Is it safe to sleep on your back when you’re pregnant?

New evidence suggests that sleeping on your back could increase your risk of a stillbirth. Here's the facts

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Going to sleep on your back during the last 3 months of your pregnancy may increase your risk of having a stillbirth, research suggests. But the risk of stillbirth is still very small.

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The UK MiNESS study, conducted by the Tommy’s stillbirth research team in Manchester and published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG) confirms the findings from smaller studies carried out at the University of Auckland, New Zealand – and found that going to sleep supine (lying on your back) can double your overall risk of late stillbirth (after 28 weeks of pregnancy), independent of other common stillbirth risk factors.

Here at MFM HQ, we think this research is important – but we also know that statistics about increasing the risk of stillbirth can sound scary and, maybe, a little confusing. So, before you start to panic, here’s what you need to know about this new study…

What’s so bad about sleeping on your back when you’re pregnant?

“When you lie on your back in late pregnancy,” explains Professor Lesley McGowan, study leader of the New Zealand research team, “the weight of your pregnant uterus compresses a big vein in your abdomen called the inferior vena cava, and that reduces the blood going back to your heart, and it reduces the blood supply going to your womb.”

What is the risk of having a stillbirth?

The risk of your baby being stillborn is fairly small: according to the NHS, 1 in 200 UK births ends with a stillbirth.

Obviously, a stillbirth can happen for all sorts of reasons, and, sometimes, there’s just nothing anyone can do, or could have done, to prevent it. (In almost half of cases, for example, the cause is related to an issue with the placenta where it stops functioning correctly.)

But if simply changing the position you sleep om could help to prevent your own risk of having a stillbirth from increasing, we reckon that’s worth knowing, right?

What side should I sleep on then?

It’s long been recommended that you sleep on your left side when you’re pregnant – to help increase the amount of blood and nutrients that reach the placenta and your baby.

And, indeed, a smaller study conducted by the same Auckland research team back in 2011 suggested that lying on your left side as you drift off was the best sleeping position for your unborn baby.

What should I do if I wake up on my back?

Don’t panic! One really important thing to clarify is that the study’s findings refer to the position you go to sleep in, not the position you wake up in.

This is the most important position to consider, say researchers, because it’s where you’ll have the longest, ‘soundest’ sleep on the night.

So, if you go to sleep on your left side, there’s no need to freak out if you find you’ve rolled over on to your back, or to another position, in the middle of the night.

GP Dr Rob Hicks agrees: “Pregnant women may decide to try sleeping on their left side, but should not unduly worry if they wake up and find they have changed position.”

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