How to Manage Pregnancy Discomforts that Affect your Sleep

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

Read time: 5 minutes

What should I do to get more sleep during pregnancy?

  • Why your sleep may change during pregnancy

  • Understand how lack of sleep may affect your and your baby’s health

  • Tips on how to manage sleep problems during pregnancy

Pregnancy is usually a time of excitement and preparation for what’s to come. In fact, we often hear advice about “getting sleep before the baby comes.” But with all changes your body goes through to grow and support your baby, sleep can sometimes be hard to get, even before your little one arrives.

Read on for more about managing issues that can disrupt your sleep during pregnancy.

Why is it hard to sleep during pregnancy?

Unfortunately, physical changes as well as pregnancy hormones can and usually do interfere with your ability to experience extended, deep sleep. Common sleep disrupters include the need to urinate during the night as well as discomforts associated with heartburn, constipation and gas, hemorrhoids, congestion, leg cramps, restless legs syndrome, back pain, and just plain being uncomfortable!1,2,3

Additionally, many pregnant women find their minds are more active at night than they were pre-pregnancy. In fact, some women even report having more vivid dreams.4,5 So when a full bladder or intense dreams inevitably wake you up, you may have more trouble settling back down to sleep.

Read more:

6 Tips to Help Manage Prenatal and Postpartum Constipation

How to Manage Heartburn during Pregnancy

Dealing with the Physical Discomforts of Pregnancy

Will lack of sleep during pregnancy affect your or your baby’s health?

Sleep is an important part of our health in general. Getting enough sleep is important for our mental health, ability to make decisions, as well as lowering our risk for chronic diseases.1,2 But it turns out that not getting enough sleep during pregnancy may impact not only your health but also your baby’s.9,10

One study found that consistently getting less than 6 hours of sleep at night during pregnancy may put women at risk for longer labors as well as a higher potential for a cesarean section.6 There is also a chance that poor sleep may be related to pre-term labor as well as the development of pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy).7,8

Have questions about nutrition during pregnancy or any of these pregnancy discomforts? Reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am - 6pm (ET), and Saturday – Sunday 8am - 2pm (ET). Chat Now!

Tips on how to manage common sleep problems during pregnancy

Modify your bedtime routine

A regular, habitual bedtime routine can trigger your body’s natural melatonin to signal sleepiness.1 A warm bath, calming music, a good book, meditation, or a massage from your partner may be great additions to your wind-down schedule. Find a routine that works for you and stick with it as much as possible so that your body knows when to expect sleep.

To encourage peaceful slumber, try using dark shades or blinds and a white noise or “nature sounds” machine to help you relax. Avoid drinking fluids close to bedtime (especially anything caffeinated) to help reduce the need to pee in the middle of the night.1

Limit screen time in the hour or two before bedtime as the blue light emitted by screens seems to suppress melatonin, the hormone key to sleepiness.11

Learn more: How can I Cope with Fatigue during Pregnancy and Postpartum

What to do about restless legs syndrome during pregnancy

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) affects about 20 to 30% of pregnant women and often peaks in the last trimester.12,13

Symptoms of restless leg syndrome include uncomfortable sensations or an overwhelming urge to move your legs, usually coming on at night or while resting.12 The severity can range from mild to intolerable, causing insomnia and lack of sleep.

While RLS typically resolves itself after delivery, speak with your healthcare provider in the meantime for help.13

RLS in pregnancy might be triggered by low levels of folic acid, iron, or vitamin D, so supplementation may be recommended.14,15 Some evidence also suggests that rising estrogen levels during pregnancy may contribute to RLS as well.16

Chat with your health care provider before adding any supplements to your routine to make sure they are the right choice for you.

Learn about: Exercise Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs

How to deal with leg cramps at night while pregnant

Leg cramps, also known as a ‘Charley Horse’, are a sudden, intense muscle spasm, often affecting the calf muscles. The pain is sometimes quick but can also persist for several minutes. During pregnancy, 30 to 45% of women may experience leg cramps.17

Stretch: As soon as you feel the sensation coming on, flex your foot (heel pushes down as your toes reach up toward your leg) and massage your calf.18 Avoid pointing your toes, which can bring on or worsen the cramp.

Hydrate: To help prevent leg cramps, stay well hydrated.18,19 It is recommended that pregnant women drink 8 to 12 cups of fluids per day.20 When it’s hot or you’ve been exercising, aim for the higher range of fluids (or more) and drink to meet your thirst.

