This essay describes the changes that take place in a woman’s body during pregnancy, and whether or not she should sleep on her stomach.
The development of human embryos is well documented. This paper discusses the development of the fetus, the changes that the woman’s body goes through and what changes in shape will occur during the pregnancy; it also includes research about the risks (if there are any) of pregnant women lying on their stomachs.
Pregnancy is usually described in terms of trimesters—three three-month periods of time that together cover the entire length of the gestation period. Examining each will give us a way to understand the entire pregnancy. The following comments are for what is considered a “typical” or “normal” pregnancy, but every woman is different and every pregnancy is different.
The entire pregnancy usually has a duration of approximately 40 weeks. The first trimester is week 1 through week 12. During this time, the woman will either stop menstruation or what periods she does have will be very light; her breasts will enlarge; the volume of blood circulating doubles; and the uterus enlarges to approximately three times its normal size. The first trimester is also the time during which most women (if they are going to have it at all) experience “morning sickness.” The name is a misnomer, because the nausea and vomiting that sometimes occur during pregnancy can happen any time of the day or night. They can also last throughout the entire pregnancy, and not just during the first trimester, unfortunately.
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In addition to these changes, many women suffer from constipation and heartburn; some have bleeding at the time they would normally have had their period; and many feel fatigued. Although many changes are occurring in the body, outwardly there is little sign that the woman is pregnant; she usually doesn’t start to “show” until sometime in the second trimester.
In the second trimester (week 13 – week 26), many of the discomforts of the earlier part of the pregnancy will have passed. (Usually morning sickness stops at this point.) However, other unpleasant things happen; again, these are common to many women, but certainly not all. Most experience water retention (edema), particularly in the feet and ankles; walking may become difficult. Some women have nosebleeds and nasal congestion, and hemorrhoids and varicose veins may develop. A woman’s breasts will continue to enlarge and there will often be a discharge from the nipples. She may suffer from heartburn, indigestion and constipation. It is during this period that she can first feel the fetus moving.
The third trimester is the one in which the greatest physical changes take place in the woman’s body. As the fetus grows and develops, the abdomen becomes distended, and may drop as the fetus moves toward the birth canal. The woman’s navel pushes out; she may develop backaches and she will tend to walk differently (waddle) in order to accommodate the increasing weight. (Catherine, PG).
During pregnancy, a woman’s body goes through radical changes to protect and nourish the developing fetus. Perhaps we might think of her body as somewhat analogous to the cocoon of the developing butterfly, though of course the caterpillar develops very differently from the human child. Still, it would seem that nature takes every precaution to protect the young of the species, whatever it is.
The third trimester is the most difficult, and women usually find the end of pregnancy very uncomfortable. During the period, the abdomen grows rapidly and the uterus moves closer to the ribcage. The internal organs are squeezed together, and a woman may feel breathless because of this. As I mentioned above, the baby’s weight will cause the woman to have to walk differently to maintain her balance, and the strain will often cause backaches. After the second trimester, which is comfortable for most women, fatigue returns, along with constipation, heartburn, hemorrhoids and frequent urination. Breast discharge increases, as does vaginal discharge. Finally, a woman will experience false contractions, called Braxton-Hicks contractions, during this time; it is thought that these are to prepare her for delivery. The Braxton-Hicks contractions can be distinguished from true contractions because they are not rhythmic, do not grow stronger, and dissipate with movement. (“Third Trimester Body Changes,” PG).
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Finally, it is recommended that women sleep on their left side during the latter part of their pregnancy. The weight of the fetus can cause interference with digestion and breathing, so women shouldn’t sleep on their back. (“Third Trimester Body Changes,” PG).
Back sleeping may also lead to increasing problems with acid reflux and heartburn.
Another source goes further, and reports that the combined weight of the baby, uterus and placenta puts pressure on a “major body vein,” which can slow down the blood flow throughout the mother’s body and exacerbating some of the problems already mentioned, including edema, varicose veins and fatigue. The flow of oxygen to the baby may also decrease when the woman lies on her back; side sleeping is definitely recommended. (“Precious Babies, Better Chances,” PG).
Further checking about sleep positions revealed that most recommend sleeping on the left side, though one does say it really doesn’t matter which side a pregnant woman sleeps on; whichever is more comfortable is fine. (Bazli, PG).
Sleeping on the stomach is not recommended by anyone that I’ve found. It puts undue pressure on the fetus and in addition, it’s virtually impossible for a woman to sleep on her stomach late in pregnancy because it’s simply too uncomfortable. I haven’t found any reference anywhere that suggests there is any value to stomach sleeping during pregnancy.
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In fact, women generally complain that they have trouble sleeping during the last trimester. Backaches, aching legs, discomfort, and frequent urination as the uterus presses on the bladder—all these things go to make up a fairly miserable experience. Everyone I’ve read suggests sleeping on the left side is the most comfortable position for most women. In addition, the sources suggest propping pillows against the back, between the legs and under the abdomen for support; a full body pillow may also help ease some of the discomfort.
Finally, I looked to see if I could find any sources that suggest actual harm can come to either mother or child from stomach sleeping. I’ve found many sources that say sleeping on the back or stomach should be avoided. I haven’t actually found anyone who has suggested that it might be possible to crush the fetus, but on the other hand, not one single source anywhere has said that stomach sleeping is acceptable or to be encouraged. Rather, it is to be avoided.
In addition to the risk to the child, it seems to me that a heavily pregnant woman would find it impossible to rest sleeping on her stomach; it would be like trying to sleep on a basketball! But even earlier in the pregnancy when she doesn’t yet show, there are still no recommendations that she sleep in this position. I’d have to conclude that it is simply not advisable at any stage of a woman’s pregnancy.
A woman’s body undergoes radical changes during pregnancy, and the hormonal swings usually lead to emotional swings as well. Her abdomen distends, her uterus moves and squeezes her other internal organs, and she may develop varicose veins, hemorrhoids, constipation and heartburn; she may have difficulty walking or sleeping.
As the birth nears, the baby will drop toward the birth canal and her abdomen will “droop” as well.
Finally, all the sources I’ve found indicate that sleeping on her stomach is not a good idea at any time in her pregnancy.
Bazli, Sameera. “Sleep Soundly During Pregnancy.” Pregnancy Clinic. Undated. Accessed: 12 Feb 2003. http://www.angelfire.com/80s/emed/sleep_during_pregnancy.htm
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Catherine. “How a Woman’s Body Changes During Pregnancy.” Planned Parenthood [Web site]. 1999-2003. Accessed: 12 Feb 2003. http://www.teenwire.com/index.asp?taStrona=http://www.teenwire.com/warehous/articles/wh_19981201p019.asp
“Precious Babies, Better Chances.” Childbirth Solutions.com [Web Site]. 2003. Accessed: 12 Feb 2003. http://www.childbirthsolutions.com/articles/preconception/coalition/index.php
“Third Trimester Body Changes.” A Mom’s Touch [Web Site]. 2000-2002. Accessed: 12 Feb 2003. http://www.amomstouch.com/thirdtrichanges.htm