Sleep Disorders During Pregnancy & When to See a Specialist

If you’ve been experiencing some difficulty getting those ZZZs during what is supposed to be the most blissful time of your life, you’re not alone. Symptoms related to sleep — the most common of which are snoring, sleep disturbances and daytime sleepiness — are more common in pregnant women than in nonpregnant women.

While most women report a more disturbed sleep during pregnancy, it’s important to understand the difference between “mildly disrupted sleep” and “sleep disorder”. Likely because sleep problems are so common during this stage, many healthcare providers dismiss reports of more serious issues, leaving women to manage on their own. Here’s a list of the sleep disorders and their symptoms that should make you check in with your GP or even referred to a specialist.

What is a sleep disorder?

Sleep disorders are conditions that result in changes in the way that you sleep. It can affect your overall health, safety and quality of life. Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to drive safely and increase your risk of other health problems. Even if you don’t have a history, sleep disorders in pregnancy can arise and are caused by a variety of factors, including weight gain, hormonal changes, nutritional stress, and discomfort while sleeping.


Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both. It can be caused by both physical and emotional demands of pregnancy and while you can experience insomnia all throughout, it’s most common in the first and third trimesters. Progesterone, while promoting the daytime sleepiness that you’re feeling, paradoxically also causes fragmented sleep in the night. Oxytocin – the hormone that’s responsible for your uterine contractions, peaks at night and can also cause fragmented sleep later in pregnancy. Again, while it’s common, it’s not normal and there are some good ways to kick insomnia during pregnancy.  

Gestational Restless Leg Syndrome (gRLS)

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS; also known as Willis-Ekbom disease) is a sensorimotor disorder characterized by an almost irresistible urge to move one’s legs (or, more rarely, one’s arms). It can also cause an unpleasant crawling or creeping sensation in the feet, calves and thighs. RLS that occurs only during the pregnancy is called gestational RLS (gRLS) and about one in five women will experience symptoms in the last three months of pregnancy. The cause is still unknown to scientists, however, some neurologists believe the symptoms of RLS may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine, which is involved in controlling muscle movement. In some cases, they believe that it can be caused by other health conditions such as iron deficiency or kidney failure. The first step to treatment would be to contact your doctor to be tested for low chemical levels.

Sleep Disordered Breathing (SDB)

Sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) is an umbrella term for many different breathing-related difficulties that can keep you awake, including snoring, upper airway resistance syndrome, and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or repetitive episodes of complete (apnea) or partial (hypopnea) upper-airway obstruction during sleep. Think of them as being on a continuum, with snoring being at one end of the spectrum and OSA-hypopnea syndrome at the other. Apnea is defined as the complete cut-off of airflow for a minimum of 10 seconds and is found more in women who are habitual snorers, were overweight or obese before becoming pregnant, and have chronic hypertension. If you suspect you may have or are diagnosed with OSA, you should be referred to a sleep specialist to discuss possible complications that could arise and determine the best treatment options for your individual situation.

Good sleep hygiene requires a holistic approach assessing your lifestyle, including nutrition, movement, intake of alcohol and smoke, and even stress levels. Re-evaluations in these areas can drastically change the way your body processes nighttime and sleep. If you find that you’re discomfort lasts passed the 3-day mark, it’s time to check in with your doctor. A disorder left too long can have negative implications on your fetus, labour and the postpartum period.





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