When Bed Rest Is Best

Spending part of your pregnancy on your back? What you should know—from getting time off work to getting comfy on the couch.

pregnant woman sleeping
Photo: Piotr Marcinski/shutterstock.com 

Protecting Baby

The thought of lounging in bed all day watching Seinfeld reruns or reading probably sounds like a dream come true: no laundry to wash, no errands to run, no job hassles to think about. But what if you were stuck in that bed for six to eight weeks on doctor's orders? If you're one of the thousands of women put on bed rest every year due to pregnancy complications, staying in the prone position day after day isn't a luxury -- it's a necessity.

"A doctor wants to do everything possible to help a woman deliver a healthy, full-term baby," explains Bruce Flamm, M.D., an ob-gyn in Riverside, California, and a Parents adviser. "If complications arise during pregnancyand we think having the patient spend a few weeks off her feet will help the condition, we'll try it." For women suffering from abnormal bleeding, preterm labor, or incompetent cervix (in which the cervix becomes prematurely dilated), it's simply a matter of gravity: By remaining horizontal as much as possible, you're limiting pressure on the cervix. For those with preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure), lack of exertion can help stabilize the condition. Bed rest may also be prescribed if you've had a previous miscarriage or premature delivery, if you're carrying multiples, or if you have a high-risk condition such as placenta previa (in which the placenta covers the cervical opening).

Putting Your Feet Up

How long you'll be laid up can vary from one week to a few months, and the need for rest can arise at any time. "Most often, the need increases as the due date gets closer," Dr. Flamm explains. "But for some conditions, such as an incompetent cervix, a woman is at greatest risk for complications during her second trimester. Once she reaches the third trimester, the risk is reduced, and she may be able to go back to her normal life."

If your doctor does suggest bed rest, don't automatically assume it means constantly staying flat on your back. "There are different levels of rest -- it's up to a woman and her doctor to determine what's right for her," Dr. Flamm says. Though some women must remain completely in bed, most patients are told simply to stay off their feet as much as possible and not to carry heavy loads or climb too many stairs. "It's vital to find out what your bed rest entails," says Candace Hurley, cofounder and executive director of Sidelines, a national support group that connects women on bed rest with phone or e-mail buddies. "Can you drive? Cook a meal? Walk to the mailbox? Get specific answers."

Survival Strategies

Being on bed rest can be a drag, but there are ways to make the best of the situation. Here's how.

  • Try a new point of view. If your doctor approves, split your time between your living room and your bedroom. Or try what Leslie Josel, of Larchmont, New York, did: "I used my couch pillows on my bed during the day. It helped me feel like I had changed locations."
  • Find child care. If you already have a child, bed rest can be especially difficult because your little one won't understand why Mommy can't take him to the playground or give him piggyback rides. Your best bet: Enroll him in day care, hire a sitter, or enlist family and friends to help.
  • Get organized. Put a table next to your bed or couch, and arrange everything you need on it. Annie Mondell-Richard, of Baltimore, set up a cooler filled with food and drinks. She also kept books, a CD player, photo albums, a laptop computer, and a phone within reach.
  • Keep moving. If your doctor approves, do simple exercises in bed, such as leg lifts or neck circles, or take short walks around your house. "I tell my patients to wiggle their toes and move their legs several times an hour to keep their blood flowing," Dr. Flamm says.
  • Go online. Find sites with message boards, like www.parents.com, so you can connect with other expecting moms; or log on to www.sidelines.org to learn how other women cope with bed rest.
  • Try something new. Start scrapbooking, take up knitting, or keep a pregnancy journal.
  • Don't act like you're sick. Get out of your PJs and into regular clothes every day, or put on makeup and jewelry. Dahn Burke, of Potomac, Maryland, had her hairdresser make house calls during her nine weeks of rest.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. "Remind yourself that you're doing this for your child," Dr. Flamm says. "And while it may be frustrating now, the payoff -- a healthy baby -- is well worth it."

What About My Job?

First and foremost, talk with your doctor: "Find out if it's possible to work reduced hours or if telecommuting is an option," says Ellen Bravo, director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. "Having work to focus on may be the thing that keeps you from going nuts."

If that isn't an option, speak with your human-resources department. Does your company have short-term medical disability? Can you use up your vacation and sick time? Another option: Most employees are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year under the Family and Medical Leave Act. But be warned: "Depending on your company's leave policy, it may count against the amount of time you can take off after you give birth," Bravo explains. To find out more, contact 9 to 5, the National Partnership on Women and Families, the women's bureau at the Department of Labor, or your state's labor department.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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