According to a new study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, poor sleep quality and quantity during pregnancy can disrupt normal immune processes and lead to lower birth weights and other complications.
Women with depressionare also more likely than non-depressed women to suffer from disturbed sleep and to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and low birth weights.
The good news, says the paper’s lead author Michele Okun, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is that we can prevent these outcomes by focusing on good sleep habits early in pregnancy.
Here, we ask Dr. Okun about the relationship between sleep and healthy pregnancy, and what pregnant women can do to ensure the best sleep possible.
Q: Pregnancy and sleep don’t exactly seem to go hand-in-hand. Can you explain to our readers what happens to sleep during pregnancy?
A: One of the main reasons expectant mothers have trouble sleeping is that they can’t find a comfortable position, or can no longer sleep on their stomachs as the size of the fetus grows. Many women also experience an increased heart rate (heart rate increases during pregnancy to increase blood flow), shortness of breath (an increase in pregnancy hormones will cause you to breathe more deeply), a frequent urge to urinate (due to your kidneys working harder and increased pressure on your bladder), and/or leg cramps, back aches, constipation, or heartburn, all of which can keep you up at night. Some women also report having very vivid dreams or nightmares that can make a good night’s sleep more challenging. Plus, stress can play a role, too, such as anxiety about becoming a parent or worrying about your child’s health.
Q: Those are a lot of factors that can disrupt sleep. I know sleep quality and quantity are important for all people, pregnant or not, and male or female. But why is sleep important to pregnant women in particular?
A: There is a dynamic relationship between sleep and the immune system – this is true for all people, but as part of normal pregnancy adaptations, the immune system shifts to protect the growing fetus. As a result the mother is susceptible to viral infections. Poor sleep and or depression in early pregnancy can promote chronic inflammation which can undermine antiviral defenses. Hence, the mother may be at a further increased risk of serious illness if she is exposed to say the flu.
A good night’s sleep however helps to lower the risk of pregnancy-related complications such as pre-term birth and low birth weights.
Q: So what can pregnant women do to ensure a better night’s sleep?
A: Avoid all alcohol and nicotine, both of which can harm your baby and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Nicotine is a stimulant so it can keep you up, and while alcohol may make you sleepy at first, it tends to disrupt sleep and make you restless.
While experts say that pregnant women can consume up to 200 milligrams of caffeine per day, it’s important to limit caffeine in the afternoon and evenings to avoid sleep problems later at night. Women can also drink more fluids during the day and less in the evenings in order to reduce trips to the bathroom during the middle of the night.
Women can also avoid heavy and spicy meals close to bedtime to avoid indigestion, though having a light snack before bed can help to avoid morning sickness.
For additional information on getting a restful night’s sleep, click here.