What’s the safest sleeping position in pregnancy?

Tossing and turning at night is common when you have a growing bump, but why do experts say it's best to avoid sleeping on your back? And is it true it's safest to sleep on your left or right side?

Pregnancy safety - left side best for sleeping

Trying to find a comfy position to fall asleep when you’re pregnant can be a real challenge, especially as your bump grows bigger. It’s no surprise that our sleep suffers during pregnancy. But research shows there is a better side to sleep on, particularly during your third trimester.

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The best pregnancy sleeping position according to the experts…

“The absolute best position to sleep when you’re pregnant is on your left side with a pillow under your bump and another pillow between your knees,” explains midwife Anne Richley. Evidence for this includes a small study conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland, New Zealand in 2011.

Sleeping on your left side is thought to help make sure that plenty of blood and nutrients reach your placenta and baby.

Why shouldn’t you sleep on your back when pregnant?

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

We know that statistics about increasing the risk of stillbirth can sound scary, so it’s important to remember the risk of stillbirth is still very small. According to the NHS, 1 in 200 UK births ends with a stillbirth and a stillbirth can happen for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, there’s just nothing anyone can do, or could have done, to prevent it.

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 other studies carried out by the Auckland researchers – 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.

Pregnant safety - not advised to sleep on your back

“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.”

Midwife Anne Richley agrees with NHS advice that says sleeping on your back after around 16 weeks can be uncomfortable and make you feel faint. Towards the end of pregnancy, as your bump becomes heavy, Anne suggests it might be more comfortable to prop yourself up with pillows so that you are almost in a sitting position. This can also help with pregnancy heartburn.

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

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

The position you fall asleep in is the most important position, say researchers, because it’s where you’ll have the longest, ‘soundest’ sleep on the night.

“Don’t lie awake worrying about what position you should be in or be alarmed if you wake up on your back,” confirms midwife Anne Richley.  “You’ll naturally change position before it causes you or your baby any problems.”

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

Family 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.”

Above all, it’s important not to let disturbed sleep worry you. It won’t harm your baby.

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Is it safe to sleep on your right side?

There is ongoing research into safe sleep positions during pregnancy following the same small 2011 Auckland study which linked lying on your back or right side with an increased risk of stillbirth.

The NHS says the study showed more research was needed and did not conclusively prove that sleeping position affects the risk of stillbirth. The risk of stillbirth is very low, regardless of sleep position.

So how do MFM mums sleep in pregnancy?

“I was a tummy sleeper,” says Luna12, “but as I got bigger in the pregnancy this obviously wasn’t an option, and neither was sleeping on my back. I literally used to flip from side to side with a pillow between my legs supporting my bump. I must have looked very interesting.”

LittleMadam says, “I would consider looking into a dream Genii pillow – they are seriously fab. My husband can’t wait for me to have this baby so that he can use it!!”

And we’ll give MissusS the last word, because we reckon she’s got a good point: “Sleep in pregnancy… is a myth!”

Pics: Getty

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