I fully realize that this post will probably not resonate with everyone. But I’m writing it because it’s been on my mind quite literally every night and every morning… and I thought if anyone else has been struggling with back/neck issues due to sleep, it’s worth sharing what has helped me. I mentioned a little bit about this on Instagram DMs and it was actually kind of reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with this!
How I Used to Sleep
For as long as I can remember, I have preferred sleeping on a very firm mattress without a pillow, on my stomach, with my head turned to whatever side is closest to the edge of the bed. Even in childhood, there were some nights where I was so uncomfortable that I would opt to sleep on the floor to get the best very flat “plank” position.
I could totally get away with that sleep position, until… my mid-twenties. I definitely “hold” my stress in my neck, too. So between that and sleeping with my neck constantly “crunched,” it was causing issues.
Back & Neck Pain
All things considered, I’ve been very lucky with physical health. I’ve never broken a bone, never been in a serious car accident, etc. In middle school, though, I developed a little bit of back pain probably after a growth spurt. I have had lingering back issues since. It ebbs and flows and gets particularly bad when I’m in poor mental health (and therefore holding more of that stress/tension). Over the past three or so years though, I started to pull my back out and have back/neck spasms frequently. It was happening, like, three times a year and if I wasn’t in pain, then I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Every time I lifted something, I’d be on edge that this was going to be what did my back in!
Every time it happened, it would be slightly worse than the time before. (On my first trip to Paris, I literally couldn’t turn my head left-to-right my neck was so jammed up.) I started seeing a chiropractor when I was in Connecticut and she was so great at helping manage my issues. (Side note: chiropractors aren’t for everyone, but it’s the only thing that has really helped me.) But when I moved to Hoboken, I didn’t find a new person to go to and instead would only go when I was already in pain. Whoops. I have, thankfully, found an amazing one here in the suburbs!
Regardless of the state my neck/back was in when I went to the chiropractor, they all asked the same thing: “How do you sleep at night?” To which I have to respond, ashamed, with, “I sleep on my stomach……..” and wait for their response which is always, “You should really be sleeping on your back.”
Sleeping On My Back
Trust me, I have tried and failed many times over to sleep on my back. My brain doesn’t shut off the same way when I’m on my back as it does when I’m on my stomach. I don’t know why! Whenever I attempted to sleep on my back, I would lay there for thirty minutes without feeling drowsy, give up, flip over onto my stomach, and fall asleep within seconds. Why brain, why!
Let me tell you, as I attempted this numerous times and then failed each time, I thought it was impossible. But something has clicked recently and now I’m consistently sleeping on my back. Like once I did a full night of it and woke up without feeling stiff, I think my body succumbed to the realization that this was for the best. Occasionally, I wake up and I’ve rolled over and once I had to sleep on my stomach because I couldn’t fall asleep. But since that first night when it happened, it’s been a consistent change. I’m always a little surprised when I wake up and open my eyes and see the ceiling! Let me just say, if I can do this, you can do this! Back sleeping IS possible!!!!
When I told people I was trying to train myself to sleep on my back, I started to gather advice from people who had successfully done the same thing.
Here’s a bunch of the advice I got:
– Sleep with a pillow under your knees so they’re slightly bent
– Prop pillows along your sides so you can’t roll over in the middle of the night
– Get a special pillow
– Sleep with one arm across your stomach and one arm over and across your chest (as if you were hugging with one arm and pledging allegiance with the other)
– Tell yourself every night that you’re going to sleep on your back, like a mantra
– Sleep with your arms above you and your legs spread a little bit to anchor yourself into the position
I think these are all great pieces of advice if you need to train yourself to sleep on your back. But from my personal experience, I will say that you’ll have to experiment with a variety of these (and/or others) to figure out the “cocktail,” so to speak, that works for you. Below, I’m sharing the specific combination that worked for me.
What worked for me:
– Committing to it. I realized that I was trying it for three nights tops before. I couldn’t do it, so I would quit and then just resign myself to being a stomach sleeper with back pain for LIFE. Well, duh. I’m retraining myself to do something that I normally do for eight-ish hours every single night for as long as I can remember. This is going to take time and patience and if I want to change, I have to stick with it consistently. I feel like it’s worth noting here that it took two months of solid commitment before it fully clicked. This didn’t happen overnight– pun intended 😉
– Having a mantra. This felt incredibly stupid to me, but turns out it was one of the best things I’ve done. Every single night before falling asleep, I would repeat in my head, “I’m going to sleep on my back tonight.” Even if I didn’t end up sleeping on my back, I started with the intention of doing it. About a month in, I noticed that I was repeating the mantra to myself when I woke up in the middle of the night and that helped me reset my sleep and try my back again.
– Starting every sleep on my back. Kind of self-explanatory but how can I learn to sleep on my back if I don’t try to sleep on my back first. I did this for every sleep. Whether I was falling asleep for the first time, taking a nap, going back to bed after going to the bathroom, or just waking up randomly in the middle of the night. I’d start on my back. It didn’t mean that I always stayed there (for a long time, I would eventually flip over), but I gave it a solid try before giving up.
– Listening to a meditation tape. It’s no secret that I love my Headspace app. At this point, I’m fairly comfortable with meditating (900+ days in a row!) so it’s not like I’m also trying something new on top of sleeping on my back. But I play the sleep meditation every night. Now, this works for me like a charm when I’m sleeping in my usual stomach position. It hasn’t worked perfectly for my back, but I’d still go through the whole exercise. I’d almost always get to the end of the ten minutes still awake, at which point I’d do the flip. But now? I barely remember finishing the first minute!!!
– Investing in a new pillow. This is going to be very personal, but finding a pillow that created the best alignment for my neck was crucial in making sleeping on my back a possibility. I ended up with a Tempurpedic pillow after trying a few out. What’s interesting is what felt good to me, was actually not keeping my neck and spine aligned. It required having someone else stand to the side as I was lying down to see if I was straight or not. The pillow I got wasn’t “sink into a nummy sleep” pillow but it DOES provide the perfect amount of support. (Which makes sense now because in retrospect one of the comfiest pillows I’ve ever slept on in a hotel left me with a horrible kink in my neck for two weeks a few years ago!) Anyway, take the time to figure out what pillow gives you that perfect alignment!
– Using my arms as bumpers. That’s the best way I can describe my new arm position. I’ve been trying to take mental notes every time I’m going to bed to share with you the exact positioning I use now. But basically from my shoulders to my elbows, my arms are completely pressed against my rib cage (the inside of my bicep) and the bed (the edge of my arm). And then I have a bend in my elbows and rest my hands in a light clasp against my belly….. like a grandpa who fell asleep in a recliner. HAHA. I find that having my arms pressed against my body and the bed adds stabilization and makes it more challenging to roll over unconsciously in the middle of the night.
The bottom line
I’m now feeling like anything is possible and I’m so glad I stuck with this. When I wake up in the morning, I feel significantly less stiff than I used to. It hasn’t solved my back pain completely, although I’m hoping that this and the other things I’m doing (core strengthening exercises, posture training, and chiropractic care) will all help alleviate some of the aches and pains.