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Pregnancy and Sleep: How Does Pregnancy Affect Sleep?

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All new moms know that having a newborn will affect their sleep — but you may be surprised to experience sleep deprivation while you're pregnant. Pregnancy and sleep don't go together well. Your sleep problems can stem from the changes in your hormones — not to mention the shape of your body — and stress can also be a factor.

If you're dealing with sleep issues while pregnant, you're not alone. Up to 50% of pregnant women experience sleep problems. You should take them seriously since sleep issues may affect your health and that of your unborn baby, impacting everything from your immune system, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure. Take a look at the factors that cause sleep issues during pregnancy, and discover some tips for dealing with sleep problems.

Pregnancy Hormones and Sleep

The hormonal changes that affect your mood and metabolism while you're pregnant can also affect your sleep. Check out these essential pregnancy hormones and their effect on sleep:

  • Estrogen: One of the key hormones of pregnancy, estrogen, enlarges the blood vessels to allow greater blood flow throughout your pregnant body, including to the fetus. This can result in swollen feet and nasal congestion, both of which can disturb sleep. Estrogen also reduces the amount of REM sleep you get.
  • Progesterone: Progesterone is the other significant pregnancy hormone. It can contribute to nasal congestion and heartburn, which can impact sleep, and it reduces REM sleep, just like estrogen. In addition, because progesterone relaxes smooth muscle, it helps induce the need to urinate during the night.
  • Prolactin: Prolactin promotes the production of breast milk. As your levels of prolactin increase, you may experience more slow-wave sleep, which occurs as you're starting to drift off.
  • Oxytocin: This hormone is involved in the contractions of labor. As it increases in preparation for delivery, it can cause contractions that wake you up.

Other Factors Affecting Sleep During Pregnancy

Hormones aren't the only thing keeping you awake when you're pregnant, of course. For many women, just the stress of not knowing what to expect with this new baby can affect their sleep. Physical causes of sleep disturbance start with the shape of your body — the baby in front causes a lot of stress on your back, and all those daytime aches don't always go away when you go to bed. Pressure on your bladder means you're likely to have to get up to urinate often during the night.

Acid reflux or heartburn also increases during pregnancy, largely because as the fetus grows, it starts to push upward against your diaphragm and stomach. About one-third of women experience restless leg syndrome during pregnancy, often feeling as if their legs are itching uncontrollably. The weight gain of pregnancy and the nasal congestion produced by pregnancy hormones can combine to produce sleep apnea. Once the baby starts moving, you're likely to be awakened by an active baby on the inside while you're trying to sleep.

Pregnancy and Sleep by Trimester

Pregnancy and sleep have an ever-changing relationship throughout the nine months of your pregnancy, shifting every trimester. You may find yourself sleeping longer at night during your first trimester and needing naps during the day. However, you'll start to wake up during your nighttime sleep, and you'll get less deep sleep. If your body is low on iron, you're more likely to feel fatigued, day and night.

The second trimester is when many pregnant women feel at their best, filled with energy and typically past the nausea of the first trimester. You're likely to fall asleep faster and sleep better. However, as you start to experience Braxton-Hicks contractions, an increased need to urinate at night, and the baby kicking, that restful sleep is likely to be interrupted.

The third trimester brings the greatest amount of sleep disturbance. This is when you're most likely to experience restless leg syndrome, heartburn, back pain, and shortness of breath. You may also find it difficult to find a comfortable position for sleeping.

Tips for Getting a Good Night's Sleep While You're Pregnant

While your body isn't always going to cooperate with your attempts to get a good night's sleep while pregnant, you can take steps to encourage sleep.

  • Add pillows to your bed. Even if you're a natural side sleeper, the weight of your pregnancy is going to skew your back by the third trimester. Invest in a full-body pregnancy pillow, tuck a wedge-shaped pillow under your belly, or place a pillow between your knees to straighten out your back and minimize lower back pain.
  • Keep to a regular bedtime — and naptime. Go to bed at the same time each night to get your mind and body accustomed to sleeping. If you're lucky enough to have time for daytime naps, schedule them regularly as well, and don't nap late in the day, as it may interfere with falling asleep at night.
  • Turn off your screens. The blue light that comes from mobile devices, TVs, and laptops is proven to disturb sleep. Keep tech away from your bedroom, so you don't succumb to temptation, and step away from all screens at least an hour before bed.
  • Wind down your intake of liquids before bed. Yes, you want to drink plenty of water when you're pregnant, but wind it down a few hours before bedtime. If you're lucky, that'll mean one less time that you have to get up during the night — and a little more sleep.
  • Wear a sleep bra. Your belly isn't the only part of your body swelling up during pregnancy. Many women find that wearing a soft sleep bra at night minimizes breast tenderness and adds an extra layer of comfort.
  • Cool your room down. Your body is generating heat for two while you're pregnant, and you're not likely to need heavy blankets. Negotiate with your sleeping partner, if necessary, to lighten up on the bed coverings, and keep the temperature of your bedroom cool.

Because you're pregnant, stay away from any supplements or herbs touted to induce sleep. If sleep becomes a real problem during pregnancy, talk to your obstetrician to get the safe help you need.

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