Pregnancy insomnia affects 2 in 3 women in last trimester

Tossing and turning during pregnancy? You're not alone.
Tossing and turning during pregnancy? You're not alone. Photo: Shutterstock

Pregnant and finding yourself tossing and turning each night, desperate for a few hours of decent sleep? You're not alone. A new study, published in the European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, found that 64 per cent of women suffer from insomnia in late pregnancy. And that's 10 times higher than the six per cent of women who suffer from insomnia pre-pregnancy.

Co-author Dr. María del Carmen Amezcua Prieto, admits that while this finding may not be breaking news, it's one health professionals need to take seriously. Previous research has found that poor sleep during pregnancy is associated with depression and pre-term birth. And one study found that poor-sleepers were 20 per cent more likely to undergo caesarean section and experience a longer labour.

"Although it is well known that pre-existing sleep problems worsen and new issues frequently arise during pregnancy, there is a tendency to assume that difficulties related to getting to sleep and maintaining restorative sleep are characteristic phenomena of pregnancy and that they must be endured," Dr Amezcua Prieto says. "This probably occurs because the health system does not give importance to the issue during the monitoring of pregnancies, to the point where the World Health Organization (WHO) does not even address the issue of sleep in its guidelines on providing care to pregnant women."

To explore the factors associated with pregnancy insomnia, 486 women were monitored during the three trimesters of their pregnancies. Insomnia data from pre-pregnancy as well as six months post-partum were also analysed. According to the results, mums-to-be aren't just staring at the ceiling at 2am during the last few weeks of their pregnancy. For 44 per cent of pregnant women, insomnia hits during the first trimester, increasing to 46 per cent in the second trimester. (When bub arrives it decreases slightly, with 33 per cent of new mums still battling insomnia.)

Co-author María del Rosario Román Gálvez, explains that they also observed alterations in sleep fragmentation, the number of times women wake during the night - and how long they stay awake. "[The study] demonstrates that the frequency and intensity of sleep fragmentation continue to increase as the pregnancy progresses," she says. In other words, if you're waking more frequently as your belly grows, you're not the only one. But pregnancy doesn't just result in fragmented sleep - it also messes with what researchers call "sleep induction" or the time it takes a sleepy preggo to finally doze off.

Unsurprisingly the team found that if you experience insomnia before pregnancy, you'll probably keep tossing and turning when you're expecting a little one, too. "Although it may seem obvious, the most important factor is pre-gestational insomnia, given that it is fundamental to prevention and underscores the importance of detecting insomnia before pregnancy and throughout all stages of it," says co-author Professor Aurora Bueno Cavanillas. 

The research also identified that obesity and whether or not women already have children, can also have an impact on sleeping patterns. "Insomnia prevention should be targeted particularly to those with high body mass index and pre-gestational insomnia," the authors conclude.

But what can exhausted mamas do? Put on your sneakers and get moving. The researchers found that engaging in moderate or intense physical exercise during pregnancy reduced the odds of insomnia in the third trimester. "So this is yet another reason for promoting physical activity during pregnancy," Bueno Cavanillas says.

Along with exercise, a 2016 review of the diagnosis and treatment of pregnancy insomnia, published in Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences suggests women try the following:

  • Use dim night lights in the bathroom as bright light can make it difficult to go back to sleep
  • Drink plenty of fluids in daytime but limit their intake after 5pm to decrease frequent trips to the loo
  • Avoid spicy, heavy and fried foods to decrease heart burn. 
  • Take daytime naps in the earlier part of the day, if needed.
  • If unable to sleep don't force it. Instead get out of bed, take a warm bath and do something non-stimulating such as knitting, reading a book, etc.
  • Avoid activities like eating, watching TV, playing video games or other electronics or lengthy phone calls while in bed.