Sleep Problem: Restless Legs Syndrome During Pregnancy

What it is

If you feel an uncontrollable urge to move your legs to relieve crawling, tingling, or burning sensations, you probably have restless legs syndrome (RLS).

You’re not alone. One study of more than 600 pregnant women found that over 16 percent reported symptoms of RLS.

At the end of your rope? Need sleep? Find practical ideas that might work for you here: Coping with restless legs syndrome: Pregnancy advice from moms-to-be.

Symptoms usually show up when you’re at rest, especially right before you fall asleep or when you’ve been sitting still for long periods, such as at the movies or during a long car ride. Most of the time, you’ll feel the symptoms of RLS in your lower legs, but some women feel it in their feet, thighs, arms, or hands, too.

Moving your limbs brings immediate relief, but the sensations return when you stop moving. Needless to say, this can be very uncomfortable and frustrating, especially when you’re trying to sleep. If RLS keeps you from sleeping night after night, you could end up seriously fatigued.

Fortunately for women who develop RLS during pregnancy, it’s temporary. The symptoms typically peak when you’re 7 or 8 months pregnant and disappear altogether by the time you deliver your baby or within a month afterward.

What causes restless legs syndrome

No single cause has been identified, but research is ongoing. In addition to affecting a good number of pregnant women, RLS affects men, children, and women who aren’t pregnant. And it seems to run in families. For women who already have RLS, it usually gets worse during pregnancy.

No one knows why women who’ve never had RLS develop it during pregnancy, but there are a number of theories. Iron deficiency, folate deficiency, hormonal changes (specifically a rise in estrogen), and circulatory changes are all possible culprits.

What you can do about restless legs syndrome

Things to avoid

- Most drugs used to treat RLS are not recommended during pregnancy.

- Quinine (found in tonic water) is sometimes used to relieve RLS symptoms, but don’t take it without talking with your healthcare provider first. Its safety during pregnancy hasn’t been established.

- Even a small amount of caffeine can make RLS symptoms worse. If RLS symptoms are bothering you, you might try eliminating caffeine from your diet completely, if you haven’t already.

- Some medications, such as the antihistamines in cold and allergy remedies, make the symptoms worse for some people. (So while Benadryl tends to make people sleepy, for example, it may actually intensify your RLS symptoms and make it harder for you to sleep.)

- Lying in bed reading or watching television before you go to sleep can make things worse. The longer you lie still, the more likely RLS will occur. Instead, get in bed only when you’re actually ready to go to sleep.

Things that might help

- Ask your doctor or midwife about trying supplements such as iron, magnesium, vitamin B12, or folate. Depending on the quantities in your prenatal vitamin, your practitioner may or may not want you to take more.

- Some women find it helpful to stretch their legs, get a massage, use hot or cold packs, take warm baths, or practice relaxation techniques. Maybe your significant other will massage or rub your legs until you fall asleep.