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Sleep Positions Can Predict Women's Risk of Stillbirth

Update Date: Mar 26, 2013 11:05 AM EDT

Women who sleep on their back during pregnancy are at an increased risk of stillbirth, according to a new study conducted in Ghana.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that supine sleep significantly increased the risk of stillbirth in Ghanaian women.  The study published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics revealed that the high risk for stillbirth in these women was explained by the increased risk of low birth weight, after researcher found that women who slept on their back increased their risk of giving birth to a baby of low birth weight by a factor of five.

Study author Louise O'Brien Ph.D., M.S., associate professor in U-M's Sleep Disorders Center noted that while the latest study was conducted in a country that has high perinatal mortality, another recent case-control study from New Zealand also revealed a link between maternal supine sleep and stillbirth.

Stillbirth is relatively rare in high-income counties, occurring in about two to five babies out of every 1,000 babies. However, the traumatic event is a lot more common in low-income countries with about 20 to 50 babies out of every 1,000 being stillborn.

However, researchers said that if maternal sleep position does in fact play a role in stillbirth, educating pregnant women about sleep positions and encouraging them not to sleep on their back might be simple ways to improve pregnancy outcomes.

O'Brien said Sub-Saharan African has the highest rate of stillbirth in the world, and little progress has been made in reducing those deaths.

"In Ghana, inexpensive interventions are urgently needed to improve pregnancy outcomes. This is a behavior that can be modified: encouraging women to avoid sleeping on their back would be a low-cost method to reduce stillbirths in Ghana and other low-income countries," O'Brien explained in statement.

Researchers say that the possibility that supine sleep may be partly responsible for low birth weight and subsequently still birth because sleeping on the back causes uterine compression on the inferior vena cava, which can result inreduced venous filling and cardiac output.

"The data in this study suggests that more than one-quarter of stillbirths might be avoided by altering maternal sleep position," O'Brien concluded. "This supports the need to develop simple intervention trials."

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