The Effect of Poor Sleep on a Fetus

By Sara Ipatenco
A pregnant woman taking a nap on the couch.
A pregnant woman taking a nap on the couch.

Pregnancy and fatigue seem to go hand in hand. After all, you're rushing to the bathroom several times a night thanks to the surge of progesterone in your body and a tiny baby snuggling up to your bladder. Once your belly starts to swell, it can also be tough to get comfortable. Attempting to get good quality sleep is important for your own health, but lack of adequate sleep can also have a negative impact on your unborn baby.

Raises Risk for Preterm Delivery

A preterm baby is one who is delivered before 37 weeks gestation, which is 3 weeks before a woman's due date. Preterm babies are at a higher risk for anemia, low blood sugar, infection, breathing problems, jaundice and bleeding into the brain. Half of all preterm deliveries are due to unknown causes, but sleep deprivation during pregnancy is one potential cause, according to a 2010 article published in "Sleep Medicine Reviews." The article notes that in a study done with 19 women revealed that lack of sleep can raise IL-6 levels. IL-6 is a pro-inflammatory serum cytokine that might cause cervical changes and uterine contractions, leading to early delivery, "Sleep Medicine Reviews" reports.

Can Prolong Labor

Women who sleep for less than 6 hours per night during their last month of pregnancy are at a higher risk for a long labor, according to Jodi Mindell, a pediatric sleep expert writing for the BabyCenter website. While a long labor -- which is defined as labor that lasts for more than 24 hours -- can be painful and uncomfortable for the mother, a prolonged labor can also have a negative impact on the baby. For example, a long labor increases the risk that a baby will aspirate meconium into the lungs, which can be dangerous as it interferes with normal breathing. Prolonged labor can also raise a baby's risk of infection, according to the World Health Organization.

Increases Chances of Cesarean Delivery

Sleep deprivation, especially during the last month of pregnancy, raises the risk of a cesarean delivery, Mindell reports. For women who really want to deliver vaginally, this can be a concern, but there are also potentially dangerous risks associated with a C-section. The American Pregnancy Association notes that delivering by C-section raises the risk that a baby will have breathing problems. Babies delivered by C-section often have lower APGAR scores, which are numbered scores indicating how healthy a baby is. A baby might also be cut as a mother's belly and uterus is opened to deliver the child.

An Explanation of Adequate Sleep

If you're having trouble sleeping, speak with your doctor immediately to get tips to help you slumber longer. Because the negative effects lack of sleep can have on your unborn baby typically occur with less than 6 hours of sleep per night, it's important to work with your doctor to increase your nighttime rest time to at least that. Adults, however, including pregnant women, need more like 7 1/2 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Good, restorative sleep will give you the energy to function during the day, but it will also help support a healthy pregnancy.

About the Author

Sara Ipatenco has taught writing, health and nutrition. She started writing in 2007 and has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Denver.