Pregnant women have plenty of things to worry about. What they can (and cannot) eat. Gaining too much (or not enough) weight. Getting enough exercise. Do they also need to worry about the way they sleep? The British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology raised that question when they published a study linking stillbirth with moms to be sleeping on their backs. "This study is causing a lot of unfounded fear," said Martha Monson, MD, a maternal and fetal expert with University of Utah Health. "If you look beyond the headline to the details you'll find that the conclusions may not be justified."
The research methods employed in the study are one cause of concern. Most of the data is self -reported after the fact by mothers with stillborn children. On average they were interviewed 25 days after the stillbirth occurred. "It is very possible these women were not accurately reporting their sleep habits," said Karen Gibbins, MD, another maternal fetal specialist. "They also may be looking for answers as to why their babies were stillborn. They may have turned to the internet and seen speculation that supine (back) sleep might be associated with stillbirth."
Another issue is that while the study links stillbirth with pregnant women sleeping on their backs - that may only be a signal of the real problem: obstructive sleep apnea. This condition can cause episodes of low oxygen and could lead to pregnancy complications - including stillbirth. It is also made worse by sleeping on your back. "Doctors shouldn't be looking at sleep position, but sleep quality with screenings for apnea," said Lauren Theilen, MD, who also specializes in maternal fetal medicine. "Simply changing sleep position will not address the problem."
While more research needs to be done on the impacts of maternal sleep position on the risk of stillbirth there other risk factors moms can address now. Obesity, smoking during pregnancy, drinking alcohol, and high blood pressure all have known links to stillbirth risk. "Pregnant women have a lot of things they can control," said Monson. "It's important they focus on those modifiable risk factors rather than worry about something like sleep position."
"That may be more harmful than helpful," said Gibbins. "Especially if it keeps a woman from sleeping."
"After all, a pregnant woman needs all the sleep she can get," adds Theilen.