Your Questions Answered on Labor and Sleep

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If you or your partner are currently expecting a child, you probably have a lot of questions about everything from safe sleeping positions to whether or not your newborn baby needs to wear shoes.

All of those questions are perfectly normal, and wanting answers to them isn’t strange at all. If your baby’s due date is coming soon, your questions probably revolve mostly around labor and delivery.

Seven of the most commonly asked questions concerning labor and sleep are:

  1. Can labor start while sleeping?
  2. Is it normal to sleep a lot before labor?
  3. If I can’t sleep, is insomnia a sign of labor?
  4. Can you sleep through early labor/contractions?
  5. Can you sleep through active labor?
  6. Can waters break in your sleep?
  7. Can babies sleep through labor or contractions?

If you’ve been wondering about how your or your partner’s sleeping habits might affect the upcoming birth of your child, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s jump right in and hopefully set your mind at ease.

Can Labor Start While Sleeping?

Labor can and often does start while you’re sleeping. For most women, labor usually begins at night. Scientists believe frequent nighttime labor occurs because of the effect melatonin, the sleep hormone, has on oxytocin production. Together, the two can “jumpstart”early labor (source: JCEM). 

According to a study conducted by the CDC, the “highest percentages of births occurred during the morning and midday hours.” Assuming most labor takes between eight and 12 hours, that means the highest percentages of women went into labor overnight (source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Although labor frequently begins at night, whether or not you’re sleeping, it can actually happen at any time. You can go into labor while sleeping, sitting, walking, talking, eating, painting, dancing, or even driving. In other words, labor happens when it wants to happen, regardless of any plans you might have.

That’s precisely why many major airlines have restrictions put in place to limit when and how far pregnant women can fly (source: USA Today). 

It’s also why many women make the personal choice to stop driving – or stop driving alone – in the last few weeks before their due dates. 

Although there are no laws stating that expectant mothers can’t drive after a certain point in their pregnancies, some of them just feel safer not operating a vehicle in the final weeks of their pregnancies in case they suddenly go into labor while driving. 

Others choose to keep driving, but they won’t do so alone unless the trip is an extremely short one. Then again, some women never change anything about their traveling routines. It’s all a matter of personal preference, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Photo of beautiful pregnant woman sleeping in bed

Is It Normal To Sleep a Lot Before Labor?

Being pregnant can do all kinds of things to a woman’s sleeping habits. Most doctors and specialists recommend that pregnant women get at least eight hours of sleep each night.

However, according to numerous studies, they usually only get about seven to seven and half hours in the second trimester and even less in the third (source: Sleep Foundation).    

It’s not normal to sleep a lot before labor; rather, women tend to sleep less. In fact, many women reportedly get a massive burst of energy about 24 to 48 hours before their water breaks. This often leads to the “pre-labor nesting” stage we see so often in pop culture (source: Cleveland Clinic).

This sudden onset of energy doesn’t mean pregnant women aren’t still tired, however. On the contrary, extreme fatigue is another symptom indicative of imminent labor. That may seem contradictory, but it’s true.

Every woman is different, and every pregnancy is, as well. While many do get that seemingly magical burst of nesting energy a day or so before they go into labor, just as many report feeling especially drained or fatigued (source: Cleveland Clinic). 

Labor is an intense process, so most doctors will tell you to sleep if you can. Rest when you feel like you need rest, and if you aren’t experiencing insomnia, take advantage of that extra sleeping time. Once your baby arrives, sleep will be a luxury.

However, if your fatigue and need to sleep seem overwhelming or unusual, don’t be afraid to call and speak with your OBGYN to ease your mind. Chances are, it’s probably nothing.

However, as an expectant mother, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Plus, if checking in with your doctor helps prevent anxiety and undue stress, you should do so.

Make a note if any of these other conditions accompanies your excessive sleeping:

  • High blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Swelling
  • Headache
  • Blurry vision

If so, call your doctor immediately, as these could indicate a dangerous condition known as preeclampsia (source: Penn Medicine). 

If I Can’t Sleep, Is Insomnia a Sign of Labor?

Insomnia can be a sign of labor, but it’s not the most apparent or trustworthy one. According to one study cited by BioMed Central, over 60% of 1,480 pregnant women surveyed admitted to experiencing mild to severe insomnia throughout multiple stages of their pregnancies (source: BioMed Central).

Multiple studies have been conducted over the years concerning insomnia and pregnant women.

In 2002, a popular article appeared in Sleep Medicine Volume three in which 325 women completed questionnaires about their sleeping habits three months before they became pregnant, during each trimester of their pregnancies, and three months after they delivered their babies. 

According to the study, the “subjective quality of sleep is disturbed as early as the first trimester of pregnancy.” These disturbances continue until well after the birth of their children (source: Sleep Medicine).

Although most women reported instances of insomnia more frequently in their third trimesters, they experienced it regularly throughout their terms. As a result, you can’t use insomnia as a definitive symptom of labor. 

However, insomnia increases dramatically right before the onset of labor for some women because the body begins to secrete more significant oxytocin levels. 

While most people think of oxytocin as “the love hormone,” it’s also associated with wakefulness. Prodigious production of oxytocin leads to more frequent bouts of insomnia pre-labor for many women (source: Obstetric Medicine).

Suppose you’ve been sleeping relatively soundly throughout your pregnancy but have suddenly developed a severe case of insomnia in your third trimester. In that case, this could be a good indication that you’re soon to go into labor. If you’ve battled insomnia regularly since conceiving your baby, however, it’s a less reliable indicator.

pretty pregnant woman drinking water while lying on a sofa at home

Can You Sleep Through Early Labor/Contractions?

