Ah, sleep. For some of us, it is elusive at the best of times. Sleeping during pregnancy can be hard even for those who are the soundest sleepers when not pregnant. It is estimated that more than 75% of expectant mothers are effected by sleep problems, including some kind of insomnia. This commonality leads to jokes about pregnancy being designed to get mothers used to sleep deprivation in preparation for having to care for a newborn in the middle of the night.
I remember sleep being a struggle during my first pregnancy, especially in 3rd trimester. Not only was it hard to find a position to sleep in and waking up a gazillion times a night to visit the bathroom, once I finally got to a deep level of sleep, my son would wake me up by deciding to do gymnastics at 4:30 am. Every night. Ugh.
Fortunately, I had learned a few things before my second pregnancy, and I continued to find more ways to improve sleep that I have been able to share with my childbirth students over the years. Sleep, like so many elements of our lives, is influenced by physical, mental, and emotional aspects. The tips below address all 3 of these aspects, and are grouped into things you do during the day, and those you do at night. So, while you may not be able to return to sleeping a solid 7 or 8 hour stretch until your kids are older (or move out), using these tips should help you be able to get more and better sleep while pregnant and parenting. It might seem like an overwhelming list, so pick a few tips to start with, and build the other habits over time.
Tips for How to Sleep When Pregnant
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine and other stimulants, especially after lunch.
Sometimes caffeine, chocolate, and other stimulants will have an effect on our systems much longer than we realize. Consuming any kind of stimulant within a few hours of bedtime can disrupt your sleep. For some people, having any stimulants after 1 or 2 in the afternoon will cause more restlessness and insomnia, making you more tired the next day (and craving more stimulants!). Stimulants include any form of caffeine (coffee, tea, cappuchino, colas, etc.), chocolate, energy drinks, and medications and other chemicals that rev up your system. Some herbs are also stimulants, such as ginger, ginseng and pseudo-ephedrine.
- Exercise, but not too late in the day.
Our bodies have specific expectations of what a day will include. If we do not meet those expectations, it can be hard to rest well at night. One of these expectations is physical activity. Moving your body and using your muscles makes it easier to sleep during pregnancy. As little as a 30 minute walk every day will help your body feel like there is something to recover from. Don’t want to walk? Try swimming, dancing, prenatal (low-impact) aerobics, or even strength-based circuit training (just keep the weights to 30 lbs per arm or less). Finally, try to be done with any moderate exercise 3 hours or more before bed so your body has time to settle down.
Prevent and care for sore muscles and other pain points.
This may sound like it is an argument against exercising, but it really goes hand-in-hand with it. We have many aches and pains during pregnancy, many of which are due to muscles which are being used in ways they are not used to, our growing bellies pushing good posture out of alignment, and so on. It is hard to fall asleep when your shoulders or back are sore. You can prevent much of the discomfort in some of these common sore areas with a little time and care:
- Practice good ergonomics
If you have a desk job, make sure you are sitting in a chair and have a desk position that allows you to sit up and be balanced, instead of leaning forward and being in an awkward position. A good ergonomic setup can prevent a lot of soreness, especially in your back, neck and shoulders. If you have a job that requires standing or moving, use good ergonomic practices there, too. Practice safe lifting (squat instead of bending over), vary your position, and be sure to keep your knees relaxed (not locked) when standing.
- Strengthen the muscles that do extra work during pregnancy
Your back and abdominal muscles are working harder during pregnancy. Doing pelvic rock (also called pelvic tilt) exercises throughout the day can help relieve much of the soreness by making the muscles stronger.
- Use good posture
The simple answer for this is to pay attention to your posture and try to sit and stand more upright. For most of us, though, focus alone is not enough to counter years of bad posture and ergonomics. Specific exercises for your back, neck and shoulders can help those areas feel much better.
- Stretch or do prenatal yoga
Your ligaments and tendons loosen naturally during pregnancy, but intentional gentle stretching can still help combat soreness. Foam rolling or using a ball to roll your shoulders can help loosen knots in the muscles, too.
- See a chiropractor certified in working with pregnant women
A chiropractor who is certified in treating pregnancy can do wonders for relieving back pain, not to mention helping baby be in a more ideal position for birth.
- Practice good ergonomics
- Keep a good calcium/magnesium balance.
