As longtime readers of my blog know, in 2011, carrying my first child, I became obsessed with the question of whether pregnant women could lie on their backs–either for short periods of time, such as during a yoga class, or while asleep at night.
Several OBs told me to avoid lying on my back. But their justifications were murky, and their advice conflicting. Not a one could point to a single published study backing this advice up. And when asked at what point in pregnancy I needed to start avoiding back sleeping, their answers were all over the place. One told me it was verboten from 4 months on, another from 5 months on, and the third claimed I should worry only in the last month or so.
Sleeping with a bowling ball-sized stomach is challenging, to say the least. At the same time, groundless sleep prohibitions with vague but terrifying warnings that you might harm your baby are immensely frustrating, and yet almost impossible to disregard.
Pregnancy can be cruel. Just when you are at your most swollen, bloated, and exhausted, sleep proves frustratingly elusive. Every night, you toss and turn, trying to find a comfortable position, your back aching, and your belly pressing down on your bladder. And then, as you finally start to drift off, you realize you need to pee.
To make matters worse, despite having an enormous bowling ball attached to your stomach, you are told you cannot sleep on your back:
“After 16 weeks of pregnancy, experts advise women to not sleep on their backs, but rather should lie on their sides, ideally the left side” states a popular pregnancy blog.
But who came up with this idea?
This advice stems three studies that have linked back sleeping with late stillbirth (pregnancy loss after 28 weeks). (Interestingly these warnings predated the three studies, so they are not exactly the reason women are told to avoid back sleeping)
I described the first two studies, one conducted in Ghana, the other in New Zealand, in an earlier post, and concluded that not only did they provide no reason for alarm, they certainly do not justify blanket advice again back sleeping.
In 2015, a third study came out linking back sleeping with late stillbirth. Does it change the overall picture?
My third trimester in my second pregnancy was rough. The days were fine, but the nights were awful. I could not fall asleep. I was too uncomfortable. And as a second time mom, I was desperate. Months of sleep deprivation were my certain future. Pregnancy was supposed to be an opportunity to stock up on sleep before the newborn period.
The only remotely comfortable position was lying on my back, propped up with a couple of pillows. But several pregnancy websites and and my OBs had warned me against sleeping on my back during pregnancy.
More than anything, I wanted to disregard this advice. But I needed to know how big a risk, if any, I would be taking by sleeping on my back.
My OBs were not helpful in this regard. Within the same clinic, one OB told me to avoid lying on my back from 4 months on, another told me to avoid this position from 7 months on, and a third said not to worry until the last month of pregnancy. When asked, none of them could tell me the magnitude of the risk.
Eventually, I dug into the research myself. Once I did, I understood why the advice is confusing to mothers: the underlying research is a mess.
A pregnant woman woman’s belly can compress the inferior vena cava, a large vein running under the right side of her uterus; and compression of the inferior vena cava can cause a drop in blood pressure. In rare cases, the drop in blood pressure is severe enough to reduce heart output, lower oxygen going to the brain, and cause fainting.
Although the drop in blood pressure is unlikely to harm the mother, the concern is that if a pregnant woman’s oxygen levels drop, her baby’s might too. Under normal circumstances, though, women typically become uncomfortable and change their position before their blood pressure takes a serious dip.
Second, the symptoms of low blood pressure (dizziness, nausea, a rapid heartbeat) are easily recognizable. Women can figure out for themselves if lying on their back makes them uncomfortable, and avoid the practice if it does. In the reviewers words:
Advising women to sleep or lie exclusively on the left side is not practical and is irrelevant to the vast majority of patients. Instead, women should be told that a small minority of pregnant women feel faint when lying flat. Women can easily determine whether lying flat has this effect on them, and most will adopt a comfortable position that is likely to be a left supine position or variant thereof.
Third, previous research did not examine back sleeping. The research only addressed positioning women during surgery, when they are completely immobilized and unable to change their position.
This review was written in 2007. Its conclusions are clear and reassuring. Unfortunately, since its publication, two more recent studies muddy these waters a bit.
The first study was conducted at a maternity ward in Ghana. Two hundred twenty women who had recently given birth reported their sleep practices during pregnancy. Compared to women who slept in another position, the 21 women who reported either sleeping on their backs or “backs and sides”, had higher rates of NICU admissions (36.8% vs 15.2%) and stillbirths (15.8% vs 3.0%), and were more likely to have given birth to an underweight baby (36.8% vs 10.7%). Even when the researchers controlled for the mother’s age, number of children, gestational age, and pre-eclampsia, these differences remained statistically significant.
The second study was conducted in New Zealand. Researchers interviewed 155 women who experienced unexplained late stillbirths (after 28 weeks) about their sleep position both before pregnancy and in the last month, the last week, and the last night before their pregnancy ended. Their responses were compared to 301 control women, who were a similar number of weeks along but with ongoing pregnancies.
The researchers carefully controlled for several known risk factors for stillbirth: obesity, smoking, low socioeconomic status, maternal age, and number of prior children. Even so, sleeping on one’s back the night before corresponded to a higher risk of a late stillbirth compared to sleeping on one’s left side.
In fact, sleeping on one’s right side or in any other position than on the left side correlated with a higher risk of stillbirth.
Considered together, these two studies seem reason for caution, but not fear. They have a number of problems. Both were quite small, and both relied on women’s ability to recall what positions they slept in. And for the Ghana study, it’s unclear how the findings translate to women in a high income country.
Even assuming these findings hold up, the absolute risk appears to be very, very low. In the New Zealand Study, during its 3-year study period, the rate of late stillbirth was 3.09/1000. The researchers estimate that left side sleeping would lower the risk to 1.93/1000, whereas right side or back sleeping would raise it to 3.93/1000.
To put this risk further in perspective, the New Zealand study also found that going to the bathroom an average of once a night or less (as opposed to two or more times) was associated with an increased risk of a stillbirth. This magnitude of the increase was comparable to back sleeping. Yet, based on these data, no one has proposed that pregnant women should wake up more often to go to the bathroom.
So, what are we to make of these data? In my personal opinion, the research is not strong enough to support blanket warnings against back sleeping. Yes, there is a plausible mechanism for back sleeping causing problems. But the bulk of the evidence suggests that compression of the vena cava very rarely causes problems.
Depending on her risk tolerance and ability to sleep, one woman might look at these data and feel fine sleeping on her back. Another might choose to sleep exclusively on her left side. Both seem like reasonable decisions.