Updated on October 17th, 2022 // by Katie Griffin
We all go into motherhood knowing that a newborn will bring sleep disruptions. People often remind expecting moms to sleep now, before the baby gets here. But when you’re pregnant, you may discover that sleep isn’t exactly easy to come by now, either! Your body aches and you can’t find a way to get comfortable. Your bladder requires emptying at least once a night. And what’s with the vivid dreams or nightmares once you finally do get to sleep?! Let’s take a look at ways you can help lessen the struggle, from good sleep hygiene to products that can promote comfortable sleeping positions during pregnancy.
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If you’re struggling to sleep, you’re not alone. In fact, most women—one study showed 78%—report sleep disturbances during pregnancy (1). It can start right from the first trimester, when rapidly changing hormones can both make you sleepier and alter your sleep cycles, potentially making your sleep less restful (1). And by the third trimester, you may be dealing with all kinds of physical discomfort: heartburn; frequent urination; leg cramps, or restless legs syndrome; shortness of breath; Braxton Hicks contractions; or generally finding yourself unable to get comfortable in any of the positions you slept in before pregnancy.
Not only are pregnant moms coming to terms emotionally with their new role as a parent, but they’re coping with rapid changes in hormone levels. As a result, pregnancy is often associated with alterations in mom’s dream state. Vivid, intense dreams are more common, as are nightmares and high-anxiety dreams. This can become a significant obstacle to a peaceful night’s sleep.
On a personal note, when I was pregnant with Baby #5, I went through at least 2 months with consistent nightmares. Each dream involved some end-of-the-world scenario in which I was always searching for my other children to bring them to safety. It was unsettling, to say the least!
One practical way to cope with unnerving pregnancy dreams is to keep a dream journal. This can be as simple as a pad of paper and pen that you keep near your bedside. When you wake from an intense dream, immediately write it down. This exercise can allow the anxious thoughts to flow from your unconscious to your conscious mind, helping to bring greater clarity to any underlying fears or concerns you might have. Process your dreams out loud with your partner or friends, and if necessary, with a licensed therapist.
Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene
While there’s no way to wave a wand and make all of the problems associated with pregnancy sleep go away, there are some ways you can work to improve your sleep. The National Sleep Foundation Recommends practicing good sleep hygiene by adopting the following habits:
- Keep a cool, dark, quiet bedroom and limit the bed to sleeping and sex
- Prioritize sleep and stick to a consistent bedtime, scheduling naps earlier in the day so they don’t interfere with nighttime sleep
- Read a book, take a bath, or try another calming activity in preparation for bedtime
- Use a nightlight to make it easier to get back to sleep after bathroom breaks
- Avoid caffeine, spicy foods, and heavy meals too close to bedtime to reduce the risk of GERD
- Avoid taking technology into the bedroom, and turn off screens at least an hour before bed
- Get regular exercise earlier in the day
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day, but reduce liquid intake before bed to reduce nighttime bathroom breaks
- If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something else until you feel sleepy
- Write down thoughts in your journal, or seek help from your partner, friends, doctor, or childbirth classes if you’re feeling stressed (2)
Thinking Outside the Box
Maybe you’ve seen the above list and tried all of these things, but sleep is still hard to come by. Get creative!
- Sometimes thinking outside the box means sleeping outside the bed. Some women feel pressure to sleep when they lie in bed, or find that their mind races at night. Think about naps, and consider places other than the bed if you need to. If you’ve always found the hum and motion of a car soothing, ask your partner to take you for a long drive in the country, recline your seat a bit (but stay buckled!), and see if you can doze. If you have a hammock, try to grab a little shut-eye to the soothing sounds of the outdoors. (Remember sunscreen if it’s not shaded.)
- Explore sleep stories. There are a number of apps that you can get on your smart phone or computer that offer sleep stories. These are quiet, gentle stories that are intended to help you relax and drift off. While the official “sleep hygiene” recommendation would be to avoid electronics or noise, some people find that their mind races in the quiet and that giving it something easy to half-focus on is what does the trick.