This is one of the most common physical causes for a insomnia, especially what they call “secondary insomnia,” which means waking up many times at night after falling asleep easily. Most of us consume too much calcium for the amount of magnesium in our diets. This is especially likely to be a cause of insomnia for you if you also have occasional leg cramps. Look for a supplement that is either both calcium and magnesium, but with a higher RDA of magnesium than calcium, or just magnesium. The supplement should be easily absorbed, so try ionic, citrate, or gluconate forms of the minerals.
- Eat to support sleep cycles: breakfast in the morning, and no heavy food late at night.
You may be wondering what breakfast has to do with sleeping, and the answer is hormones. All of us have a biorhythm that involves many hormones that cycle throughout the day. Eating breakfast helps signal your body that it is daytime, and starts that hormonal cycle at a time that will result in you being tired at bedtime.
Similarly, avoid heavy foods or a large meal within 3-4 hours of going to bed. If you eat a large meal within this time, your body is not able to finish the stomach portion of digesting before you lie down to go to sleep. This results in your body spending your sleep time digesting instead of repairing, so you wake up more tired. Also, you may find that you also have more gas and bloating because the food sits in one place instead of being moved along.
Try finishing dinner at least 3 hours before bed. If you need a late-night snack, try to eat uncooked foods or easily digested foods such as raw vegetables or fruit with nut butter, or raw trail mix.
Get some natural daylight during the day.
Just like your body expects physical activity during the day, it also expect sunlight. Going out in the sun for just a few minutes without sunglasses lets the natural sunlight hit your retinas, and signals your body that it is daytime and time to be awake. As a bonus, if you spend at least 20 minutes in direct sunlight (longer for naturally dark-skinned ethnicities), your body will make vitamin D, which is essential for good health in pregnancy.
Drink enough water during the day.
As strange as this sounds, not drinking enough water during the day can cause you to wake up more at night. If the toxins the body is cleaning out at night are not diluted well enough, you can wake up just to go pee a little tiny bit because the body does not want those toxins to get reabsorbed. So drink enough water during the day (about half your body weight in ounces), but try to be done by about 2 hours before bed.
It really is much easier to get through pregnancy and the early years of parenting if you get in the habit of taking naps. It can be very difficult to get enough sleep at night, and your body is working very hard during the day so bedtime can seem SO far away. Even a nap or meditation break as short as 15 minutes can give your body and mind a rest, and help you remain focused and active until your regular bedtime. Ideally, your nap should be sometime between lunchtime and just after getting home from work.
- Clear your mind.
At least 1 hour before bed, check your morning schedule so you know what you need to do first thing in the morning, and write down anything you are concerned about forgetting or want to make sure you do tomorrow. For this final hour, also avoid any emotionally charged topics, whether they are things that make you excited or those that upset you. Instead, spend this time doing something neutral or calming, like reading, journaling or doing brainteaser puzzles. I like to spend at least a few minutes before bed each night thinking about or writing down what I am grateful for from the day, and things I can appreciate about myself.
- Reduce light before and after bedtime.
Light signals your brain that is is time to be awake. So, reducing the light you are exposed to before going to bed and while you are sleeping can greatly improve the quality of your sleep. For 1 hour before bed, use dim lights in the room you are in. If you want to get fancy, you can use the evening setting on a daylight alarm clock to gradually reduce the amount of light and naturally induce sleep. There is also emerging evidence that the kind of light we are exposed to influences our level of sleepiness. Apparently light in the blue portion of the spectrum has the greatest “waking up” effect. Unfortunately, this is a prevalent kind of light emitted by screens. You may find that you sleep better by avoiding looking at screens for at least 1 hour before bed, or wearing blue-blocking glasses for that hour. I keep a cheap pair of UV-blocking sunglasses in my bedroom that I try to remember to wear once I start getting ready for bed. They are not quite as good as specific blue-blocking ones, but it seems to help.
Also try to eliminate as much light as possible from your bedroom while sleeping, as research has shown that most people sleep more deeply the closer their bedroom is to complete darkness. Cover LED displays or turn them so they face away from your bed. Consider blackout drapes for your widows (you can test if this will make a difference by tacking up blankets over your windows for a few days). If you prefer to have a night light, try to find a dim red-colored one for minimal impact on your brain. When you wake up during the night, leave the lights off and just use whatever ambient light is around.
- Create – and stick to – a consistent bedtime routine.
You have probably heard this one before, but it really does help. Having a consistent bedtime routine that you follow at about the same time every night signals your brain that it is time to shut down. Try to use the same or similar activities done in the same order every night, at about the same time. If the time has to change because of different weekday and weekend schedules or shift work, being more strict about the activities and order in your routine can help compensate.