You can sleep through early labor/contractions. Furthermore, most doctors, doulas, and other professionals encourage you to do so. Sleeping through early labor allows you to rest, avoid discomfort, and save your energy for when the hard part starts (source: The University of New Mexico Hospitals).

As I’ve already mentioned, labor is intense, and including early labor, contractions, and active labor, the process can last up to 24 hours or longer. The last couple of hours are the most challenging time, so relaxing and resting during the early stage is highly recommended.

If sleeping isn’t an option for you in the first stages of labor, here are some other things you might try to keep yourself comfortable and relaxed:

  • Rest: Even if you can’t sleep, that doesn’t mean you can’t close your eyes, do some deep breathing exercises, and rest.
  • Walk, dance, or do light yoga: If you can’t relax sitting still, move instead. Moving helps relieve pain, discomfort, and feelings of tightness.
  • Drink plenty of water: You don’t want to become dehydrated. It makes the whole labor process more difficult.
  • Take a soothing, warm bath: The warm water can help ease your pain, and the act of bathing itself can be calming.
  • Surround yourself with loved ones: Have safe, loving people around you to help you, hold your hand, or just talk to you when you need a distraction.

Do whatever you need to do to make this time more comfortable for yourself. The more relaxed and less stressed you are, the healthier your baby will be.

Can You Sleep Through Active Labor?

It is highly unlikely that you could sleep through active labor without pharmaceutical or medical assistance. However, some mothers require epidurals, general anesthesia, or other pain killers or medications while giving birth. Although it’s extremely rare, these can put them to sleep during labor.

However, even the most potent medications used during active labor are unlikely to put you to sleep. Narcotic drugs, such as morphine, are usually only administered during early labor, meaning the sleepiness should wear off before active labor begins (source: Utah Department of Health).

The most commonly administered procedure for pain relief during childbirth is an epidural, and they aren’t generally strong enough to put you to sleep. 

In emergency situations, a prospective mother may be given general anesthesia via IV or gas mask. This medication could potentially put her to sleep or make her very drowsy at the least, but again, medical professionals only administer this type of medication in extreme emergency cases.

There are stories and articles (almost exclusively online) about mothers that allegedly gave birth naturally, at home, while asleep. They claim they only found out they’d given birth when they or their family members discovered their healthy, crying babies and woke the mothers up. 

I find these claims highly suspect, but if you’re interested in reading more about them, a quick Google search should lead you to them.

Can Waters Break in Your Sleep?

Just as labor can start while you’re asleep, your water can also break while you’re sleeping. You don’t have to worry about sleeping through it, though. When your water breaks, you’ll wake up either because you feel it happening or from the extreme wetness and coldness in your bed.

If that isn’t enough to wake you up, chances are you’ll soon wake up anyway. As we’ve already mentioned, pregnant women close to giving birth wake up multiple times a night and are very light sleepers, so even without the wetness in the bed, you’re likely to wake up anyway (source: Mindell & Jacobson). 

Plus, the longer you sleep, the more fluid is going to leak from your body. Eventually, that wetness is going to spread and sink into the bed. If you sleep with a partner, s/he is likely to feel it before too long, so if all else fails, a cold, wet partner is sure to get you up (source: Mayo Clinic). 

The critical thing to remember is that your water can break at any time, whether it’s two a.m. and you’re sleeping soundly in bed or if you’re in the middle of taking a bath or a shower. 

That’s why it’s essential to have a bag packed and a plan in place for the last few weeks of your pregnancy. Once your water breaks, you should immediately go to the hospital, meaning you’ll need to grab your things and go.

While it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you stopped to take ten minutes to throw a few things in a bag first, you’re probably not going to feel like doing that. 

Furthermore, both you and your partner will be nervous, excited, happy, and a little scared. If you wait until the moment your water breaks to try to pack your hospital bag, you’re sure to forget a few essential items.

checking heart rate to tell if baby is sleeping during labor

Can Babies Sleep Through Labor or Contractions?

Like their moms, babies can sleep through early labor and contractions; however, once active labor gets going, they’re usually awake for that. During early labor, babies sometimes take 20- to 40-minute naps in between contractions. You can tell if your baby is sleeping by checking its heart rate.

If you’re a prospective mother, you’ve probably been talking to other mothers about their babies’ labor, births, and other relevant factors. You may have heard a few of them say something along the lines of, “You can always tell when you’re about to give birth because your baby will get really still the day before.” 

Although no one is sure precisely why this happens, it does happen quite often. Some people have suggested that the baby knows it’s time for labor and is saving up all its energy to get through it. Maybe so; maybe not. 

Either way, if your baby suddenly goes still when it’s close to your due date, you should contact your doctor. This could indicate a problem with the baby, or it could just mean that you’re about to go into labor. In either case, your doctor should know (source: Medline Plus).

I mention this because once early labor gets started, your baby may go through even more periods of stillness. It’s during those times that the baby is likely sleeping. Babies take 20- to 40-minute naps during the early stages of labor, so you may not feel a lot of movement from your child during this time. 

This lack of motion terrifies many new mothers, but their doctors, nurses, doulas, and other professionals can reassure them by carefully monitoring the baby’s heartbeat.

A baby’s heartbeat ranges from 120 to 160 beats per minute. When your baby’s heartbeat is on the lower end of that spectrum, s/he’s probably sleeping (source: State of New York Department of Health). 

When the baby’s heartbeat is closer to 160 beats per minute, s/he’s usually awake and actively moving. If your baby’s heartbeat drops below 120 or rises above 160, that could be, but isn’t always, cause for concern.  

Final Thoughts

If you came here because you were worried about insomnia, oversleeping, or snoozing through the birth of your beautiful baby, hopefully this article has given you some peace of mind that it just isn’t going to happen.

All pregnancies are different, so whether you’re sleeping a lot or not sleeping at all, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.