By Lisa Fields
Updated March 17, 2016
Sleeping on your side and using pillows to support your stomach can help you stay comfortable while pregnant.

Sleeping on your side and using pillows to support your stomach can help you stay comfortable while pregnant.(ISTOCKPHOTO)

Ever heard a pregnant woman say that she's eating for two? She may not realize that she's also sleeping for two. Getting enough rest helps a woman combat pregnancy-induced fatigue, fight off illnesses, and become less likely to develop postpartum depression. But sleeping soundly isn't always easy for expectant moms.

"Sleep problems are universal for pregnant women, and they can occur at any time," says National Sleep Foundation spokesperson Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, author of Sleep Deprived No More: From Pregnancy to Early Motherhood­—Helping You & Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. "It's not just when you're seven and eight months pregnant and can't find a comfortable position."

Here, experts recommend ways to improve sleep quality during pregnancy.

Q: What can I do in the evening to ensure that I get some quality sleep?

A: "A bedtime routine is really important," says Mindell. "There should be 20 to 30 minutes when you're not checking your email, paying your bills, or arguing with your spouse. Taking a shower or reading a relaxing book helps your brain to slow down."

Additionally, drinking less in the evening may keep you in bed longer. "Cut back on fluids if you make multiple trips to the bathroom at night," she says. "Instead, drink more during the daytime."

Q: Does exercise improve sleep quality?

A: "Most people feel that exercise improves sleep," says James O'Brien, MD, medical director of inpatient obstetrics at the Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island in Providence and a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). "But avoid exercise within four to five hours of bedtime or it may be harder to initiate sleep." Low-impact workouts like walking or swimming are ideal for pregnant women. Discuss higher-impact options with your doctor. (See more exercises suitable for pregnancy here.)

Q: How can I fall back to sleep quickly after a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom?

A: "You don't want to get a lot of light to your eyes [in the middle of the night]," says Mindell. "Keep a night-light in the bathroom, or use a dimmer switch." And try not to look at the clock or stress about whether you'll fall back asleep when you lie down again; worrying makes it harder to nod off. (Watch a video about why light at night disrupts sleep.)

[ pagebreak ] Q: Is it OK if I nap during the day?

A: "For many, naps are a good thing," says Mindell. "However, there are some women, especially those who experience insomnia, for whom napping makes it difficult to fall asleep at bedtime." Keep naps short—between 30 and 45 minutes—or you may wake up feeling worse than you did before.

Q: What is this new creepy-crawly feeling in my legs keeping me up at night?

A: Some studies suggest that restless legs syndrome occurs in as many as 27% of pregnant women, says Dr. O'Brien, and it can impair a good night's sleep. Tell your doctor if you have a creepy-crawly feeling in your legs that keeps you from falling asleep. If anemia or a vitamin B6 deficiency is the cause, your doctor can prescribe supplements to improve the condition.

Q: What can I do if heartburn keeps me awake when I lie down?

A: "Avoid big, late meals," says George Macones, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis and an ACOG fellow. "During pregnancy, you can have acid reflux that can make it more difficult to drift off to sleep. An over-the-counter medication like Tums or Zantac may help." Talk with your doctor before taking medication.

Q: As my belly grows, how can I find a comfortable sleeping position?

A: "Most women find it hard to have a restful night's sleep in the third trimester," says Dr. O'Brien. "Use body pillows to support the uterus when you're lying on your side. Or you may get a more restful night of sleep in a recliner, if you adjust the angle to your liking."

It is best for you not to lie flat on your back after 16 weeks of pregnancy, cautions Glade B. Curtis, MD, in his book Your Pregnancy: Every Woman's Guide. That position can place the uterus on top of important blood vessels that run down the back of your abdomen, which may make it harder to breathe while you're on your back and can decrease circulation to your baby and to parts of your body.

Q: Can I take any sleep medications or natural remedies during pregnancy?

A: "Talk to your doctor," says Dr. Macones. "A lot of sleep medications probably aren't going to damage the baby, and herbal tea may be fine, but relaxation techniques are better. Listen to relaxing music or get a back rub from your partner."

Q: How can I plan to get enough sleep when the baby arrives?

A: "It's important for recovery from labor or a C-section to get your sleep," says Mindell. "The challenge is getting that sleep around a newborn."

Asking for help is your best option. "Nursing moms often think they have to do it all," says Mindell, "but Dad can be involved, even if he gets the baby, changes the diaper, and gets him back to sleep after the feeding." Daytime naps can help too.