Sleep patterns throughout pregnancy are entirely individual, and can often feel disrupted from our usual experience. As babies grow in the womb, the changes and hormonal shifts the body makes to support growth significantly affect our normal sleep cycles. It’s a common complaint but sometimes the cause is not just pregnancy and as it does not affect everyone there are steps we can take to make sure we are helping ourselves.
Often we already have an idea of what is keeping us awake, whether it’s hormones, thoughts, diet or bedtime habits. For many of us we have not been taught how to relax well, it is a skill that can be learned and practiced, often our usual habit before pregnancy was some combination of exhaustion and collapse. Now that we are listening to our bodies and paying attention to signals, we know that a more wise approach is needed. Know that you are already doing the best you can, and your body is just trying to adjust to all the new experiences its having. The least useful approach is to become stressed or frustrated by your lack of sleep, and if nothing works and you still find yourself waking regularly, finding ways to use that middle of the night time to practice relaxations, hypnobirthing, deep breathing, is often a better solution than getting up and acting on your agitation.
Baby sleep trainers are often fond of the saying “sleep begets sleep”, but in adults too we also find that what is called the relaxation response increases when practiced regularly. When we don’t relax regularly we get into a cycle of being energised by adrenaline, sugar and even small amounts of caffeine. This is why I advocate napping, particularly getting started now so that you’re ready to use it as a tool when your baby arrives. However if you are already falling asleep for a couple of hours in the daytime and then not sleeping at night, your wakefulness in the night might be because you are getting too much rest, and not balancing it with enough fresh air and exercise.
You may find it useful to know that our sleep patterns are hormone linked. As night draws in, glands in the midbrain register the reduction of light and release melatonin and dopamine, which relax us and make us sleepy. If we are watching TV, looking at computers and smart phones until late at night (after 11pm) the blue light indicates to our receptors that it’s morning (the light spectrum of natural morning is more blue, by late evening it’s more red). It may be useful to know that a back rub from your husband, laughing and being generally loving can help your happy hormones just before bedtime. They will make you feel safe and sleepy.
The list of things I recommend for good sleep currently include :
- From 7pm, start your routine towards going to bed
- Eat supper before 8pm, and make it a light meal that is not too salty, sweet, spicy or intensely flavoured. Try to stop eating all foods after 9pm (unless you are really hungry) allow your body time to digest before you go to bed.
- Avoid sugar, caffeine, and alcohol (be aware that chocolate has caffeine in it – particularly the dark), after 5pm (if not all the time – although a little chocolate does everyone some good sometimes).
- Eat some carbohydrate with your supper, ideally either rice, wholegrains or potatoes as these foods are warming and calming to your digestive system.
- Eat warm food for supper, not cold food. And make sure it is freshly made, and preferably made by you or your family rather than ready meals or restaurant food.
Switch off all work and computers by supper time. Set a time limit for your work and do not work beyond that time.
- When you finish work, write yourself a list of everything that you think of that is left undone. Give yourself 10 minutes to complete any super quick tasks that you can do now, and then see that list as your starting list for the next days work.
- Switch off all computers, televisions and smart phones at least an hour before bed time.
- Design yourself a relaxing bedtime regime, have a bath, use some relaxing oils (i.e. the Neal’s Yard suitable for pregnancy range) read a book that has nothing to do with work or babies.
- Avoid intense conversations or arguments with people close to you just before bed. As much as you are able to, go to sleep feeling loving and kind.
- Do some stretches before you get to bed, particularly the rolling movements (like circling the hips while on your hands and knees, or standing) and do some deep belly breathing (as we do in class).
- As you climb into bed, get really comfy, and then think to yourself how much you really love a good sleep, if you find that you start to get anxious see if you can talk to yourself like you would to a young child who couldn’t sleep. You wouldn’t entertain or distract them, or get angry with them, you would listen to them and then soothe them. Instead of hearing your worries and agreeing that they should be worries and you should be paying attention, you need to learn now how to soothe yourself. You almost need to mother yourself through the stress, and give yourself the support that you know that you need. Hear the voices of concern and tell them that you’ll listen to them tomorrow, if you need to you could also write them down in the middle of the night, its a lovely way to put them outside your head and regain some perspective, but then tell them that now you are going to sleep. Talk to yourself like you would to a friend who was stressed, or a young niece or nephew.
- Make sure your bedroom is nice and dark, and that your fingers and toes are warm but your head is cool for a good nights sleep.
Along with the regular changes of sleep patterns for Mums-to-be there is often a mixture of feelings and some completely naturally arising fears about labour, birth and motherhood. It can be wise to sit down and write about all that you are feeling so that you can see it more objectively. Find someone who makes you feel supported to explain your fears to, and talk them over with your midwife, doula or an empathetic friend. Don’t be silent while gathering anxiety about this enormous life change, and seek the people who make you feel genuinely more at ease with what is coming. During your pregnancy you may find you naturally distance yourself from people who don’t feel empathetic or who tend to exacerbate your fears, if those people are too close to distance yourself from, finding ways to explain to them that you appreciate their opinions but for now you need some time to to focus on the positive. Take some time to write down everything that is running through your head, you might be surprised by how much you want to write when you get going, I would suggest keeping a notebook and doing this regularly, even daily and particularly before you go to sleep and when you wake up. Always finish your note writing with a big deep breath, and at least one thing, preferably five, that you are grateful for and happy about.
As ever in pregnancy there is plenty of information and opinions about this topic. Please filter all that I offer here and try out what feels like its a good idea, leave what does not. If you have any questions or want more information please don’t hesitate to ask.