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Sleep apnea and pregnancy – Understanding the risks and treatment options

Posted on June 13th, 2023

Pregnancy is an exciting time for many women. But it can also bring its own set of health risks. 

One such risk is sleep apnea, a condition that affects millions of Americans and can be especially dangerous during pregnancy. Sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep and causes pauses in breathing.

Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious complications for pregnant women and their babies. These complications include…

  • Gestational hypertension – A type of high blood pressure that can develop during pregnancy 
  • Pre-eclampsia – A serious pregnancy complication that causes high blood pressure and damage to organs like the liver and kidneys
  • Preterm birth – The delivery of babies before the thirty-seventh week of pregnancy, which can lead to complications such as respiratory distress syndrome, infections, and developmental delays 
  • Gestational Diabetes – A type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy 
  • Low birth weight – Low birth weight in babies can lead to problems such as jaundice, breathing issues, and developmental delays
  • C-section – The delivery of babies via C-section, which carries its own set of risks and complications 

Untreated sleep apnea can also lead to…

  • Heart disease
  • Depression 
  • Stroke 
  • Diabetes
  • Memory loss
  • Asthma 
  • Acid reflux

Who can develop sleep apnea during pregnancy? 

Any pregnant person can develop sleep apnea. But people who are overweight or gained weight too quickly during pregnancy, or have gestational diabetes are at a higher risk. Having a deviated septum or a wide neck can also increase the risk of sleep apnea. 

Sleep apnea during pregnancy affects up to 26% of women. And the risks are serious. Fortunately, preventative measures and treatments are available to help pregnant women manage the condition. 

What happens when sleep apnea occurs during pregnancy? 

Sleep apnea can occur at any time during pregnancy. But it’s most likely to happen in the third trimester. This is due to the hormonal and physical changes that take place in women’s bodies as they approach their due dates. 

Some of these changes include…

  • Higher levels of progesterone – More progesterone in the body activates muscles that can relax women’s airways and lead to sleep apnea
  • Weight gain – Gaining weight during pregnancy puts additional pressure on women’s airways, making it more difficult for them to breathe at night
  • Pressure on the lungs – A developing uterus and fetus put pressure on women’s lungs, which can reduce air volume and increase their breathing rate

Sleep apnea symptoms to watch out for are as follows…

  • Loud, frequent snoring
  • Gasping or choking during sleep 
  • Nighttime teeth grinding 
  • Dry throat 
  • Heart racing at night
  • Morning headaches
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Trouble staying asleep 

How can pregnant women prevent, manage, and treat sleep apnea? 

Pregnant women can be proactive by taking steps to reduce their risks of getting sleep apnea. One of the most important steps is to get sufficient high-quality rest. Other suggestions include lifestyle changes, such as…

  • Reducing stress and anxiety through meditation or deep breathing exercises 
  • Sleeping on the left side instead of on the back 
  • Wearing nasal strips

If pregnant women still have sleep apnea symptoms, they can explore other treatment options, including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines and mandibular advancement devices (MADs). 

CPAP machines require patients to wear a mask over their nose and mouth while the machines gently push air into the nose to keep the airways open during sleep. MADs are special mouthpieces that reduce snoring and hold people’s jaws and tongues in the correct position to keep their airways open.

Does sleep apnea go away after pregnancy? 

If women didn’t have sleep apnea prior to becoming pregnant, they will likely see their symptoms improve postpartum. Their sleep apnea may resolve completely. 

Sleep apnea typically improves with weight loss. So as the uterus returns to its standard size and some of the extra pregnancy weight comes off, women’s sleep apnea symptoms should lessen. 

Does sleep apnea during pregnancy affect babies once they’re born? 

The long-term effects on babies born to mothers with sleep apnea are unclear. One study found a correlation between children born to mothers who had sleep apnea during pregnancy and lower social developmental scores. But additional research is needed to know for sure. 

Sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition for pregnant women. But women can manage the condition by practicing good health and seeking more advanced treatments if necessary. 

Pregnant women should talk to their doctors if they have any questions or concerns about developing sleep apnea. Being proactive helps ensure mothers and babies stay safe and healthy during pregnancy. 

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website:

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Healthy Sleep Revolution Podcast Cover

Healthy Sleep Revolution Podcast

Snoring? Tired all day? Trouble focusing?
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