Insomnia in pregnancy

Insomnia is a common complaint among pregnant women, affecting them in all trimesters. But what causes sleeplessness? And how can it be resolved?

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During pregnancy, we often hear things like “sleep as much as you can, before the baby gets here”.

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It’s a lovely, almost glorious idea in theory – but if you’re one of the many expectant women suffering from pregnancy insomnia? No such luck!

Chronic sleeplessness can occur at any time during your pregnancy, and has loads of possible causes. Let’s dig in to what it is, who gets affected and if you can get rid of it…

What causes pregnancy insomnia?

“It’s due to a combination of physiological and emotional reasons,” says midwife Mervi Jokinen from the Royal College of Midwives.

“On a physical level, there are many hormonal changes taking place that cause sleeplessness. Plus there’s the discomfort factor in the later months.

“And many women can feel anxious in pregnancy, which hinders sleep. Lastly, certain lifestyle factors – like what we eat and drink – play their part.”

The most common reasons for lack of sleep that pregnant women cite are: restlessness, discomfort, leg cramps, needing the toilet, heartburn, worry, bad dreams, getting to sleep fine but then waking up and not being able to get back to sleep.

When does pregnancy insomnia occur?

On the MFM forum, several expectant mums said they experienced insomnia around week 7-9 in early pregnancy, and then around weeks 27-28 and then again in the weeks before their due date. 

Those aren’t set dates though; it really can just come and go. 

I’m only in early pregnancy – why can’t I sleep?

“One of the first symptoms of pregnancy can be the need to urinate more than usual,” says Mervi.

“This is due to hormonal changes, plus your growing womb which presses on your bladder. So at the beginning of your pregnancy, simply needing to use the toilet more often can cause you to wake in the night.”

Many of our mums seem to be know that feeling…

“I can get to sleep fine, but I wake up to go to the toilet at around 4am and I just can”t get back to sleep. My mind is whirring and I just can’t seem to shut it down!!” says Ruth. 

And Lottie1988, who added: “I’m 7 weeks and like clockwork every morning I’m up at 3am!!

“Needing a wee then not being able to get back off to sleep after – it’s tossing and turning until I wake up for work at half 6!”

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I’m actually really exhausted but I still can’t sleep – why?

There’s nothing more frustrating than being exhausted but unable to sleep, right?

You feel completely shattered all day, have a cheeky snooze on the sofa, but when you finally crawl into bed? Forget about it. It feels like someone’s prying your eyes open. Not even counting sheep will do the trick and send you off to slumberland. 

Mervi says that pregnancy insomnia can sometimes be caused by anxiety or even depression – and this could explain the whole exhausted-but-not-sleeping thing. 

“People are aware of postnatal depression, but many women also suffer from a lesser known condition called antenatal depression, where you worry about the labour or motherhood, or any number of other things, during your pregnancy.”

And one of our mums, Babe33, had another pretty good point: “The thing with insomnia is it becomes a vicious cycle.”

“The more you can’t sleep, the more anxious you get about how tired you’re getting, which stops you from sleeping.”

What can I do to help myself fall asleep?

Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dry cure for insomnia, but there are things you can try, 

Getting into a calm, measured bedtime routine can sometimes help, like trying to eat earlier in the evening to allow your body to digest.

A little activity might not hurt your chances of a decent kip, so give some gentle exercise like going for a walk or doing some stretching a go.

Make it a rule to banish the technology from the bedroom – or at least avoid looking at your phone, iPad, laptop or even TV in the hours before bedtime as studies show the lights emitted by them suppress sleep hormones. 

There might also be little home remedies and tricks that work just for you. One of our MFM team has a slow breathing trick she uses when she can’t nod off (in for four, out for four, in for seven, out for seven, in for eight, out for eight, in for four, out for four) – because the rhythm of it instantly makes her sleepy.

“One thing I found that was good is a cream called “Little Me Mum To Be” from Boots,” says MFMer Naomi. “It’s lavender scented and when I was suffering from insomnia I rubbed it on my tummy and the smell helped me doze off.”

Warm baths, scents or sounds that relax you, wearing headphones, anything you think might suit you – give it a go.

Can my diet affect my sleep during pregnancy?

Possibly 🤔

Caffeine affects sleep – so make sure your last caffeinated drink is before lunchtime. Some mums-to-be switch to decaf completely during pregnancy (even though coffee is still OK in moderation). Remember that green tea, regular tea, cola drinks and chocolate (sadly) contain caffeine, too.

Sugar can also raise your blood sugar and make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. 

Mum-to-be Rebecca says: “A friend who is a doctor told me to check my blood sugar, because high blood sugar can cause nighttime bathroom trips. It was a little bit high because I tend to eat sweets in the evening. When I stopped eating sweets after dinner, I slept like a baby right through my pregnancy.”

Advice says to try and avoid large or spicy meals too close to bedtime either. In the last few months of pregnancy, your baby is pressing against your stomach, which can cause indigestion and heartburn. Smaller, more frequent portions may be worth a try.

If you do get heartburn, try sleeping with your head propped up a bit. If it gets bad, you can take some Gaviscon to ease the discomfort.

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Is the size of my bump stopping me from sleeping?

From week 28 and into your 3rd trimester, your body’s centre of gravity shifts forward and can affect your sleep.

As your baby gets bigger, sleeping can be a logistical nightmare as you struggle to get comfortable. Sleeping on your back in the later stages of pregnancy isn’t advised, and if you’re not used to dozing off on your side it can make sleep even harder.

There are a few ways to remedy this, though. First up, invest in a pregnancy pillow to support your growing bump.

“Even a couple of regular spare pillows will do,” says Mervi, who advises putting one between your legs and under your bump.

“Keep your legs and knees bent. Try sleeping on your left side as this is known to increase the amount of blood and nutrients getting to your placenta and baby.”

If you’re feeling more restless than uncomfortable, you may be suffering from restless leg syndrome (RLS), another common complaint among pregnant women. If so, try upping your iron intake and drinking some nettle tea. And don’t worry, for most women, RLS will vanish after giving birth.

Have your say

Did you have insomnia during pregnancy – or are you going through it now? What tricks and tips work for you? Let us know in the comments below!

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