Easy Solutions For Better Pregnancy Sleep

You need sleep, but your burgeoning belly didn't get the memo. Snooze comfortably with these bedtime solutions.
Ericka McConnell

You knew sleepless nights would be a big part of the new-mom deal, but you didn't expect them to begin before your baby was born. What with that boulder that used to be your stomach, the nocturnal kicking, and bathroom runs, it's a miracle expectant women catch any solid shut-eye. Fluctuating hormones can also interfere with your natural snooze rhythm. "They're the reason women in general have a harder time sleeping than men do," says Carol Ash, M.D., an internist in Jamesburg, New Jersey. Fortunately, you don't have to slog through your final months of pregnancy in exhaustion. All the help you need to feel energized is right here.

Sleep Snag: A Growing Belly Bump
Toss, turn, toss, turn: Sound familiar? With your oversize middle, it can be tough to find a comfortable sleep position, especially as you near labor day. Snoozing on your left side is best, because it increases the amount of blood and nutrients going to the baby. "In your third trimester, you won't be able to sleep on your back," notes Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D., a psychologist and director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at Montefiore Sleep-Wake Disorders Center, in New York City. That's because the weight of the baby can compress the vena cava, the vein that transports blood to your heart.

The Fix: "It helps if you try different positions," Harris says. If you wake and find you've reverted to your back, change your position. "I tried lying on my side, but my arms would fall asleep," recalls Jennifer Johnson, of Olathe, Kansas. The couch wasn't comfortable either. Finally, her husband pulled a recliner into the bedroom. Johnson would lie back slightly with her feet up, and her arms and hands elevated with pillows. "Oh, man, what a good night's sleep I finally got!" she says. (Bonus: It also alleviated her heartburn.) No furniture to spare? Add pillows. While you're on your side, tuck a pillow between your knees. This will align your legs and spine, potentially easing pressure on the sciatic nerve, which often troubles moms-to-be. Or wrap yourself around a big body pillow to support your ballooning abdomen and reduce strain on your muscles.

Sleep Snag: A Space-Hogging Baby
The larger your baby gets, the less room remains for vital organs -- you know, like your bladder and lungs.

The Fix: "You want to stay hydrated, but avoid liquids about three hours before bed," Dr. Ash says. If you do a toilet run, use a night-light. Research shows that exposure to even a few seconds of bright light triggers your brain to be alert, keeps you up, and makes it hard to get back to sleep. If you feel short of breath when you're lying down, prop yourself up with pillows to ease the pressure on your lungs. Better now?

Sleep Snag: Too Much Going On
Physical discomfort isn't the only challenge here. A major change is coming, and your brain may be one never-ending to-do list.

The Fix: The more you take care of, the more in control and calm you'll feel, so harness your nesting instincts. Keep track of all you need to get done, delegate what you can, and chip away at the rest, tackling a bit each day.

Sleep Snag: A GI system that's gone totally wild
By the second trimester, even though queasiness usually subsides, acid reflux (and the resulting feeling of heartburn) may leave a calling card. The reason for the discomfort: Your growing baby presses against your stomach, forcing acid up into your throat. Meanwhile, your hormones are skyrocketing, which can loosen the muscles between your stomach and esophagus, allowing acid to leak. Lovely.

The Fix: Consider breaking up your usual three meals into six smaller ones throughout the day, and be especially careful to avoid large meals before bed to give your body time to digest food. Whenever you chow, take time to savor it. Crave an evening snack? Makes yours a doze-inducing one. Protein-rich foods, such as dairy, peanut butter, and eggs, contain tryptophan, which can make you sleepy. Pair one with a healthy carb to help carry the protein to your brain. Tasty combos: a few crackers with reduced-fat cheese, a whole-grain granola bar with a glass of skim milk, or peanut butter on whole-wheat toast. Other body blips keeping you up at night?

Mom-To-Be Sleep Problems

"I don't ever wake up refreshed."

Rachelle Willgren, of Blanco, Texas, says she spends nine hours in bed each night, so why is she zonked? "I get up a couple of times to pee and I can't fall back to sleep," says Willgren, who is six months pregnant. If her bladder doesn't rouse her, hip pain or heartburn does. By afternoon, she's dying for a nap!

The Doc Says: Willgren's wake-ups are due to the pressure the baby puts on her belly and bladder, says Louise O'Brien, Ph.D., associate professor of the University of Michigan Health System's Sleep Disorders Center. As for Willgren's hip discomfort, ligaments that support the uterus can stretch when you roll over or cough. Ouch!

Sleep Makeover:

Get Support
Maternity bands support a growing belly. Wearing one during the day takes stress off your back, groin, and middle so you're less achy at bedtime.

Use Extra Pillows
To ease pressure on your hips when trying to sleep on your side, place a body pillow between your legs.

Watch Your Diet
Eat small, mild meals to prevent fullness and the pain of reflux. Pass on the caffeine -- it can make you pee.

Snooze Success: "Using the maternity band during the day and body pillow at night made a big difference in my hip pain," Willgren says. "I'm much comfier now." Relegating spicy food to lunch helped her heartburn. "I'm finally starting to feel rested!"

"I'm tired, but I can't fall asleep."

"I crash on the couch the moment I get home from work," says Fay Schulgasser, of Teaneck, New Jersey, who is six months pregnant. "I can't move for at least an hour." Eventually, she gets up and gets going again. "Right before bed, I'm cleaning," she admits. Then when the expectant mom turns in at 11 p.m., she lies awake and can't drift off.

The Doc Says: "Bedtime routines are as important for adults as they are for children," explains Robert Oexman, D.C., director of the Sleep to Live Institute, in Joplin, Missouri. The same things that help kids unwind -- a warm bath, soft lighting, reading -- work for grown-ups. "Your body needs at least 30 minutes to relax and prep for sleep," Dr. Oexman says.

Sleep Makeover:

Attack To-Do's Earlier
Physical activity improves sleep quality, but slow down three hours before you turn in to give your body temp time to drop.

Cover the Clock
The light interferes with sleep-inducing melatonin. Plus, watching the minutes tick by makes you even more anxious.

Relax Your Brain and Body
Shift your focus from tomorrow's workday to tonight's zzz's. Starting with your toes, contract and release your muscles.

Snooze Success: "The wind-down ritual worked," reports Schulgasser. Now she has the energy to tick off a few chores when she gets home and then chill. About 30 minutes before bed, she turns off her electronics. "Most nights, I'm out like a light."

Originally published in American Baby magazine in 2013.

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American Baby


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