According to the American Heart Association, not getting enough sleep or not getting good quality sleep is linked to slower metabolism, poorer emotional health, decreased immune system functionality and - this is the big one - an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. But when you're pregnant, especially in the later months of the pregnancy, sleep can be increasingly difficult. Why does this happen and what can you do about it? Read on to find out.

Why Sleeping During Pregnancy Can Be Difficult

The first and most pressing reason behind sleep problems during pregnancy is the increasing size of the fetus, which can make it hard to find a comfortable sleeping position.

Other common physical symptoms may interfere with sleep as well:

  • Increased heart rate: Your heart rate increases to pump more blood to your uterus and your heart works harder to send sufficient blood to the rest of your body.
  • Heartburn and constipation: During pregnancy, the entire digestive system slows down and food stays in the stomach and intestines longer, which may cause heartburn or constipation.
  • The frequent urge to pee: Your kidneys are working harder to filter the increased volume of blood moving through your body, and this filtering process creates more urine.
  • Shortness of breath: The increase of pregnancy hormones will cause you to breathe in more deeply. You might feel like you're working harder to get air.
  • Leg cramps and backaches: The extra weight you're carrying can contribute to pains in your legs or back.

Your sleep problems might have other causes as well. Stress about your baby's health, your own abilities as a parent or the delivery itself can all keep you (and your partner) up at night.

Tips for Sleeping Well During Pregnancy

Although they might seem appealing when you're feeling desperate to get some ZZZs, remember that over-the-counter sleep aids, including herbal remedies, are NOT recommended for pregnant women.

Instead, these tips may safely improve your chances of getting a good night's sleep:

  • Early in your pregnancy, try to get into the habit of sleeping on your left side. It makes your heart's job easier.
  • Cut out caffeinated drinks like soda, coffee and tea from your diet as much as possible. Restrict any intake of them to the morning or early afternoon.
  • Avoid drinking a lot of fluids or eating a full meal within a few hours of going to bed. (But make sure that you also get plenty of nutrients and liquids throughout the day.)
  • Get into a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Avoid rigorous exercise right before you go to bed. Instead, do something relaxing, like reading a book or having a warm, caffeine-free drink, such as milk with honey or a cup of herbal tea.
  • If a leg cramp awakens you, it may help to press your feet hard against the wall or to stand on the leg. Some women find that stretching their calf muscles before bed helps.
  • Also, make sure that you're getting enough calcium and magnesium in your diet, which can help reduce leg cramps. But don't take any supplements without checking with your doctor.
  • If fear and anxiety are keeping you awake, consider enrolling in a childbirth class or parenting class. More knowledge and the company of other pregnant women may help ease your fears.

When You Can't Sleep

Of course, there are bound to be times when you just can't sleep. Instead of tossing and turning, worrying that you're not asleep and counting the hours until your alarm clock will go off, get up and do something: read a book, listen to music, watch TV or pursue some other activity you enjoy. Eventually, you'll probably feel tired enough to get back to sleep.

And if possible, take short naps (30 to 60 minutes) during the day to make up for lost sleep. It won't be long before your baby will set the rules for sleeping, so you might as well get used to sleeping in spells!