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Paula Schweitzer, PhD, St. Luke's Hospital

Sleep issues during pregnancy

Women at all stages of life face potential issues that disturb sleep. The fluctuating hormones a woman experiences throughout the month and across her lifetime can have a significant impact on her quality of sleep. During pregnancy, however, this can become much more pronounced.

Studies conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that three out of four women reported more sleep disruptions during pregnancy than when they were not pregnant. Common sleep issues during pregnancy can include difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings and decreased sleep quality, all leading to daytime fatigue. However, many women do not realize that the risk for sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome (RLS) also increases throughout pregnancy.

Sleep apnea, often accompanied by snoring, occurs when the airway narrows or closes repeatedly during sleep. These breathing interruptions prevent air from reaching the lungs, resulting in low blood oxygen levels, an increased workload for the heart and frequent nighttime awakenings. During pregnancy, changes in hormone levels along with increased weight can make women more susceptible to this condition, particularly in women who are overweight prior to becoming pregnant. Sleep apnea during pregnancy has been linked to high blood pressure during pregnancy, preeclampsia (a condition in which high blood pressure and protein in the urine develop after the 20th week of pregnancy) and low birth weight, so it is very important to speak with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

Regarding RLS, about one in four pregnant women will experience it. It is commonly described as an unpleasant sensation in the legs, which is typically relieved by movement. Symptoms usually occur in the evening, making it difficult to fall asleep. RLS is more common in the third trimester and usually improves after delivery.

Pregnant women also often experience other sleeping difficulties due to hormone changes, physical discomfort, stress and frequent urination. Although it is normal to have sleep complaints during pregnancy, it may be helpful to talk with your physician about any sleep issues to determine if treatment is necessary. The better you take care of yourself during pregnancy, the better you will be able to take care of your baby after his or her arrival.

Paula Schweitzer, PhD, is the director of research at St. Luke's Sleep Medicine and Research Center. Call 314-205-6030 or visit her Meet the Team page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 25, 2011.