Struggling to sleep from pregnancy aches? Our sleep expert has the answers

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 32-year-old copywriting executive wants to know if her pregnancy is causing the aches and pains that are interrupting her sleep patterns and causing fatigue.

A little about me:

Age: 32

Occupation: Copywriting executive

Number of hours sleep you get each night: Eight

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: Eight, but more restless ones!

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: No

Do you measure your sleep in some way (e.g. using your phone or wearable): Not intentionally, but setting my alarm triggers ‘sleep mode’ on my phone, and that tends to tell me what’s what

How much water you drink on average per day: 8+ glasses

How much exercise I do on average per week: Daily walks, with a 1.5 hour fitness class on Mondays

Day 1

My alarm goes off at 6.50am and I feel exhausted, so I hit snooze until 7.20am. Then, I head downstairs, make myself a bowl of bran flakes and sliced banana (as well as a cup of rooibos tea and lemon), and throw the ball for the dog in the garden until it’s time to log on for work at 8.30am.

It’s a busy day, but I make time for a sandwich (nothing fancy – wholemeal bread, cheese, marmite) at lunch, and try to keep my water intake up. When work finishes, I take the dog for a walk, then head home to get ready for my fitness class. I dress so inappropriately for it (big sweater and leggings), and forget to take a water bottle, so wind up feeling too hot and faint in no time. It doesn’t help that I’m 17 weeks pregnant; I need to get better at this!

When I head home at 8.45pm, I have a very late dinner (just pasta with a side of mediterranean vegetables), which I wash down with lots of water. I take a vitamin tablet and head to bed, where I spend ages bedding down in my ridiculously oversized pregnancy pillow. It takes up almost the entire bed, but it’s helping to ease my terrible lower back pain at least a little bit; I keep waking up so stiff and sore at the moment.

I wake up once or twice in the night to go to the toilet, but don’t check the clock or anything. I fall asleep pretty quickly afterwards.

Day 2

I have the day off today, but still hop out of bed at 8.30am to walk the dog and have some breakfast. I also down three pints of water, as I have an appointment with the midwife at 10.15am and I need a full bladder for it!

After my appointment, I come home and play with the dog in the garden for a bit. I drink another two huge glasses of water because I (luck of the draw!) have another appointment at 12.30, and need a full bladder for that one, too.This one’s at the hospital and takes a fair bit longer than the morning appointment, and a lot more wandering around corridors feeling lost.

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Afterwards, I eat an egg sandwich (and a Wispa!) on the grass, then head home for a nap on the couch. When I wake up, I take the dog for another walk, and get home just as my partner does. We’re going out-out tonight (hurrah!), so quickly wash up and then hop in the car to drive to the restaurant.

It’s Italian food, which means asparagus in lots of butter, cheesy pasta, and probably too much bread. I sip lime and soda, and another glass of water, and then a lemon and ginger tea while everyone else is tucking into pudding (I overdid the bread). 

By the time dinner is finished, I’m nodding off at the table and basically using my empty plate as a pillow. As soon as we get home, I take my vitamin tablet and rush to the bathroom to brush my teeth, then head to bed. I fall asleep almost immediately, but wake up a few times in the night feeling a bit sick (probably the bread, right?) and uncomfortable. Lots of pillows to be rearranged. Ugh.

Day 3

I don’t know why I keep the 6.50am alarm as it is absolutely not doing it for me at the moment – I keep hitting snooze until 8am, then heave myself out of bed feeling incredibly sore and sick.

I keep breakfast light (one slice of toast and a banana, with my usual rooibos and lemon), and throw the ball for the dog for a bit before I have to log into work. I forget to break for lunch, which is terrible, and work through until 6pm (although I make sure to tidy the living room and kitchen up).

We’ve got a few friends coming over to play board games at 7pm, so I walk the dog for 45 minutes before heading home and tucking into a fish finger sandwich. Then, it’s games until 9.30pm, and I’m once again falling asleep where I sit. I think it’s either the pregnancy or the sudden influx of social activities… or both, maybe?

I’m in bed by 10.30pm, which feels so late, and I basically pass out mid-sentence while chatting to my partner. It’s another uncomfortable night (what can I do about my back?) but whenever I do wake up, I just shift positions and nod off again.

I spend ages bedding down in my ridiculously oversized pregnancy pillow. It takes up almost the entire bed, but it’s helping to ease my terrible lower back pain

Day 4

I struggle to wake up again, but make a point of showering before breakfast and playing with the dog. Today it’s another bowl of bran flakes, banana and sultanas but the milk makes me feel a bit sick and I end up leaving most of it.

The dog walker comes today, so I can focus on work once he’s picked up the dog and whisked him off on an adventure. I make sure I have a few crackers with cheese at lunch (and some chocolate, I’m terrible) and drink lots of water. I also make time for a seriously minute workout; 55 press ups, 55 squats, one very half-hearted plank.

I fully intend to go for a walk myself, but the heavens open and I suddenly feel exhausted. We eat a dinner of chicken, rice and sweetcorn (and a vitamin tablet), then sit on the couch for a while. At 9pm, I log into Zoom for a catch-up with a friend, and we end up chatting until 10pm… after which I prompt fall asleep on the sofa for an hour. Oops.

I head to bed, exhausted, and fall asleep almost immediately. I wake up in the night with aches in both legs, and get myself into a panic about it, but my partner wakes up to calm me down. Eventually, I fall back asleep.

Day 5

I feel groggy when I wake up yet again, so sleep through until 7.45am. Then, I get dressed and head outside to play with the dog, before eating some sultana-studded porridge and downing a rooibos and lemon.

It’s a busy day of meetings and deadlines, but I power through. I make sure to have a heartier lunch today  – beans on toast, as I sometimes feel nauseous when my stomach starts rumbling – and take the dog for a walk around the block.

I clock off around 6pm, then tidy the house and take the dog for a longer walk. When I get home, I make some veggie pasta and sit down to watch a movie. We head to bed at 11pm and, once I’ve arranged my nest of pillows, I fall asleep. 

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “I can’t see any glaring flaws in your routines and habits, other than perhaps a tad too much emphasis on energy-draining carbohydrates during the day which might not help your tiredness. It might be better to try and swap this for protein, if you can, as just one gram provides 17 kJ (4 kcal) a day.

“I recommend lean meats, poultry, eggs, Greek yoghurt, chickpeas, cottage cheese, or even just a handful of nuts or pumpkin seeds, if that’s easier.

“Now, you’ve mentioned that you’re pregnant, and I’m wondering if your aches and pains and restless sleep have come on during the pregnancy? It’s not just the physical discomfort of your growing bump that can cause this. During pregnancy, your body makes a hormone called relaxin that allows ligaments in the pelvic area to relax and the joints to become looser in preparation for the birth process. This same hormone, though, can cause ligaments that support the spine to loosen, leading to instability and pain.”

Sleep expert and neurophysiologist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

She continues: “To help ease this nighttime discomfort, I recommend doing some pregnancy yoga with an emphasis on deep breathing (this might also be good for D day!). You could also try relaxing in Epsom salts baths – just add two cups to the lukewarm water in your bathtub, get in and soak for around 15 minutes, to let the magnesium and sulfate soak in and soothe those aches and pains. Try doing this a few times a week to ease the muscles.

“It might also be worth treating yourself to some pregnancy reflexology or aromatherapy oils. Please, though, be sure to avoid those oils that can’t be used during pregnancy. Otherwise, good luck with everything!”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at [email protected] with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Images: Getty/Pexels/Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

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