- Get baby off your bladder.
Baby does not leave as much room for your bladder as you had before pregnancy, so you will get up more often at night as you get closer to your due date. You can give your bladder a bit more room for part of the night, though. Make sure you are completely ready for bed (and just went to the bathroom). Then climb up into bed, do a double set of pelvic rock exercises on all fours, and lie straight down from there. This helps pull baby out of your pelvis and allows your bladder more room, at least until you have to get up in the middle of the night.
- Use a comfortable sleeping position.
I know, “comfortable position” sounds like somewhat of an oxymoron when talking about pregnancy, but there are definitely positions that are more comfortable than others. I am sure you have heard that you should not lie flat on your back after the 5th month of pregnancy. Here are some alternate positions that can be comfortable for relaxation or sleep during pregnancy:
This is the position shown in the featured image, rolled mostly, but not entirely onto your belly. Use pillows to support your head, upper shoulder, and upper leg. Best position for keeping baby off your bladder after doing pelvic rocks.
- Contour chair position
Use pillows to imitate a recliner chair, or if you have an adjustable bed (lucky you!), set it to a similar position.
This one is a bit tricky, but can be good for stomach-sleepers. Gather a LOT of pillows. Put about half of them under your chest and head, and the others under and supporting your pelvis and thighs so your belly is hanging underneath you. When done properly, there should be almost no weight on your belly – it is all supported by the pillows under your chest and hips.
- Back-lying with tilt
If you are truly only comfortable sleeping on your back, this position may work for you. It is the same position they use in hospitals for women who are on an epidural. The result will be lying on your back, but with a pillow under one side so you are not flat. The easiest way to get into this position is to lie on your side, put a pillow behind you under where your hip and belly will go, then roll over onto your back.
- Use relaxation techniques or self-hypnosis for falling asleep.
Ironically, most of us are not trained in how to go to sleep. You are either considered a “good sleeper” or a “bad sleeper.” This is not necessarily the case. Good sleep habits can actually be trained. My husband was a horrible sleeper for decades. He just did not know how to fall asleep, so it was difficult and usually took a long time. He finally did some research and found a self-hypnosis recording to play at bedtime that he likes, and his sleep has improved dramatically. Most of us who are “good sleepers” naturally use some of these relaxation or self-hypnosis techniques to fall asleep. Even so, sometimes it is very helpful to have an external voice to focus on, to give us direction and stop the mental chatter.
- If you wake up and can’t go back to sleep in 20 minutes, go do something else.
Sometimes you can’t go back to sleep no matter what you do. Your baby might be turning somersaults, or you just can’t get that big project off your mind. If you have tried going back to sleep using relaxation techniques and such for 20 minutes and are still awake, get up and leave the bedroom. Do something relaxing somewhere not in bed. Staying in bed will create an association in your mind of NOT sleeping when you get in bed, which is the last thing you want. So go do something else. Just follow a few guidelines when you get up in the middle of the night to do something else:
- Stay calm
Don’t do something active or something you find exciting. That may create a habit of waking up. Once, when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about a project I was excited about, I made the mistake of working on it at 4 am. Not only did I not have any desire to go back to bed that night, but my brain woke me up again at the same time the next night, thinking I would reward myself by doing something I enjoy. It took a few nights to break myself of this very quickly-formed habit. The only exceptions to this might be doing housework or dishes in the middle of the night if you usually hate doing it, or finishing a project that is due soon and the worry is consuming your thinking. Housework at night tends to make me tired again in a hurry, and making progress on the project I am worried about usually helps me relax.
- Keep the lights dim
You WANT to get tired and go back to bed, so follow the same rules about lights and screens that you would before bed.
- If you are hungry, eat light
Again, follow the same guidelines you would regarding eating right before going to bed. It can be hard to sleep when you are hungry, though, so eating a banana or other light snack can be helpful.
- When you feel sleepy, go back to bed
When your body again starts to signal that you are feeling tired, respond right away by going back to bed. This makes it easier to fall asleep in the moment, and builds a positive habit.
- Stay calm
So many things can effect our sleep, that it might seem overwhelming to do it all. Fortunately, just 1 or 2 small changes can make a difference right away, so pick a few tips to start with, and build the other habits over time.
Let me know: have you had trouble with sleep during pregnancy, and what 1 or 2 things do you plan to do differently tonight so you can sleep better?