Pregnancy and Sleep Apnea: An Overview

This is the first post in a series about sleep disorders affecting women during pregnancy. We first published this post in the Summer of 2013. 

Pregnant women want to do everything they can to ensure that they have a safe and healthy pregnancy. By now, most people know the basic things to stay on top of: mercury intake, prenatal vitamins and plenty of rest. Sleeping through the night is difficult for most women toward the end of their pregnancy; unfortunately, quality rest is even more elusive  for pregnant women who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

As the prevalence of obesity among reproductive age women increases, so do the instances of OSA, as obesity is the main risk factor associated with the frustrating and downright dangerous sleeping disorder. The topic of pregnancy-related OSA is just starting to gain prevalence in the research realm, but epidemiologists estimate that it affects about 10% of pregnant women. While the main risk factor at play is obesity, OSA can be exacerbated by nasal congestion due to large levels of progesterone. Women who have preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), gestational diabetes or intrauterine growth retardation should be extra cautious; doctors recommend that women with these conditions seek closer evaluation of the possible sleep condition through sleep studies.

The symptoms of sleep apnea for pregnant women are virtually the same as regular sleep apnea, including cessation in breathing during sleep, excessive daytime fatigue, choking during the night, and frequent trips to the bathroom. The crucial difference with this form of OSA is that it poses risk and consequence not only to the sleeper, but to the fetus as well.

The complications of pregnancy- related OSA can be very serious. OSA among  pregnant women can lead to gestational hypertension, diabetes, unplanned Caesarian sections. OSA during pregnancy can also cause fetal growth restriction and prolonged labor  (as if it isn’t already long enough). Most startling, however, is this next statistic. Fox News reports that the percentage of newborns admitted to the NICU was 46 percent for mothers with sleep apnea, and only 18 percent for those without. Clearly OSA should be added to the list of things to look out for to maximize your newborn child’s health. But luckily, there are common methods to improve outcomes for pregnant mothers and newborns. These treatments, for the pregnant mothers, include weight loss, sleeping on one’s side and  CPAP (continuous positive airways pressure).

Clearly, this is another topic for discussion during routine prenatal care and especially for high-risk pregnancies. Pregnant women should speak with their doctors about diagnosing and treating possible sleep apnea. 

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