Ask any pregnant woman what she desires most, and she'll likely tell you she hopes for a healthy baby and a safe, easy delivery. Many expecting women take their prenatal vitamins, modify their diets, drink lots of water, exercise, try to minimize stress, and visit with their obstetricians or midwives regularly, all in attempts to avoid pregnancy crises. Yet there are still some women faced with health complications—theirs or a baby's—who are eventually put on bed rest.
When Bed Rest Is Needed
"The most common reasons [for bed rest] include when a woman has a medical history of preterm labor, has an incompetent cervix, blood pressure problems, or is carrying multiples," says Lainey Millikan, Obstetrical RN Educator with the Women's Health Partnership, PC, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Preexisting conditions can also impose a greater risk for needing bed rest during pregnancy.
Bed rest, often prescribed at the onset of a health concern to keep a woman's condition stable and avoid a lengthy hospital stay, can reduce the chances of a difficult labor and of the baby needing neonatal intensive care.
Types of Bed Rest
A woman is generally instructed to adhere to either one of two types of bed rest:
- Modified bed rest requires a pregnant woman to rest when possible, especially if she is working or cares for other children.
- Strict bed rest limits a woman to bed for most of the time, usually with the exception of bathroom needs and sometimes meals. More specifically, "Modified bed rest means pelvic rest often, and strict bed rest means mainly lying in a supine position," notes Dr. Jacalyn McCloskey, MD, OB-GYN with the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Any situation where an extended period of standing is necessary should be avoided, such as cleaning, cooking, taking the stairs, or lifting moderate-to-heavy objects.
Some of the questions women should ask their healthcare practitioners when prescribed bed rest include:
- What are my limitations?
- How long am I to remain on bed rest?
- Can I travel or drive?
- Can I shower or bathe?
- Can I eat meals at the table?
- Am I allowed to continue working?
- Can I do any chores at all?
- Is sexual intercourse allowed?
Bed rest usually lasts anywhere from a few days to until a condition improves or it is safe to deliver. More frequent prenatal appointments (or in-home visits with the midwife or a nurse for those who are unable to travel) will keep track of progress and gauge when it is safe to be off bed rest.
Does bed rest ultimately work?
"It depends on the pregnancy," Millikan explains, when answering this common question. "Changing the force of gravity usually helps minimize preterm labor. It also helps keep blood pressure stable and low." Bed rest will not necessarily prevent low-weight or stillborn births, the need for a Cesarean section, or cure placenta previa or existing heart conditions for the mother or baby.