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(Not) Sleeping for Two

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During both of my pregnancies, I felt like a nocturnal creature. Early on I’d stare at the ceiling in the wee hours, contemplating new furniture arrangements, doctor appointments, and to-do lists. In my second trimester, I’d go from a deep sleep to suddenly flying around the room with leg cramps on a nightly basis. As my belly grew, I flipped side to side at night — stuffing pillows around me while feeling tiny-but-powerful kicks from within.

Nearly all pregnant women have some trouble sleeping. For the most part, sleep disturbances in pregnancy are normal and transient, but they can be challenging — both in the middle of the night, when you might be roaming the hallways or surfing the web, and during the day, when you have to go about life as a productive adult.

There are many reasons for sleep problems in pregnancy. First of all, beginning when sperm meets egg, a woman’s hormone levels change. Estrogen and progesterone rise over the course of pregnancy, as do levels of prolactin and cortisol. While the exact relationship to sleep isn’t clear, studies indicate that hormonal changes do interrupt sleep and may cause shifts in the amount of slow-wave, or deep, sleep and REM sleep (where most dreaming occurs) expecting moms get. On top of these physiological changes, women with no prior sleep problems can find themselves with hip pain, muscle cramps, and snoring habits that come with swollen nasal passages and weight gain. Stomach and back sleepers with a growing bump are confined to the unfamiliar side sleeping position, and fetuses tend to become active just as mom is settling in for the night (when they are no longer lulled to sleep by mom walking around).

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So what can you do as a mom-to-be to increase the chances of getting a decent night’s rest? The typical advice for sleeping better applies during pregnancy: wind down for 20-30 minutes with a bedtime routine, avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bed, exercise during the day instead of evening if you can. But here are more specific advice for pregnant moms who need to improve their shut-eye:

Understand and manage light: Light sends alerting signals to the brain that suppress melatonin (which you need to feel drowsy), and make it difficult to fall asleep. Light in the blue range of the electromagnetic spectrum, given off by electronics in particular, may especially confuse your body’s circadian rhythm. Control light exposure in these ways:

  • Dim your home lights slightly as bedtime nears
  • Put a dim nightlight in the bathroom or hallway so that when you wake up to pee, you won’t need to turn on the bathroom lights
  • Use room-darkening shades to block morning light
  • Avoid artificial light. Fight the urge to keep your phone by your bed. Don’t check emails, Facebook, or news headlines when you can’t sleep (the mom brain rarely rests), as the light from your device and the endlessly distracting nature of the Internet is too stimulating, making it harder to doze off again. If you can’t sleep, move to the living room and read a book — it’s not ideal, but at least the light won’t be shining in your eyes.

Nap smartly: Many pregnant women make up for lost nighttime sleep with daytime naps. Take a short “power nap” of 20 minutes during the day if you can, but avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening so it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime snooze.

Eat and drink lightly: Drink a lot of water during the day, but slow down well before bedtime so that you’re less likely to need to pee in the middle of the night. Avoid spicy or heavy foods a few hours before bedtime to decrease heartburn symptoms.

Cool off: Normally, your body temperature goes down slightly as you become drowsy in the evening; you need this dip in temperature to sleep peacefully. But fluctuating hormones during pregnancy can disrupt this natural process and make you restless. If you find yourself hot or warm at night, dress in light, breathable cotton pajamas, and keep a spare set of PJs and a glass of ice water by your bedside.

Experiment with pillows: Keep 2-3 pillows near your bed. While you lie on your side, try putting one between your legs and another behind your back. Re-arrange pillows until you find a comfortable sleeping position. You don’t have to buy a special pregnancy pillow; you can get a long body pillow (for example, Bed Bath & Beyond sells affordable ones), or use a breastfeeding pillow (the curve of a nursing pillow can support your back, or you can put it between your legs and rest your arm on it).

Work with your partner: Pregnancy sleep changes don’t just affect you. Talk to your partner to figure out how you can help each other sleep better. Maybe you need his or her help getting to bed earlier these days, or maybe your spouse needs earplugs or a separate blanket to sleep with if you’re tossing and turning at night?

Some say that disrupted sleep in pregnancy is just par for the course — that it’s practice for the lack of sleep to come when your baby arrives. It’s true that you won’t get your full 8-hour nights back for a while, but it’s still a good idea to take care of yourself and protect your sleep as best you can during this important time.

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