Vital new research on sleep positions for pregnant women

Women in their third trimester of pregnancy are being urged to sleep on their side after a new study confirms the risk of stillbirth is doubled if they sleep on their backs

If all pregnant women in the UK went to sleep on their side in the third trimester of their pregnancy, it’s estimated that there would be a 3.7% decrease in stillbirth, saving around 130 babies’ lives a year.

Internationally, this advice about maternal sleeping position has the potential to save up to 100,000 babies a year, making it an incredibly important finding for all parents and parents-to-be.

This is according to The Midlands and North of England Stillbirth Study (MiNESS) – the largest study of its kind – which was published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Following this study, a new Sleep on Side campaign has been launched, led by the charity Tommy’s, to educate women about the risk of going to sleep on their back in late pregnancy.

Currently around 1 in 225 pregnancies in the UK ends in stillbirth.

The increased risk associated with women going to sleep on their back has now been demonstrated consistently by four studies in women of different ethnicities and in different countries.

Researchers cannot say for certain why the risk is increased, but there are several theories

One theory is that, when the woman is lying on her back, the combined weight of baby and the uterus puts pressure on the main blood vessels that supply the uterus. This can restrict blood flow and oxygen to the baby.

Other explanations include disturbed breathing during sleep, which is worse when a woman sleeps on her back and in overweight or obese women, who also have an increased risk of stillbirth.

Louise Silverton, Director for Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, said: ‘Stillbirth is a terrible tragedy for mothers and their families and we must do all we can to bring stillbirth rates down.’

‘This addition to current knowledge is very welcome. The Tommy’s campaign and the research findings are a great example of how, through making small changes, we can begin to bring down stillbirth rates.’

She adds: ‘It’s a simple change that can make a difference and it will be important to ensure that this is communicated effectively to women.’

Safe sleeping

The advice to pregnant women is to go to sleep on your side for any episode of sleep in the third trimester, including:

  • going to sleep at night
  • returning to sleep after any night awakenings
  • day time naps

The following tips may help you find a comfortable sleep position:

  • put a pillow or pillows behind your back to encourage side-sleeping
  • if you wake during the night, check your position and go back to sleep on your side
  • pay the same attention to sleep position during the day as you would during the night
  • if you wake on your back during the night, don’t worry, just roll onto your side

For more information on the Tommy’s Sleep on Side campaign, click here.