Woman sleeping with pregnancy pillow

The working parent’s guide to pregnancy insomnia

By Stephanie Olsen, Contributing writer for InHerSight

InHerSight, a platform that uses data to help women find and improve companies where they can achieve their goals.

No, you’re not imagining it and no, you can’t push through it. Pregnancy insomnia is a known fact of pregnancy and experienced by 78 percent of women at some point during their pregnancy, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

That knowledge won’t help you get to sleep, but at least you’ll know that your exhaustion is based on a recognized condition—and also, that it’s temporary! The insomnia will disappear once your bundle of joy is delivered.

If trying to stay awake throughout the day is your immediate concern, we’ve got some ideas for how you can get a little shut-eye.

What causes pregnancy-related insomnia?

Your body is changing in size throughout your nine months, and in your last trimester especially, a good night’s sleep can be difficult to achieve. It’s hard to find a position that’s comfortable, plus you may have to get up several times a night to urinate. Your back might ache, you may be experiencing heartburn, and you could also be anxious about the imminent birth and changes to your lifestyle.

While pregnancy insomnia can manifest in different ways, such as being unable to fall asleep in the first place or not being able to get back to sleep after you wake up, the outcome is the same: exhaustion.

But don’t just power through, it’s a problem worth addressing. Sleeping well doesn’t only allow you to function better at work; it’s important for a good birth experience and in terms of breastfeeding too. Midwife Tracy Donegan, founder of GentleBirth, explains that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with more complications and pain in labor, plus studies show that poor sleep in the third trimester is linked with breastfeeding issues.

More than that, insomnia possibly exposes the unborn baby to stress hormones; it also increases the mother’s risk of gestational diabetes and developing depressive symptoms, according to research by Cristina Reichner, M.D. “Treatment of insomnia remains challenging as some of the more commonly used sleep inducing medications such as benzodiazepines and hypnotic benzodiazepine receptor agonists may be associated with adverse neonatal outcomes.”

Tips for alleviating pregnancy insomnia

The usual good sleep practices apply here: Keep daytime naps short, limit caffeine intake later in the day, and don’t eat large meals before sleeping. Stick to your wake-up time no matter how little sleep you’ve had, and do take (short) naps through the day as you can.

Diet

The Mayo Clinic says you need to make sure you’re getting enough iron and protein in your diet, so that you don’t develop iron deficiency anemia. If you’re having bedtime snacks, eat foods that have the natural sleep aid melatonin or contain amino acid that converts to melatonin in the brain. These include warm milk, turkey, bananas, and tart cherries (or tart cherry juice).

While the scientific jury’s out on the effectiveness of chamomile tea as a sleep-inducing substance, it’s safe in small amounts during pregnancy (according to the FDA) and the simple “feedback loop” reduces the stress you may have about your insomnia, explains Eric S. Zhou, Ph.D., at the Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School. In other words, it helps you sleep if you believe it will.

Don’t skip meals, but do have healthy mini-meals and snacks on hand to keep your blood sugar level. This helps with daytime fatigue and the smaller meals can ease heartburn, which can be another reason for your pregnancy insomnia. Try to make each meal, especially at work, a mini-break. This will allow you to rest a little, reducing your overall stress and fatigue load.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

A recent study shows that “cognitive-behavioral therapy specifically designed for insomnia may be a useful adjunct or alternative to medication,” writes Ruta Nonacs, M.D., Ph.D. More than two-thirds (64 percent) of the pregnant women assigned to five individual CBT sessions experienced a remission of insomnia. The drawback is that relief isn’t immediate, with results taking approximately 31 days.

Adjust your behavior

Baby yourself during your pregnancy, so that you lower stress levels and allow for periods of daytime rest to counter the insomnia. This may mean cutting back at work and taking more breaks, as allowed.

Delegate as much as you can. If you go into a workplace, remember that it will continue to function when you’re on maternity leave, so training others will benefit everyone in the long run. Of course, delegating tasks isn’t just for the workplace: it’s advice for the home too. Enlist a family member to help cook and clean, and hand off grocery shopping to your partner. If you’ve got a baby at home who still wakes at night, ask your partner or other caregiver to handle those nocturnal calls. See if a friend or family member will come help—you will be surprised at who’s willing to pitch in (and wants to help). It takes a village, after all.

Don’t dismiss pregnancy pillows, especially if you’ve got lower back and sciatic nerve pain. You can realign your hips and support your back with a pillow or use it to elevate your upper body. A wedge pillow under your bump provides support while you sleep and can be used for lumbar support by placing it against your back while you sit.

Finally, don’t set your maternity leave start date in stone. If your pregnancy insomnia is worsening as you get closer to your due date, talk to your boss about working from home (if possible), shifting to flexible work hours, or taking leave early. It’s far less stressful and more effective to deal with the increased fatigue at home rather than at the office.

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