Pregnancy sleep: Slumber for two

Looking for tips on sleeping while pregnant? Read on to find out how to smooth the road to a peaceful dreamland.

pregnancy sleep
Photo: iStockphoto

I always knew I was pregnant even before seeing those blue lines on the home tests. For one, I couldn’t climb the stairs without breast pain.

But the big giveaway was the phenomenal fatigue.

“The first 13 weeks are the worst for feeling tired because of all the hormonal changes,” says Karen Tanaka, a family physician in Newmarket, Ont. “That’s when a lot of women feel like they want to sleep all the time. Then when that goes away, you’re dealing with the more mechanical effects of your expanding girth” — things like your growing uterus pressing up under your ribs, making it harder to get a deep breath, or pushing down on your bladder and sending you to the washroom umpteen times a night. Plus, in the latter weeks of your pregnancy, the sheer size of your belly can make it hard to get comfortable in bed — not to mention the sometimes surprisingly strong fetal kicks.

But don’t lose sleep over losing sleep. Instead, read on for helpful hints on grabbing some shut-eye.

Read more: 15 signs you might be pregnant>

Get moving
A little light exercise in the early evening can relieve stress and help you relax when night falls. “But the emphasis here is on light,” says Tanaka. “We’re talking about a walk around your neighbourhood — not running 10 kilometres.” You can also try some gentle stretches to relieve any muscle aches or stiffness.

Think rituals
You may already know how important routines — especially bedtime routines — are to young children. But don’t discount their impact on your own ability to nod off at night.

“It’s helpful to establish a pre-sleep pattern,” confirms Merry Little, nurse practitioner at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Women’s Health Centre. “Try to go to bed at a regular time and follow the same routine every night.” You may, for instance, want to start with a warm (but not hot!) bath or shower, then have a glass of milk and read a non-exciting book for half an hour. The idea here is that you are giving your body cues that sleep time is imminent. And if you stick to your routine, your body will too.

Set the stage
If you live on a busy street, your sleep may be disrupted by outside noise. While earplugs may seem like an obvious antidote to sudden sirens, they won’t work for women who already have children and need to hear them in the night. Instead, advises Little, try a little white noise in the form of a fan. Sometimes the consistent low sound will help muffle the sudden, unexpected ones from outside.

Once you’ve dealt with exterior problems, don’t forget the interior. Sleep experts advise keeping your bed for two things only: sleep and sex. In other words, no TV, no paper work, no exciting books. That way, you associate your room with rest.

Lessen your liquids
Yes, you need to drink more when you’re pregnant, but you don’t need to do it all late in the day — especially if frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom are a problem. “Don’t drink a lot in the evening,” says Little, “and make sure what you do drink has no caffeine.”

But that doesn’t mean you should reach for an herbal tea. “You have to be very careful of herbal teas,” states Tanaka. “A lot of them can stimulate the uterus.” (See “Trouble brewing?”) A cup of warm milk is probably your best sleep-inducing option, but if that doesn’t appeal, you could go for a decaf tea.

Use props
If (or maybe that should be “when”) getting comfortable is the issue, think pillows. From little throw cushions to full-body-size supporters, a well-placed pillow or three can help relieve pressure on aching joints and balance your belly, allowing you to relax and sleep.

If no amount of pillow propping does the trick, try abandoning your bed in favour of a comfy reclining chair. “Sleeping in a La-Z-Boy type of chair lifts up the chest and can help with breathing. It also can relieve swelling in the feet,” says Tanaka.

Look on the bright side
If you’ve tried everything and still can’t sleep more than a few hours at a stretch, you may take some comfort knowing that you can’t really win the battle with biology. “In the last four to six weeks of pregnancy, a lot of women complain they can’t sleep for any length of time longer than around two to three hours,” says Tanaka. “It may be uncomfortable, but it actually makes sense from a biological standpoint because a newborn is going to feed every two to three hours in the night. So it may be that your body is just getting you ready for what’s around the corner.”

All that aside, if you’re in the middle of your pregnancy and still feeling overwhelmingly tired, you should speak to your doctor. A simple blood test will reveal if your fatigue is caused by anemia and you need an iron supplement.

Sleep Treats
Sometimes a little pampering can be the gentle push you need to ease your pregnant body into the Land of Nod. Here are a few indulgences to try:

• Turn your soak into a spa. Light a few candles, fill the tub with warm water and add some bath oil. For a real relaxer, Lisa Gnat of Kick, a maternity boutique in Toronto, recommends lavender. “But if nausea is the problem,” she says, “try a peppermint-scented oil.” Lemon and ginger scents also work for the queasy.

• Take those scents a step further with a lavender or peppermint foot cream. “Get your partner to give you a foot massage,” Gnat urges. “It’s very relaxing and gives relief to tired, swollen feet.” And as long as you’ve got helping hands, why not get your partner to gently massage your belly with scented oil. The theory (unproven) is that it will help prevent stretch marks, and hey, as long as it feels nice, it’s worth a try.

Read more: Pregnancy dreams>

What’s your position?
Experts recommend sleeping on your side for optimal circulation. It’s best to avoid sleeping on your back—a study published in The Journal of Physiology found that women who sleep on their backs from week 34 and beyond are at an increased risk of having stillbirths.

Trouble Brewing?
What could be wrong with a relaxing cup of chamomile tea? Plenty, if you’re pregnant. According to Health Canada, chamomile tea has been reported to have harmful effects on the uterus and should not be consumed when you’re pregnant.

Heath Canada has approved the following six varieties of tea, provided you drink no more than two to three cups per day:

• ginger
• lemon balm
• linden flower (not recommended for people with heart conditions)
• orange peel
• rosehip
• citrus peel

The jury is still out on raspberry leaf tea. Though long been thought a kind of pregnancy tonic, some reports question its safety. As with all medications, consult your doctor or midwife before making yourself a cup.

Originally published in November 2013. 

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