What cruelty! You are about to go into what you know is probably the most sleep-deprived period of your life, since newborns are not known for their well-honed sleep patterns. You are already gearing up for many sleepless nights. But instead of “stocking up on sleep now,” as everyone tells you to do, you are experiencing too many sleep problems—and having trouble getting your zzzzs.
As you are probably discovering, just because you are exhausted with the physical and mental weight of your new arrival—and may been experiencing daytime sleepiness, as well as a host of other symptoms, such as morning sickness—does not mean you will immediately pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow. And it certainly doesn’t mean you will be able to stay asleep all night. Between leg cramps, anxiety around the unknown of your new baby, and the need to pee (of course, frequent urination is one of the most annoying things you have to deal with during your pregnancy), the list of things that can make falling asleep difficult and wake you up in the middle of the night is endless.
You are probably going to be taking some time off from work soon, once the baby comes, so you don't want to be dealing with exhaustion from lack of sleep during the day on top of your other problems as you get everything in order and stay on top of your projects and other tasks at work. Between work, your health, and personal obligations, you shouldn't have to worry about your inability to fall asleep on top of everything else that is going on in your life.
The more I talk to others, the more I realize that falling asleep and other sleep problems are a challenge that affects a surprising number of pregnant and already-sleep-deprived new parents. Data I have read says that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of pregnant women experience insomnia. So first, Mama, know that you are not alone; many other mothers-to-be are experiencing the same problem. Second, do something about it. I would advise you to learn some good techniques to treat insomnia now, since you may very well experience many sleepless nights and insomnia symptoms again after your baby arrives. (It certainly hit me during the first six months or so of my babies’ lives as well.)
Here are some strategies that have worked for both for me and for the mothers I work with in the Mindful Return community:
Six Strategies for Combatting Middle-of-the-Night Pregnancy Insomnia
1. Focus on Your Bedtime Routine.
You are probably thinking a little about what your baby’s bedtime routine and what ideas will help your baby's health the most might look like a few months from now. You are thinking about how your little one will be delighted by the colorful picture books you read him, how she will splash around in the bath, and which lullaby you will sing as you gently place your baby into the crib you purchased and put together with your partner. That is all well and good for the future, but what about making time for planning out your own calming evening routine now?
Mothers need good sleep hygiene, too—and pregnancy is a time when many women's health can feel the most out of whack. So how do you make sure that you are establishing a routine that promotes your sleep hygiene and helps you wake up well-rested and refreshed?
Start by setting a specific time for when you will turn your phone off, and make sure to stick to that deadline. You may also want to invest in black-out curtains, in case light is keeping you awake. Think about taking a nice, long bath, and then cuddling up with a book you love in bed and reading a few pages before turning out the lights. Or you could write in a gratitude journal. (My current favorite is The 5-Minute Journal.) Focusing on the good things that happened that day helps slow down my mind and re-orient me away from my to-do list.
2. Listen to a Meditation.
The soothing sound of someone else’s voice guiding you to relax can work wonders. Meditation is one of the best relaxation techniques, and you can do it at pretty much any time, anywhere. If you are having trouble getting started with meditation on your own, as many people do, trying a guided meditation is a good choice. Buddify and Insight Timer are two apps that have a ton of great guided meditations you can use to help you meditate yourself to sleep.
I have also heard great things about the Sleep with Me Podcast, which isn’t a meditation, but is a gentle stream of gibberish that quiets your mind and helps you drift off to sleep. In general, soothing, repetitive sounds can help lull you off to sleep—and hopefully keep you from experiencing too many sleep disturbances.
3. Do a Breathing Exercise.
Focusing on your breathing is another of the best relaxation techniques in general, both for dealing with sleep disturbances and sleep disorders, as well as combatting stress and anxious thoughts, and can certainly help lead you improve your sleep patterns. For example, say “one” (just in your head or even out loud) and take a very deep breath, in and out. Then move on to "two," and again, breath in and out very deeply. Keep going until you get to 10, and then start back at one. And if you get distracted, don't worry about it. Just start back over with one.
Doing a body scan, during which you start at your toes and focus on feeling each part of your body all the way up to your head, can help, too. If I go slowly enough, I’m usually asleep by the time I get to my thighs. Another relexation technique is to clench each muscle group tightly, one at a time for a few seconds each, as you do your body scan upwards. After clenching, slowly relaxation the muscles in your feet, calves, thighs, and so on.
4. Do Some Yoga Poses.
As with some of the previous sleeping strategies we have discussed, yoga can be a helpful DIY way to treat insomnia in all people—not just women who are pregnant. If you are overwhelmed by your insomnia symptoms, prenatal yoga can be a good choice.
YouTube is full of great prenatal bedtime yoga sequences like this one, which can give you ideas of poses that are helpful and safe for pregnancy. Pregnancy can really impact women's health, and prenatal yoga can be an excellent way to work through some of the other tolls it is taking on your body, such as leg cramps, back issues, and other aches and pains; in other words, it is not just a treatment of insomnia.
Getting out some of pregnancy-related hip kinks just feels SO good in the body, too.
5. Use Reverse Psychology.
I once had someone suggest that I should repeat to myself, “You absolutely are NOT permitted to fall asleep now!” It may seem counterintuitive, especially if you have trouble lying to yourself, but I have been surprised by how well this solution can work.
Taking your mind off sleeping by reading a book or doing some other quiet activity can have the desired effect, too. Essentially, the goal is too distract yourself from your inability to fall asleep.
6. Grab a Pen and Paper.
When your mind is racing, sometimes it can be helpful to write down what exactly is bothering you. The idea is that once you get out your thoughts onto paper, you they won't be preoccupying you anymore.
If one of the reasons behind your insomnia during pregnancy is that you can't stop thinking about all the things you have to do—baby-related and otherwise—writing down your plans and everything you need to get down can also help. Just do a big brain dump, list-making session of all the things you are worried about accomplishing and have to get done.
Put a journal next to your bed, and use it to take all that pent-up worry and anxiety out of your brain and onto paper to free it up for sleep.
And if all else fails and you need a good cry, it can sometimes help just to let all that frustration out. I have been in that position of trying to fall asleep and then just getting more and more angry and frustrated that I am not able to. Being with those big emotions and letting them out often helped me drift off to sleep.
Of course, if you are experiencing chronic insomnia or insomnia during pregnancy that won't let up even after your DIY interventions, it may be time to talk to your doctor. Your OB-GYN may be able to recommend sleep aids that won't harm your baby or non-medicinal strategies to help you sleep better. Seeing a mental health professional who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy may also be able to help you develop effective methods and strategies for getting your sleep cycle back on track. You have enough to deal with without having to add pregnancy insomnia to your list of worries!
Hang in there, mama-to-be, and may you soon find your own middle-of-the-night zzzzz’s.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.