep, including meditation, yoga or even a warm bath.
- Leave enough time in your schedule to get ample sleep, even allowing for more nighttime awakenings.
- Talk to your doctor or midwife before trying any sleep medications or supplements.
- Keep your health care providers apprised of any snoring or difficulty sleeping.
Like many discomforts during pregnancy, there are ways to safely treat sleep disorders. Getting enough sleep is essential to the emotional and physical health of both mother and child.
Sleep is a challenge for most parents. However, it appears that these challenges begin even before the baby is born. While it can be difficult to get enough sleep in pregnancy, doing so may help to prevent very serious disorders in the fetus. Pregnancy is a time for self-care, pampering and plenty of rest.