Apply heat and massage: If you have a heating pad, use it on the muscle when it’s tight or cramping. You can also massage the muscle.19 Make your own heating pad: Fill a clean old sock with uncooked rice and sew shut or tie it off with a rubber band. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time until it is the right temperature for you.

Electrolytes: Some research indicates that electrolytes may play a role in managing cramping as well, particularly magnesium.17

Foods rich in magnesium: Pumpkin seeds, chia seed, almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, soymilk, black beans, edamame, potato, brown rice, yogurt, kidney means, banana, salmon.21

If you’ve tried eating more magnesium-rich foods, drinking enough, taking your prenatal, and stretching but are still experiencing muscle cramps, chat with your doctor to see if taking a magnesium supplement would be a safe addition to your diet.

Avoiding and preventing hemorrhoids during pregnancy

Hemorrhoids are varicose veins in the rectum, which can be painful, burn, swell, and be itchy enough to interfere with sleep. They’re common, are harmless most of the time, and tend to show up for about 40% of pregnant women late in the second trimester (and are also common after a vaginal delivery as well).22

Common causes include pressure from your growing uterus, increased blood flow to your pelvis, and constipation. Constipation can also aggravate hemorrhoids, so constipation prevention is key.23

For relief at night, apply witch hazel pads to your hemorrhoids and elevate your hips with a towel.29

Before bed, a warm bath or a sitz bath (a bowl that provides a few inches of warm water for you to ‘sit’ in to submerge the rectal area) can help reduce pain and swelling.29,30

If you have more severe hemorrhoids and need stronger treatment, talk to your healthcare provider.

Read more: 6 Tips to Manage Prenatal and Postpartum Constipation

Use extra pillows to help alleviate back and hip pain during sleep

A pregnant woman can never have too many pillows!

While side sleeping, particularly on your left side, is recommended for pregnant women, this position can sometimes trigger back and hip discomfort.1,2 Try using a pillow under your upper arm and one between your knees in addition to placing one “wedge” pillow under your belly and another behind your back.

During the day, practice exercises to promote back health

Research shows that regular exercise can help to reduce low back pain in pregnant women.22,23 After getting the okay from your health care provider, add in some gentle, pregnancy-friendly exercises. Also, focus on good posture during the day to help reduce pressure and pain in the lower back.25

Use a slow and steady pace, focus on form, and only do as much as feels right to you.

When exercising, try to avoid the Valsalva Maneuver, or holding your breath while contracting your muscles.24 It can create a lot of pressure on the uterus. To avoid this, simply remember to breath out during the exertion and inhale during the release.

Always chat with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.

Try it:

Exercise during Pregnancy: Strengthening and Protecting your Core

Exercise during Pregnancy

Consider products that offer extra support while you sleep

Certain products may help alleviate aches and pains by offering a layer of support against the forces of gravity:

Breast pain: The best way to manage enlarged, swollen, painful breasts is to wear a well-fitting bra, even at night. Choose a bra that is comfortable for sleep and has no underwire, such as a sports or shelf bra. Find a maternity store that employs a bra fitter, an expert who can ensure you are being fit into the right size.

Sciatic-like symptoms: While true sciatica is rare during pregnancy, pregnant women can experience the same type of symptoms caused by pressure from musculo-skeletal changes involving the lower back and/or pelvis.27 The uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating sensation often radiates from the lower back all the way down the leg. It can occur while you are resting, sitting, standing, or exercising. Prenatal support belts for the lower back and pelvis may help provide some comfort.25,26

Carpal tunnel syndrome: Swelling in the wrist area can create pressure on the median nerve, causing a feeling of numbness and tingling in the hand and arm. Carpal tunnel syndrome can occur in expecting women as hormones and weight of pregnancy impair circulation and cause swelling in the extremities.28 Wearing a carpal tunnel night splint helps deter pooling of fluid and may alleviate symptoms.

Chat with your health care provider

Certain pregnancy symptoms can be quite uncomfortable and, as you may have experienced, may even affect your sleep. Make sure your healthcare provider is aware of all your aches and pains so that they may provide the guidance and support you need.

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Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitians certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am - 6pm (ET), and Saturday - Sunday 8am - 2pm (ET). Chat Now!

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