Sleep apnea is when a person stops breathing for short periods of time in their sleep.
Either they spontaneously stop or are unable to breathe and then suddenly start breathing again (known as intermittent hypoxia). This happens many times throughout the night, often in an uncomfortable and continuous cycle. This typically results in thunderous and irregular snoring that may disturb sleeping partners.
Those suffering from sleep apnea often wake up many times during the night as they suddenly choke or resume breathing. You may experience sleep apnea as waking with a cough over and over again. But in many cases, most people suffering from sleep apnea aren’t even aware of it. They wake up feeling exhausted after spending 8-10 hours in bed, not realizing they’ve been waking up constantly throughout the night.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), when something from the sinuses to the esophagus clogs or compresses the airway until breathing stops. Often, coughing or gasping is the only way to restore breathing, or breathing restores on its own when the recurring obstruction fades.
Central sleep apnea is another type of sleep apnea. However, it’s not as common as OSA. It happens when the brain is involved and can be trickier to diagnose and support.
Unlike OSA, central sleep apnea occurs because the brain is not sending the correct messages to the muscles that control breathing. In other words, this type of sleep apnea is caused by a neurological reason rather than a mechanical problem.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
If you are experiencing sleep apnea, the symptoms can be recorded in two ways. You can examine your own experience or ask your partner what they experience when you're asleep. Both sets of observations provide essential information about your symptoms.
You Will Notice
- Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
- Waking with discomfort or Dry mouth
- Nighttime Heartburn
- Morning Head and neck tension
- Frequent Nighttime Urination
- Nasal Congestion
- Waking Constantly in the Night
Your Partner Will Notice
- Periods of Not Breathing
- Loud Snoring
- Irregular Breathing or Snoring
- Choking Sounds During Sleep
- Coughing or Sputtering after a Pause
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
Check with your doctor if you suspect that you have sleep apnea because of your pregnancy. Although OSA prevalence in pregnant women is considered relatively low, it is still important to receive a proper diagnosis. Your healthcare provider can medically diagnose you by examining your sinuses and airways and conducting sleep studies.
An ENT (Ears Nose Throat) examination will include looking through your sinuses and throat to determine if there are any direct physical causes of your sleep apnea. Women with deviated septums are much more likely to develop sleep apnea, as airways are very easily blocked. If the ENT finds a cause, they may suggest a specific treatment.
A sleep study, or polysomnogram (PSG), is when you spend the night in a clinic connected to sensors that monitor your sleep. The sensors and a monitoring medical staff will measure how much air you're getting and whether you stop breathing in the night. This is the most reliable way to confirm a case of sleep apnea.
Home Sleep Tests
A Home Sleep Test (HST) is another testing option for adults that can be done from the comfort of home. This is a modified type of sleep study that apnea may become present in the first and second trimester.
Congested Mucous Membranes
Congestion is one of the leading causes of sleep apnea. This happens when your airways temporarily clog and unclog over and over again due to congested mucus production. It is also the most frequent root cause of sleep apnea in pregnant women who experience mucus changes in response to hormone changes.
Obesity and Obstructed Airway
Obesity also drastically increases the chances of sleep apnea with or without a pregnancy. A high body max index (BMI) combined with pregnancy, therefore, makes sleep apnea much more likely to occur. Obesity causes sleep apnea because additional neck weight can compress the airway during sleep.
How Sleep Apnea Affects Pregnant Women
Sleep apnea usually appears with other types of pregnancy complications or underlying medical disorders, though the root cause is not always known. During pregnancy, women who experience this sleep disorder are more likely to experience preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, and cesarean section births.
Preeclampsia is high blood pressure during pregnancy (gestational hypertension) that can put the mother at risk.
Gestational diabetes is when the mother experiences diabetes-like blood sugar symptoms during the pregnancy.
Due to these and other complications, women who experience sleep apnea are more likely to go through a cesarean section to give birth instead of a natural birth.
One study on obese pregnant women concluded that pregnant mothers with sleep apnea are 26% more likely to experience preeclampsia and 32% more likely to go through a cesarian section.
How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Baby
Sleep apnea can also have risk factors for the health of your baby. When a mother has sleep apnea during pregnancy, infants are more likely to have a low birth weight and have a 28% higher chance of needing to spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) immediately after birth due to fragility. This is because sleep apnea lowers your blood oxygen levels — and the less air you breathe in each night, the less oxygen your baby gets.
How To Help Reduce Symptoms of Sleep Apnea During Pregnancy
Preventing sleep apnea is often not practical or possible, especially in the brief duration of your pregnancy.
For most pregnant women, a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine will work wonders to give you full nights of snore-free sleep you've been missing. The CPAP machine uses air pressure to essentially clear your throat for you all night long.
You wear a mask connected to a hose connected to a small air pump, which keeps your airways open while you sleep. Many moms-to-be often worry about their appearance when wearing a CPAP mask, with some even delaying the care and rest their bodies need during pregnancy.
But once they start to feel better, the benefits of CPAP therapy quickly outweigh the stigma.
Another great way to help reduce symptoms of sleep apnea during pregnancy is to supplement with magnesium. Applying a magnesium sleep lotion before bedtime is a great way to help relax your body and mind, and promote a good night's sleep.
Specially-made oral appliances can also support episodes of sleep apnea during pregnancy, but to be effective, they must be custom-made specifically for you. In other words, there’s no such thing as an over-the-counter, one-size-fits-all oral appliance for sleep apnea.
These special mouthpieces are typically fitted by an experienced dentist. They can help keep your throat open by bringing your lower jaw forward or holding your tongue in a different position.
If you develop sleep apnea during pregnancy, it might clear once your small bundle is born, but it’s of the utmost importance to keep the condition monitored by a professional. You should continue to use the treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider to reduce the sleep apnea symptoms until you’ve been given the green light to go without it.
That being said, if the birth of your little one comes and goes, and you’re still dealing with sleep apnea — don’t panic. Many studies indicate that the condition gets better with weight loss, so once your precious tot has arrived, your OSA symptoms should begin to subside.
Of course, don’t ever hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider with questions or concerns. What you’re experiencing can be a little scary — worry not, though, as you’re certainly not alone, and treatment is available!
Management of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Pregnancy