Doctors Advise a Better Way to Sleep After Birth

A new study has some simple advice for how to breathe easy during post-childbirth sleep. If you've just had a baby, be sure to do this before you go to bed tonight.

Doctors Advise a Better Way to Sleep After Birth gpointstudio/Shutterstock

The one thing every new mom worries about (besides the health and wellbeing of her new baby, of course)? Sleep! Getting decent shuteye is a huge concern for most parents as soon as a newborn enters the picture. And now, a new study in the journal CHEST is promoting a particular sleep position to help postnatal women slumber easier and safer.

A group of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital measured how new mothers breathed during the first 48 hours after delivery. They observed the women's airflow and size of airway in three different positions—seated, at a 45-degree angle and lying down. The doctors discovered that the diameter of a woman's upper respiratory tract increased when she moved from lying flat to being propped up 45 degrees. "That translates to improved quality of breathing," says Matthias Eikermann, M.D., Ph.D., lead study author and clinical director of the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The Common Sleep Condition Affecting Pregnant Women

The study's finding is closely tied to something called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which can be a problem during pregnancy and into the postpartum period due to hormone levels having an inhibitory effect on airway muscles and increased abdominal volume putting pressure on the airway.

While extremely rare, a high number of pregnancy-related maternal death is speculated to be caused by sleep apnea-related cardiac problems. And the use of anesthesia during delivery seems to put women at a greater risk, as does having a C-section and using opioids for post-delivery pain.

Besides the obviously scary consequence of thwarted breathing, OSA is also associated with fatigue and insomnia (particularly painful when a new baby gives you such little time to sleep anyway). "If you wake up many times an hour because the airway collapses, then you're fatigued in the morning," Eikermann says, adding that as the quality of sleep decreases, cognitive function is impaired.

An Easy Solution

The key to breathing and sleeping easier after birth? Lift your upper body. "The intervention of elevated body position cured sleep apnea in half of the mothers," Eikermann notes, referencing the women who had moderate to severe OSA. This 50% improvement has huge implications, especially considering the cure is simple and free.

"A couple of pillows should be sufficient to increase the upper body position," he says, noting that the cushions should be neatly stacked on top of each other under the shoulder blades and chest to elevate the entire upper body, not just the head. New moms should sleep in this inclined position for at least three days after delivery, when patients are at increased risk for problems.

So grab some pillows, prop yourself up and rest easy!

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