You spend about a third of your life sleeping. If you are fortunate enough to make it to the ripe old age of 90, that’s 30 years asleep! Unless you are a parent. Take off a couple years worth for each kid, and another few months if you were the one who carried and nursed the baby. Sleep, of course, is a hot topic among new parents- maybe the hottest. It starts in pregnancy due to a combination of hormones, stress, and a little one pressing on body parts you didn’t know you had. Here are some tips for getting better rest while you await the birth of your sleep destroyer...er, I mean bundle of joy.
Get comfortable. Many moms come to my class lamenting the need to let go of sleeping on their backs because “you’re not supposed to during pregnancy.” Most of the time, they have no idea why. The reason is compression of the inferior vena cava, responsible for blood return from the lower to upper half of the body. However, this doesn’t apply to every mom and certainly not in all stages of pregnancy. Most moms are fine on their backs in the first trimester, second trimester is a mixed bag, and by the third most (but not all) moms will need to find another way to rest. How do you know if this rule applies to you? Fortunately, your body will tell you by making you short of breath, nauseous, dizzy, or light-headed. Yet another argument in favor of listening to your own body first and foremost. No need to wake up on your back freaking out that you did something wrong! If you are in the group that should not lay supine, an adjustment as subtle as putting a wedge under one side of your back to give you a bit of a sideways tilt may do the trick.
What if back sleeping is not your issue? Perhaps you’ve always been a side sleeper and now it’s no longer comfortable. Pregnancy pillows are useful for many. Some come in special shapes to support legs, belly, and head with one pillow. If you have tried a pregnancy pillow and it just doesn’t work for you, something a little more dense like a yoga bolster may serve you better. Check around your house- perhaps you have a removable couch cushion that has that same level of firmness. I recommend extending the bottom leg, turning slightly towards the bed, and resting the top arm and leg on the cushion/ bolster. The top knee should be level with or slightly above the hip, and the lower leg and foot should be supported, too.
If you are a tummy sleeper, there is good news for you, too! Try inflating two kiddie pool rings about halfway, stacking them, along with pillows in front and in back, then placing your belly inside the ring. Keeping the valves to the outside will allow you to let out a bit of air as necessary to find your desired firmness. You can also use a breastfeeding pillow, such as a “Boppy” and nestle your belly in the center.
Bottom line, trial and error- play with your pillows until you find the right “nest.” Sometimes a tweak as simple as sticking a rolled up blanket under the belly will do the trick.
Put down that phone! Screen time, particularly before bed, has shown to negatively impact the quality of sleep, interfering with the body’s circadian rhythms. Put your mobile devices aside and turn off the TV. Instead, spend the hour before bed winding down. Taking a warm bath, connecting with your partner, or reading (an “old-fashioned” paper book) are simple ways to transition healthfully to sleep.
Go outside first thing in the morning. One of the most effective tricks for me personally when I was pregnant with my son and suffering from middle of the night wakefulness was suggested to me by my chiropractor, Dr. Kate Fox. She suggested I step outside first thing in the morning, as soon as I woke up, for just a few minutes. In just two days, I noticed being more alert during the day and much more restful at night. This exposure to natural light supports the body’s circadian rhythms.
Increase movement. Human bodies were designed to move! In our sedentary culture, this point is often lost. If your job requires you to sit most of the day, your body may not be getting enough movement to tire your body out at the same rate of tiring your mind. Find ways to bring more movement into your day and make a walk an essential part of your lunch break. Walking has shown to provide stress relief, as well. Plus, spending more time outside in general may be good for sleep with the fresh air and natural light supporting those circadian rhythms. (See past blog post Get Moving! Even at Work for more ideas to beat sedentarism.)
Be consistent. Going to bed and getting up around the same time each day helps to set those bodily rhythms. Sleeping in on the weekends to try to catch up may actually hinder your rest in the long run. Pregnancy is a good time to establish routines- your baby will thrive on routine, as well. That doesn't mean canceling every single fun night out. Just keep in mind that it may affect your sleep and consider it when making plans. Sometimes it's worth it, other times, better to say farewell and head home early.
Herbal support. Herblore makes a number of tinctures to support healthy sleep in varying strengths that are all safe for pregnancy and postpartum.* Owner and herbalist, Pam Caldwell, is available by phone or email for those who have questions about what may be the best fit for their situation. If you are local, we carry Herblore products at Blossom. *Be sure to consult with your doctor or midwife as well, to be sure that you do not have a medical issue that would make any herbal remedies contraindicated. (A gentle reminder that herbal and or over-the-counter products should not be assumed safe in pregnancy or postpartum.)
Mindfulness meditation. If a racing mind is the thing keeping you from drifting off, a meditation practice may help. As you lay in bed, bring your focus to the breath. Every time your mind wanders, return your attention to the breath. You may try the body scan, as described by Jon Kabat Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living: Imagine breathing in and out of your toes a few times, then move to your ankles, then up your legs, and so on up through the entire body. If your mind wanders, guide it back to breath and continue. Chances are you will be asleep before you finish. Mindfulness meditation during your day, even just a couple of minutes, will make it easier and more effective at night, and will bring stress relief. And lowering stress, of course, benefits your sleep.
Write it down. Another idea to help combat racing thoughts in the middle of the night is to bring a notebook to bed. When those thoughts keep you up, without turning on the light or sitting up, write those thoughts down. It doesn’t need to be legible- the act of writing it is a way of getting the thoughts to leave your body.
Practice yoga regularly. There have been numerous studies done showing that yoga and mindfulness meditation have a positive impact on sleep. A small, pilot study researching the effects of yoga on sleep during pregnancy showed that there were improved outcomes for women who started the practice in the second trimester and concluded that it was worth researching further.
Studies aside, many of my students have reported sleeping better on the nights after they have been to class. Years ago, I taught a childbirth prep series in which I presented a short yoga practice on the evening we discussed nutrition and exercise. One of the dads, having never practiced yoga before, joked about it during the movements. The next day I received an apology from him in my inbox, noting it was the best night of sleep he had had in months!
Just a few minutes of practice before bed may help a mom feel more settled and ready for sleep, particularly if there are tight, achy body parts that keep her awake at night. Night leg cramps are a common sleep disrupter- most of my students suffering from leg cramps have reported the cramps are absent on the nights they do our calf stretch before climbing into bed. I recommend a short practice including cat/ cow (pelvic rocking on hands and knees), adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), balasana (child’s pose), and any other pose that feels good in the moment. Poses should be practiced in a slow, gentle manner. (Save the vigorous vinyasa flow for the morning.)
Quality sleep is critical during pregnancy for the health and well-being of both mom and baby. If it is proving to be challenging for you, these tips should bring you closer to good nights of rest. For some, it takes practicing a number of them together to do the trick. Keep at it- it’s worth every effort to get the restful night you and your baby deserve!
What worked for you in pregnancy to get a better night’s rest? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.