Comfortable Sleeping Positions During Pregnancy
The best way to sleep during pregnancy is on your side. If it’s comfortable for you, sleeping specifically on your left side give the best blood flow to your uterus and kidneys and keeps the pressure off of your liver (3). It’s also okay to sleep on your right side if that’s most comfortable, or if you need to change from side to side. Sleeping with your legs slightly curled will probably be most comfortable.
Avoid Back Sleeping
You should not sleep on your back after week 20, as the weight of your belly and baby will put pressure on the vena cava, a major vein that runs through your back. It’s been my personal pregnancy experience that as my belly grows, sleeping on my back makes me almost instantly light-headed, and I intuitively roll over to my side.
Studies have shown an increase in stillbirth when a woman sleeps on her back (4). The chances are still very small, and you should definitely not panic if you wake up and find that you’ve rolled onto your back. Just know that your back is not the safest way to regularly sleep in the second half of your pregnancy.
Positioning Products for Comfortable Sleep in Pregnancy
Often, women find that as their bodies change, they struggle to maintain a comfortable, restful position when sleeping. Many women find that a pillow or two makes a difference, and that finding just the right pillow arrangement is like hitting the jackpot.
You’ll likely find that there are three areas where many women need support:
- Under your belly. When you lie on your side, you end up slighly pitched forward. Or else you twist your shoulders to try to correct and then your spine is twisted.
- Behind your back. This not only gives your aching lower back some support, it keeps you from rolling onto your back accidentally.
- Between your knees. This straightens your spine and puts your hips in a more natural position.
You can accomplish all of this with regular pillows, but if you’re looking to invest in something new, here are some types you might want to consider: ***Note, we’re not being compensated from Amazon for sharing these links! These are intended for ideas and informational purposes only.***
- A long or curved (U or C-shaped) pregnancy pillow, also called a maternity pillow. For example, the linked product has a review score of 4 1/2 stars on almost 20,000 reviews on Amazon.)
- A wedge pillow to use under your belly if you don’t get a multipurpose pregnancy pillow. (For example, the linked product has 4 1/2 stars on customer reviews on Amazon.)
- A specialized pillow for between your knees. (For example, the linked product has 4 1/2 stars on 12, 000 customer reviews on Amazon.)
As I write this, I’m 38 weeks pregnant with baby #7. My perfect pillow arrangement doesn’t actually involve back support, but I’ll still share it with you 🙂 Here it is:
- I have one very soft, comfortable pillow under my head made from shredded memory foam. Prepregnancy, I’m a die-hard back sleeper, so side-sleeping is a difficult transition for me. In previous pregnancies, I struggled from neck and jaw pain during the months of pregnancy side-sleeping, but the shredded memory foam has been a game-changer for me.
- I have one large, fluffy pillow that I tuck into my belly while I sleep. While side-sleeping, this pillow also acts to support the arm on top of my body.
- I have one thin, firm pillow tucked between my knees. For me, I’ve found that a thin pillow is more comfortable than a thick one and helps decrease any hip pain I may feel during the night.
We’ve all endured the struggle to get a good night’s sleep while pregnant, especially in the third trimester when your body has completely changed. Nearly every pregnant woman has been at the point where she’s tried all she knows to do and sleep is still elusive. Hopefully these tips can ensure that those sleepless nights are few and far between.
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- Hashmi, A. M., Bhatia, S. K., Bhatia, S. K., & Khawaja, I. S. (2016). Insomnia during pregnancy: Diagnosis and Rational Interventions. Pakistan journal of medical sciences, 32(4), 1030–1037. https://doi.org/10.12669/pjms.324.10421
- Pregnancy & Sleep: Tips, Sleep Positions, & issues. (2020, October 30). https://www.sleepfoundation.org/pregnancy
- Problems sleeping during Pregnancy: Medlineplus medical encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000559.htm
- Sleep on side – the research behind the campaign. (n.d.). https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-information/im-pregnant/sleep-side/sleep-side-research-behind-campaign