The Best Way to Sleep After Giving Birth

Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea after pregnancy are common, but research shows that there is an ideal postpartum sleep position that can help you breathe easy at night.

mother with sleeping newborn
Photo: Natalia Deriabina/Shutterstock

The one thing every new parent worries about (besides the health and well-being of their new baby)? Sleep! Specifically, how to get more of it. Getting decent shuteye is a huge concern for most parents as soon as a newborn enters the picture. And often, it's not just the new baby keeping them up—insomnia, snoring, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless leg syndrome, night sweats, and other sleep issues are common during the postpartum period.

However, there are things you can do to improve your postpartum sleep, particularly if you struggle with OSA or snoring. Learn more about why getting restful sleep may be more challenging after giving birth and discover the postpartum sleep position that can help.

Sleep Challenges During the Postpartum Period

Of course, caring for your newborn, particularly feeding and changing their diapers during the night, makes getting solid sleep a challenge for any new parent. However, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, sleep problems, such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome are more common during the postpartum period. These issues happen for a variety of reasons.

The body also goes through immense changes after giving birth that make getting adequate rest difficult. Your body is recovering from labor and delivery and acclimating to no longer being pregnant. Fluid and hormone levels, including estrogen, progesterone, and melatonin, change rapidly, which impacts your natural circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle as well as mood and appetite. This means even when you can finally rest at night, you might not be tired or able to fall or stay asleep.

Emotional changes and stress can also keep you up. Plus, studies show that poor postpartum sleep quality is associated with postpartum depression (PPD), making it all the more crucial to tackle sleep problems before they impact your mental health.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea After Pregnancy

Sleep-disordered breathing, which includes snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, is a common issue during pregnancy and into the postpartum period. This problem is more common in those who are overweight or obese. Changing hormone levels also inhibit airway muscles and increasing abdominal volume puts pressure on the airway. For most people, this issue simply disrupts sleep, but occasionally, it can become more serious.

While extremely rare, a significant number of pregnancy-related maternal deaths are speculated to be caused by sleep apnea-related cardiac problems. And the use of anesthesia during delivery seems to put people who have given birth at greater risk, as does having a C-section and using opioids for post-delivery pain.

Besides the obviously scary consequence of thwarted breathing, OSA is also associated with fatigue and insomnia (which is particularly challenging when a new baby gives you such little time to sleep anyway).

"If you wake up many times an hour because the airway collapses, then you're fatigued in the morning," says Matthias Eikermanm, M.D., Ph.D., clinical director of the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care, and Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He adds that as the quality of sleep decreases, cognitive function is impaired, as well as your energy level.

The Best Postpartum Sleep Position

While you should aim to get sleep however you are able, findings from a study led by Dr. Eikermann suggest that there is a particular postpartum sleep position that can help people slumber easier and safer. Researchers measured how people who had just given birth breathed during the first 48 hours after delivery, observing their airflow and the size of the airway in three different positions: seated, at a 45-degree angle, and lying down.

The doctors discovered that the diameter of the participants' upper respiratory tract increased when they moved from lying flat to being propped up 45 degrees. "That translates to improved quality of breathing," says Dr. Eikermann. If you suspect that breathing difficulties might be affecting your sleep after giving birth, consider changing positions.

Of course, if you are experiencing difficulty breathing during sleep, be sure to check in with a health care provider to rule out more serious concerns.

How to Sleep After Giving Birth

The key to breathing and sleeping easier after birth? Lift your upper body. "The intervention of elevated body position cured sleep apnea in half of the mothers," notes Dr. Eikermann, referencing the new parents who had moderate to severe OSA. This 50% improvement has huge implications, especially considering this cure is simple and free.

"A couple of pillows should be sufficient to increase the upper body position," he says, noting that the cushions should be neatly stacked on top of each other under the shoulder blades and chest to elevate the entire upper body, not just the head. People who have just given birth should sleep in this inclined position for at least three days after delivery, as this is when they are at increased risk for problems.

So grab some pillows, prop yourself up, and rest easy!

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  1. The effect of sleep pattern changes on postpartum depressive symptoms. BMC Womens Health. 2018.

  2. Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Pregnant Women: A Review of Pregnancy Outcomes and an Approach to Management. Anesth Analg. 2018.

  3. Elevated upper body position improves pregnancy-related OSA without impairing sleep quality or sleep architecture early after delivery. Chest. 2015.

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