Between leg cramps, heartburn, that urgent need to pee every two hours, and persistent pregnancy insomnia, you’re probably already having a tough time getting quality sleep. But now, in your third trimester of pregnancy, another pregnancy symptom may be keeping you up at night: restless legs syndrome (RLS).
Many pregnant women develop RLS, so if you do, too, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that around 10 to 34% of pregnant women experience RLS. If you have RLS, you’ll notice an uncomfortable creeping, tingling, and crawling sensation in your feet and legs, along with an urge to move them, especially when you’re trying to fall asleep.
As one expectant mother puts it, “I get this horrible feeling at night in my legs. It feels like ants crawling all over. I just can’t fall asleep even though I’m exhausted.”
Your legs might seem like they’ve taken on a life of their own like they’re plugged into an electrical socket and getting charged up. People with RLS experience an uncontrollable urge to move their legs to get rid of an uncomfortable “pins and needles” feeling. It’s not a signal that anything’s wrong in your pregnancy, but it can disturb your sleep (which is a royal pain in the butt.)
Restless leg syndrome usually raises its ugly head at night in the lower legs between the knee and ankle. However, sometimes it can happen in your feet and arms too.
What causes RLS during pregnancy?
Experts aren’t sure what causes RLS, but genetics is probably a factor. Other possible causes include hormones, which rise during the third trimester and drop right after birth, just like RLS.
Sensitivity to certain foods or an iron deficiency may also be risks. Your active, growing baby kicking around and pressing on the nerves around your sacrum sure doesn’t help matters.
Lack of sleep, stress, anxiety, and depression may initiate RLS. So try to get plenty of rest and take care of yourself.
Tell your doctor if you think you have restless leg syndrome because they may want to check to ensure you’re not running low on iron.
How to Treat RLS
So, how do you deal with this? Unfortunately, prescription meds that relieve restlessness may be off-limits during pregnancy, and the usual remedies for leg cramps — flexing and stretching — may not work. However, many pregnant women have found relief through warm baths, massage, and acupuncture. Just make sure to ask your doctor if acupuncture is safe before going under the needle.
Another suggestion is to write down what you’ve eaten before you experience a bout of RLS. That way, you can see if something you’re eating later in the day makes your legs jumpy at night. Some women discover that certain foods like carbs eaten late in the day can activate restless legs. By noting what you eat, you can determine what foods improve or worsen your symptoms.
You can also try making some simple changes to your day to relieve RLS:
- Take a warm bath, or enjoy a good book before going to sleep.
- Lay off on the caffeine: drink less coffee, soda, and other caffeinated drinks.
- Daily exercise is good, but avoid exercising within a few hours of when you go to bed so you don’t get too wound up to sleep.
- Practice yoga, meditation, or other relaxation techniques.
- Develop a sleep routine: get up and go to bed at the same times every day.
When you wake up with your legs bothering you, here are some tips to make the “pins and needles” feeling go away:
- Try a warm or cold pack on your legs
- Massage your legs
- Walk around
- Stretch your legs
- Distract yourself by looking at something funny on your phone, reading a book or magazine, or watching TV
Unfortunately, restless legs syndrome is one of those pregnancy symptoms you’ll have to learn to live with. But don’t worry — it’s temporary. Symptoms should go away within a month of delivery.
If you’d like to get more tips on how to cope with pregnancy-related symptoms, check out our articles “How to Deal With Pregnancy Heartburn” and “How to Cope With Gestational Diabetes.”