Pregnant patients often ask me how they can increase their chances of having an unmedicated labor and birth.  My first response is always the same – preparation. Reading books, taking classes, and watching videos of natural childbirth can all help set up realistic expectations and provide accurate information.

My second response often surprises people. I encourage women to get as much good sleep as possible in the days leading up to their due date. There is no scientific evidence to back this up, only my anecdotal experience. In the 15 years I’ve spent working in the birth business, sleep seems to be a game changer when it comes to how well women can tolerate labor.

It makes sense. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability and lack of focus, among other cognitive impairments. Think about how small things bother you when you are sleep deprived, and how difficult it can be do even the most routine tasks after a night of insomnia. Now imagine going through something as intense as labor and birth on little to no sleep.

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Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is very common among pregnant women, particularly in the final weeks of pregnancy, when it is often difficult to find a comfortable sleep position. Women are often waking frequently to urinate or with Braxton-Hicks contractions. 

Sleep deprived women seen to have a difficult time tolerating labor, even after adequate preparation for childbirth. Women who have long labors often go for nights on end with little to no sleep. Many reach a point where they request an epidural, just so they can get some sleep. I sometimes see these patients progress through labor very quickly once they are able to get a nap.

I believe that most women have the ability to give birth without pain medication, if that is what they desire, and if they prepare accordingly. There are things we know make this more difficult, like the use of pitocin, prolonged labor, and lack of support. But sleep deprivation is something very few books or childbirth classes include. Women and their partners should be aware of how important a variable sleep can be in childbirth.

Robyn Carlisle, MSN, CNM, WHNP, works as a full-scope midwife at University Doctors and Kennedy University Hospital in Sewell, N.J.