Everything You Need to Know About Sleeping Safe and Soundly While Pregnant

Photo: Getty Images/Drazen
The day I found out I was pregnant was also the day I stopped sleeping on my stomach. I was a mere four weeks into my pregnancy (exciting! terrifying!), according to the three apps I immediately downloaded, and my baby was the size of a poppyseed. But still, I told myself, I should probably stop sleeping on my stomach, because that can't be the best (or even a recommended) sleeping position in pregnancy, right?

In fact, “when to stop sleeping on stomach” became one of my most-googled phrases for the first, oh, 22 weeks of my pregnancy. Other searches giving my browser a workout for the duration of my 39-week adventure included “pregnancy + crazy dreams,” “pregnancy + insane dreams,” “pregnancy + leg cramps during sleep,” “does labor hurt more than pregnancy leg cramps during sleep?” and “best pregnancy pillows.”

As you may have surmised by this point, I was having trouble sleeping—and I was confused as to why. That confusion was due in large part to my previous 33 years of being a relatively good sleeper. Most nights I’d fall asleep within 10 minutes of closing my eyes, and I’d stay soundly asleep until sometime around sunrise. But during pregnancy, even the notion of my formerly very real dreams transformed into not much more than mere pipe dreams.

Experts say there are many snooze-compromising components beyond the best sleeping position for pregnancy that expectant mothers face.

Between the wild dreams, the forced side-position sleeping, and constantly waking up to pee, everyone’s advice to “sleep now, before the baby comes” felt like an especially cruel suggestion. And I wasn’t alone: Experts say there are many snooze-compromising components beyond the best sleeping position for pregnancy that expectant mothers face.

That said, I might be an outlier in terms of my troubles sleeping in that first trimester. In fact, According to Kristin Mallon, certified nurse midwife, most women are able to maintain their normal sleep habits throughout the first trimester and some actually sleep better thanks to an increase in progesterone and general fatigue. Still, Mallon says, some women in their first trimester do report difficulty sleeping, insomnia. "As women adjust to high levels of circulating progesterone, their sleepiness wears off, and they can actually have a heightened nervous system,” she says. Insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety can increase as the pregnancy progresses, and by the second and third trimester, the majority of women may be affected by sleep issues, which often relate to abdominal upset, diarrhea, frequent urination, muscle aches and pains, the baby moving, muscle and leg cramps, and heartburn.

Well, at least I was in good company, right? To that point, outlined below are questions and concerns about sleep and pregnancy I wish I had answers to when I was navigating my situation firsthand.

Check out 5 concerns about snoozing while expecting that go beyond "the best sleeping position in pregnancy."

1. When do I have to stop sleeping on my stomach? And wait, I can’t sleep on my back?!

I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep on my stomach once I had a big belly. I did not, however, realize there was any issue with back-sleeping. “That’s because of something called vena cava compression syndrome," Mallon says. "When the weight of your belly compresses the large vein that returns blood to your heart for oxygenation, you will feel it in the form of shortness of breath, dizziness, or lightheadedness. But if you can lie on your back and don’t have any dizziness, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness, you can most likely lie on your back no problem.” As always, consult your doctor here.

Most women can continue sleeping on their backs through the 20-week mark in pregnancy, according to the Cleveland Clinic, since the pregnancy is still below or at the belly button level and not big enough to cause compression. After 20 weeks, Mallon recommends talking to your OB/GYN about finding a wedge or tilt to keep you comfortable for the duration of your pregnancy.

2. I went to sleep on my side, like my doctor recommended, but I woke up on my back. Is that bad?

Side sleeping with the knees bent is regarded by the American Pregnancy Association as the best sleeping position in pregnancy for lack of compression, especially laying on the left side, which is noted to increase blood and nutrients to the placenta and baby.

Side sleeping on the left side with the knees bent is regarded by the American Pregnancy Association as the best sleeping position.

That said, sleep specialist and psychologist Shelby Harris, PsyD, suggests not obsessing about changes in position, noting that it's natural to move around during sleep. “When you wake up, just move back to the side position,” she says.

3. Seriously, what’s up with those pregnancy dreams?

Not everyone has blockbuster-worthy dreams every night of their pregnancy. “Dreams are different for each woman,” Mallon says. “Some report more vivid dreams, while others report not dreaming, and some have nightmares.”

4. What about those brutal leg cramps?

Anyone can experience middle-of-the-night leg cramps or scream-worthy charley horses, but they’re especially common during pregnancy. “Leg cramps come from a lack of sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium,” Mallon says. “The best way to combat this is with supplementation.”

See your doctor for guidance on what to take, and ask about getting your iron levels checked.

5. How to actually sleep better during pregnancy

Just because you have a growing belly doesn’t mean you’re destined to enter parenthood in a sleep-deprived state. With most OTC sleep aids off the table, both Dr. Harris and Mallon swear by natural remedies to keep the REM cycles in action.

Dr. Harris suggests eating well throughout the day to keep your blood sugar in check and nausea at bay at night in addition to limiting caffeine, which can disrupt nighttime sleep—pregnant or not. She also advocates exercise during pregnancy (with your doctor’s permission), but not too close to bedtime. And if you find yourself snoring during pregnancy, Dr. Harris says to get evaluated. “Research has noted an increase in obstructive sleep apnea in pregnant women,” she says, adding that the condition can lead to pregnancy and birth complications.

On the holistic front, Mallon recommends meditating within 15 minutes of waking and for 10 to 15 minutes in the afternoon, before you start to get fatigued. She also suggests the Tim Ferriss-approved nighttime cocktail (not too close to bedtime, though!) of a heated mix of 2 Tbsp of raw honey with 2 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar.

Finally, Dr. Harris says, “work on your worries.” If it’s the stress of having a baby that’s keeping you up at night, consider joining a community pregnancy group or enrolling in childbirth and parenting classes. “Knowledge is power, and you might get to meet new people who are in the same situation and can understand what you’re going through,” she says.

Now that you're set with the best sleeping position in pregnancy, here's what your go-to snooze-time pose says about you. Plus, experts explain the significance of different sleeping positions for couples.

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