Are Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids Safe While Breastfeeding?

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Sleep deprivation is common for new parents. Equally common is insomnia, the inability to fall or stay asleep. The stress of being a new parent coupled with swollen breasts, nighttime nursing, and the lingering pain of childbirth can make getting a good night's sleep difficult.

If you have trouble sleeping, there are a handful of over-the-counter sleep aids and home remedies that may be safe if you are breastfeeding. But you need to weigh the potential benefits with the potential risks. This is where an obstetrician can help direct you to the safest options for both you and your baby.

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This article explores some of the sleep problems experienced by nursing mothers. It also explores the different medical and non-medical options to improve sleep, including the possible risks and safety concerns.

Challenges for Nursing Mothers

Most people opt to breastfeed for some period of time after childbirth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 43% are still nursing their babies at six months while 21% are still nursing their one-year-olds.

One of the first things to note is that breastfeeding can actually help with insomnia. The hormone prolactin, which is responsible for lactation, also plays a role in moderating stress in nursing mothers. As long as you continue nursing, prolactin levels will remain high.

But that doesn't necessarily mean you won't still have sleep problems. Regularly interrupted sleep can lead to sleep deprivation, which can compound and worsen over time, leading to:

  • Constant yawning
  • Daytime grogginess
  • Dozing off
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Slowed response times
  • Depression

When your concentration, moods, and ability to function are impaired, it is reasonable to seek solutions to help you gain back the sleep you need.

Recap

Breastfeeding can help promote sleep due to the hormone prolactin that helps stimulate lactation and moderate stress in nursing mothers. Even so, interrupted sleep can build up over time and lead to sleep deprivation.

Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids

Most over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids contain antihistamines. These are medications typically used to relieve allergy symptoms. Older-generation antihistamines like diphenhydramine (found in Benadryl and Diphenist) and chlorpheniramine found in Chlor-Trimetron and Aller-Chlor) are known to cause drowsiness and promote sleep.

For short periods, the two active ingredients are probably safe for people who are breastfeeding. According to the College of Family Physicians of Canada, antihistamines can safely be used while breastfeeding. Only minimal amounts are excreted in breast milk.

Diphenhydramine is the one most commonly used sleep aids. It is the active ingredient in Nytol and Sominex. It is also found in OTC pain relievers like Tylenol PM (acetaminophen and diphenhydramine) that are used to relieve pain and induce sleep.

Risks and Considerations

As with all drugs, OTC sleep aids containing diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine can cause side effects, including:

  • Headaches
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Stomach upset
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Chest congestion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nervousness

These OTC sleep aids are only intended for short-term use. The long-term use of these drugs can increase the risk of side effects. It can also potentially affect the baby, causing irritability, crying, sleepiness, or sleep problems.

The long-term use of antihistamines also has a paradoxical effect on some people, causing increased wakefulness rather than drowsiness.

Antihistamines can also cause a decrease in the supply of breastmilk. If you decide to use a sleep aid like Nytol or Sominex, keeping well hydrated can help minimize this effect.

Recap

Over-the-counter antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Nytol, Sominex) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimetron) are probably safe for use during breastfeeding. Even so, they are only intended for the short-term relief of insomnia.

Benefits of Melatonin

Melatonin is a chemical released by the brain that helps induce sleep as part of the sleep-wake cycle. You can also buy melatonin supplements at most pharmacies and drugstores, which some people claim can help overcome insomnia.

Melatonin has relatively few side effects which tend to be mild. These include headache, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness. It is likely the safest option if are breastfeeding and have trouble sleeping.

Although some studies have concluded that melatonin supplements can help you fall asleep faster, they don't seem to work for everyone. Some people report longer sleep, while others report no effect at all.

Moreover, the effects tend to wane over time. As such, melatonin supplements are really intended for short-term rather than ongoing relief of insomnia.

Recap

Melatonin supplements are a safe option if you are breastfeeding and have trouble sleeping. With that said, they appear to work for some people better than others.

Coping With Sleep Problems

Drugs and supplements are not the only solutions for sleep problems. By making a few lifestyle changes, you may be able to overcome insomnia without the use of medications.

Some of the more effective options include:

  • Improved sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene involves creating routines and environments that foster sleep. This includes avoiding food and electronics an hour or so before falling asleep. It also means keeping a routine sleep schedule and ensuring the bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool.
  • Exercise: Routine exercise not only help with sleep but can improve your mood due to the release of "feel-good" hormones called endorphins. Even taking your child out in a stroller for 30 minutes to an hour can help.
  • Medical care: Sometimes sleep problems are secondary to post-pregnancy issues like heartburn, leg cramps, or shortness of breath. Rather than "living with it," speak with your healthcare provider about remedies that can ease these concerns.

If these remedies don't help, you may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist who can perform an overnight sleep study. In some cases, there may be pre-existing sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, that may have been "unmasked" by the pregnancy. By seeing a sleep specialist, you may find solutions that only improve sleep but later in life as well.

Recap

Non-medical solutions for insomnia include improved sleep hygiene and routine exercise. If needed, your healthcare provider can treat common pregnancy issues (like heartburn) that affect sleep or refer you to a sleep specialist for further investigation.

Summary

Insomnia and other sleep problem are common in new parents, leading to a loss of concentration, fatigue, depression, and other symptoms of sleep deprivation.

Over-the-counter sleep aids containing the antihistamine diphenhydramine (such as Nytol and Sominex) may be safe for nursing mothers with insomnia. Another antihistamine called chlorpheniramine (found in Chlor-Trimetron) may also help. Side effects include daytime drowsiness, stomach upset, and nervousness.

A safer option may be the over-the-counter supplement melatonin. While melatonin helps some people fall asleep faster, it doesn't work for everyone and tends to lose its effectiveness over time.

Lifestyle changes may help overcome insomnia. This includes improving your sleep habits, exercising routinely, and creating a bedroom environment that fosters sleep. Speak with your healthcare provider if sleep problems persist. If needed, you may be referred to a sleep specialist for further investigation.

A Word From Verywell

If your sleep issues are persistent, it is important to focus on yourself and get to the bottom of the issue. New parents all too commonly put their own needs on the back burner as they focus on the new baby and other family members.

Disrupted sleep is not only a nuisance that can leave you irritable, but can be dangerous when reaction times are decreased (such as while driving a car). Give your baby a gift by taking care of yourself first.

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