Is it harmful to work night shifts while pregnant?

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While there is some research that has evaluated the potential risks of shift work on pregnant women, studies have been small and have had conflicting results. Some of the specific outcomes studied included the risk of pre-term delivery, low birth weight, and a condition called pre-clampsia. Overall, evidence of low birth weight and pre-term delivery was found to be very small and no studies have shown a significantly increased risk of pre-clampisa tied to pregnant women working night shifts.

Pregnant or not, though, working the night shift can cause you to experience disturbed, reduced, fragmented and poor sleep compared to working during the day. While awake, you could experience increased sleepiness and feel less alert, resulting in an increased risk of accidents or mistakes. If disturbances in your sleep and wake patterns are present and severe for at least 3 months, you should look to be evaluated by a sleep physician for shift work disorder.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet, trying to maintain activity despite working night shifts and allowing for adequate sleep, are all important factors to staying healthy. 

Tips for staying healthy on the night shift

  • Make sure to get bright light exposure at the start of your shift and throughout
  • Avoid bright lights before you sleep. Do not use your smart phone, computer, or other electronic devices that emit blue light at least an hour before sleep
  • Avoid caffeine, exercise, and eating a heavy meal just before going to bed
  • Try to exercise when waking up (preferably four hours before sleep)
  • Additionally, try to snack on fruits and vegetables when feeling sleepy or hungry instead of processed snacks

 

Different schedules may not accommodate all of these recommendations, however, so do your best and try not to stress about things that are beyond your control. These goals are not always easy to meet, so remember to take one day at a time. As always eating healthy, exercising, and allowing time to relax and sleep are important to any woman’s health.

If you snore, wake up choking or gasping, or if your bed partner has noticed pauses in breathing while you are asleep, please mention this to your physician as you may need an evaluation for obstructive sleep apnea.  In a recent study of over 3,000 pregnant women, prevalence of sleep apnea was about eight percent by their mid-pregnancy, which was associated with pre-clampsia and gestational diabetes.

We’ve partnered with Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a major teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, to answer your most pressing questions about your health during pregnancy and beyond. Have a question you’d like our team of doctors to answer? Leave it in the comments below and the BWH staff may answer it in an upcoming article. 

About our doctors: Louise E. Wilkins-Haug, MD, PhD is the Division Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine and Reproductive Genetics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Sarah Elizabeth Little, MD, MPH, is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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