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Veeka Stanton: "I Just Had to Suffer Through It"

Veeka developed sleep-disordered breathing during pregnancy and was unable to arrange a diagnosis or treatment before giving birth. Her experience raises a number of questions, including whether people with untreated sleep-disordered breathing during pregnancy are at higher risk for sleep apnea and/or other cardiovascular conditions—and whether they should see a sleep specialist even if the problem appears resolved after pregnancy.

I've always been a good sleeper. I've never struggled with sleep. I never had insomnia. So it came as a shock. When I was about seven months pregnant, I started snoring more, which my husband noticed. It’s uncomfortable to sleep in general when you’re pregnant: there’s more pressure on your lungs and you can’t be in certain positions. All of that was already happening with me, and then one night I woke up in a panic: my heart was racing, and I was suffocating, which was such a jarring experience. I remember waking up and trying to catch my breath, not really knowing what had happened to me. 

From then on, it happened every night. And it would happen after a few hours. The first few hours after I fell asleep, I was snoring a lot. It wasn’t the greatest sleep, and after three or four hours, I would wake up from not being able to breathe. If I went back to sleep, it would happen repeatedly. 

After five days of this, I was so sleep deprived. I didn’t feel comfortable driving. It was just so emotional, and it scared me. 

I called the midwife whose care I was under—I was working with a birth center, not a hospital—and they said, “Well, these things can happen during pregnancy sometimes. We don’t think you’ll be able to get a sleep study or a diagnosis in time before you deliver your baby, because it takes so long to get a study.” 

They thought it wasn’t even worth pursuing. I think they’d seen this before and just knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a sleep study in time and get an intervention in time to help. They were frustrated that they could prescribe me some pretty heavy drugs, but they couldn’t allow me to get a CPAP machine, just to try it. The system just doesn’t allow them to do that, even though it probably would have improved my experience. As one of the midwives said, it was easier for them to get me some morphine than it was to get me a CPAP machine.

I went to my primary care physician, and she did try to pursue it; she tried to get an urgent sleep study for me. But it just didn’t seem to be possible. She referred me to a place, but it was going to take almost a week just to get my health insurance cleared just to see me for a consultation, and then the first consultation appointments that were available were after my due date. It didn’t seem to matter that I was pregnant and that this was probably a short-term experience for me. I just had to suffer through it.

I suspected it might have something to do with hormonal changes, because during those two months it would get worse and then for a couple of weeks I’d get a little bit of a break and it would get better, but then it would get worse again.

Sometimes I could catch what was happening as I was waking up. I felt like I could inhale but I couldn’t exhale.

Sometimes when I woke up suffocating, I would just stay up for the rest of the night, because it was scary to go back to sleep. It was just better to suffer through not sleeping. It felt as if, somewhere between my nose and my throat, something would collapse or close up when I tried to exhale. 

Sleep deprivation, especially late in pregnancy, has an effect. I’ve seen studies on this showing that a woman who is sleep-deprived is in more danger for not having a good labor and delivery. And their babies are in more danger. But when I was going through this, there seemed to be no way for me to get the treatment I needed to make it safe for us. Not only was I suffering, but I was putting myself and my child in danger. And there just seemed to be no way out of it. 

Things have improved since I had my baby. I haven’t experienced it since. Obviously, I often only sleep a few hours at a time with a new baby. There were a couple of days when she was in the neonatal intensive care unit being treated for jaundice, and those nights I slept at home for eight hours and didn’t have any problem with waking up feeling suffocated. The problem just seemed to be gone. 

This is what I want to emphasize: the link between sleep deprivation and problems for mothers and babies have been proven. It’s just not reflected in our health care.

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