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How to Beat this Sleep Problem That Strikes Pregnant Women

When you’re pregnant, parents with babies will tell you to sleep while you can. And it’s true that you’re about as likely to get a good night’s sleep with a newborn as you are sleeping on a bed of nails.

But pregnancy comes with its own sleep challenges. You can’t get comfortable. You wake up because you need to go to the bathroom. When you lie down your heartburn flares up.

Add another sleepless night trigger to the list: restless legs syndrome (RLS). With RLS you feel like you must move your legs to make them more comfortable. When you do, you feel better temporarily. After you’ve moved your legs, it can be tough to fall asleep or fall back asleep.

Does pregnancy cause restless legs syndrome?

“Pregnancy itself doesn’t cause restless legs syndrome,” said David Kukafka, MD, a sleep specialist at Banner Health in Northern Colorado. But pregnancy can lead to a combination of low iron levels and high estrogen levels that are most likely what causes higher levels of RLS in pregnant women than in nonpregnant women.

According to Dr. Kukafka, about 20% of women have RLS sometime during their pregnancy. That’s two to three times higher than the rate of RLS in nonpregnant women.

RLS can happen during any stage of pregnancy, but typically it’s more likely to develop as your pregnancy progresses. Symptoms can also get worse as you get further along. It’s most common in the third trimester.

You might also develop sleep apnea during pregnancy, which can make RLS worse if it goes undiagnosed or untreated.

How can I reduce or eliminate RLS symptoms?

Dr. Kukafka said there are steps you can take to get RLS symptoms under control:

  • Exercise at a low or moderate intensity
  • Practice yoga
  • Avoid caffeine, tobacco and alcohol
  • Move around regularly during the day and evening
  • Discuss your need for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants with your health care provider, since they may be linked with RLS symptoms

Your doctor can also check your iron levels, and if they are low, you can take iron supplements along with vitamin C—vitamin C helps your body absorb iron. If your RLS is severe, your doctor might recommend medications such as clonazepam or carbidopa-levodopa.

Dr. Kukafka doesn’t recommend hot baths to alleviate RLS symptoms since they might increase the risk of birth defects, especially in the first trimester.

How can I get enough sleep when I have restless legs syndrome?

“It is not necessarily about getting enough sleep, but getting quality sleep,” Dr. Kukafka said. “With proper diagnosis and treatment, RLS can be treated effectively.”

RLS is also linked with depression. “Treating depression may help, however, some antidepressants can actually make RLS worse,” Dr. Kukafka said. If you have depression and RLS talk to your doctor, a psychiatrist or a sleep medicine specialist to come up with the best treatment plan.

Your RLS symptoms will probably ease up or disappear after your baby is born. And if they don’t, there are other medications that can help and that are safe for you to take if you’re breastfeeding.

The bottom line

If you’re pregnant, you might find yourself struggling against restless legs syndrome as you try to sleep. RLS is treatable—talk to your doctor about the best options to help you get the rest you need before your baby is born.

To find out if visiting a sleep specialist might be a good option for you, take our free sleep assessment. If you would like to connect with a doctor who can help you solve your sleep problems, visit bannerhealth.com.

To learn more about keeping yourself and your baby healthy, check out:

Women's Health Pregnancy Sleep