How to Train Yourself to Sleep on Your Back
Dr. Nayantara Santhi, PhD
Dr. Nayantara Santhi is an associate professor of psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle. Santhi’s body of work includes numerous articles on how circadian rhythms regulate an individual’s sleep-wake cycle. Santhi’s articles have also focused on related elements such as bright light exposure and melatonin production.
- Back sleeping can offer numerous health benefits, including reducing neck, shoulder, and back pain, as well as minimizing the appearance of wrinkles on the face and chest.
- To comfortably transition to sleeping on your back, it’s crucial to find the right back sleeping position, invest in a suitable mattress and pillow, and develop a new sleeping habit through various techniques and aids.
- While back sleeping can be beneficial for many, it may not be suitable for individuals with certain conditions, such as snoring, sleep apnea, or pregnancy, who should explore alternative sleeping positions for optimal comfort and health.
Sleeping on your back comes with several health benefits. While it might not initially feel natural, it’s possible to learn. You can train yourself to sleep this way to help alleviate neck, shoulder, and back pain. It’s also a great way to reduce the appearance of wrinkles on your face and chest.
In addition to those we just mentioned, there are many reasons to consider switching to back sleeping. Now, you might be wondering how to make the switch; because if you’re a side or stomach sleeper, you may have trouble falling asleep in this new position. Only 13% of Americans report being able to fall asleep on their back naturally, according to Better Sleep Council surveys.
Strategies to help you get comfortable and stay on your back are critical during this adjustment period. With our tips below, you should be able to effectively train yourself to sleep in the supine position.
1. Find Your Back Sleeping Position
The two main back sleeping positions are the Savasana and the Starfish. In the Savasana position, your arms are by your sides, and your legs are straight down. To put it simply, you’re in a standing position while lying flat on your back. The Starfish is exactly what it sounds like: Your arms are out and above your head, and your legs are spread out across the bed.
If you transition to sleeping on your back, you’ll want to experiment with each position to determine what’s most comfortable. If you have shoulder pain, you might be more likely to sleep flat with your arms and legs extended straight.
However, if you have poor circulation or generally low blood pressure, you might find sleeping with your arms above your head makes your hands fall asleep.
2. Invest in the Best Mattress for Back Sleepers
Your mattress and pillow are both paramount to comfortable sleep, regardless of your position. A medium to firm mattress should keep your spine in a neutral position while sleeping on your back. Additional lumbar support near the center of the bed is beneficial for back sleepers, as well, as it further promotes proper posture.
“Having a good sleeping position is as important as having a good sitting posture,” says Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “It can help relieve pain and in turn help you sleep better. Back and side sleeping positions are recommended.”
“But each benefit from a slightly different mattress firmness. A soft to medium mattress helps a side sleeper while medium to medium-firm helps a back sleeper.”
As Dr. Santhi notes, back sleepers should avoid an overly soft mattress, as these can throw your spine out of alignment if they allow you to sink too far in the bed. If you’re looking for the best mattress for a bad back, you’ll want to look for zoned support technologies in your bed, too.
3. Choose a Comfortable Pillow
Finding the best pillow is one of the keys to comfortable back sleeping. Your pillow should be supportive without forcing your neck to bend unnaturally.
The best pillow for back sleeping should keep your head aligned with your spine, and your face staring at the ceiling. Staying in this position will help avoid neck pain and allow you to reap all the benefits of sleeping on your back.
The most comfortable pillows for back sleeping are not too thick nor too thin, as they must buoy the neck and head without lifting it out of alignment. A cooling fill also promotes undisturbed sleep.
If you have tight hamstrings or hip flexors (like most desk workers), you can place a small pillow under your knees to ease tension in your lower back.
4. Develop Your New Habit
It’s one thing to get comfortable enough to fall asleep on your back, but its another to train yourself to sleep that way all night. Most people shift in their sleep, which is completely normal. However, if your goal is to stay on your back, you’ll want to find a way to limit your range of movements.
To stabilize your neck, consider trying a U-shaped, buckwheat pillow. This is basically like a travel pillow with more flexibility. If you turn on your side in the night, the U-shaped pillow can help. It keeps your head and neck in place and prevents you from rolling over.
A pillow barrier is another method to keep you in place. Placing body pillows on either side of you should stop you from rolling around in the night.
The last suggestion, albeit unconventional, involves tennis balls. Tape or sew tennis balls to the hips of your pajamas to act as a bumper as you sleep. The balls should prevent you from rolling over in the night. This method, while potentially effective for some, could also just wake you over and over and defeat the purpose. Only you can discern the best ways to fortify this new habit.
5. Utilize an Adjustable Bed
Adjustable beds help you switch sleeping positions by allowing you to find the most comfortable angle for sleep. An adjustable bed can elevate your legs to avoid straining your lower back.
For those who sleep well with their head slightly elevated, adjustable beds can help you doze off by bending to a 30- or 45-degree angle; this position alleviates back, neck, and other joint pain during sleep.
6. Stretch Before Bed
If you spend most of your day seated, there’s a pretty good chance your hamstrings and hip flexors are tight. To avoid pain in these areas while sleeping on your back, do some light stretches before you get into bed.
To stretch your hamstring, get into a seated position with both legs extended, and wrap an exercise band (or even a blanket or towel) around the bottom of one foot and hold onto either side of this band with both hands. Then, gently pull back on the strap while keeping your leg extended, you should feel a slight pull on the back of your thigh (where your hamstring is located). Be careful not to pull too hard though, as it can cause cramps or other discomforts.
To stretch your hip flexors, place your outer ankle just above the knee of the opposite leg. You can do this either in a supine or seated position. This bends your leg into a pigeon pose and gives your hips a good stretch.
Why Sleep on Your Back?
Back sleeping allows for even weight distribution and thus, prevents pressure points. Sleeping on your side puts uncomfortable weight on your shoulders and hips, while long-term stomach sleeping leads to lower back pain. Back sleeping helps your spine maintain its natural curve, reducing the risk of neck and shoulder pain.
Sleeping on your back can also prevent or reduce acid reflux, as long as your head is slightly elevated above the stomach. Dr. Eric Olson, MD, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine, states, “If the head is elevated, your stomach will be below your esophagus, so acid or food can’t come back up.” By gently propping your head, you can avoid heartburn and get a good night’s rest.
It’s important to have the best mattress and pillow for your body’s needs, too— as this allows for maximum comfort and reinforces healthy sleep.
If you’re concerned about signs of aging, you’ll want to consider back sleeping. Gravity plays a significant role in the formation of wrinkles, both on your face and chest area. Sleeping on your side or stomach forces your skin forward.
This creates lasting creases that can eventually turn into wrinkles. In fact, some dermatologists and aestheticians claim they can tell which side a person sleeps on by looking at their face.
If you sleep on your right side, for example, you’ll have deeper wrinkles on the right side of your face. One study concluded that “the only reliable way to minimize sleep wrinkles is to avoid facial distortion.”
Risks of Back Sleeping
Back sleeping isn’t for everyone. If you snore or have sleep apnea, it might not be the best position for you. That’s because sleeping on your back can cause your tongue to fall to the back of your throat and block your airway; this is a case of gravity working against you as you sleep.
Sleepers with sleep apnea go through periods of blocked breathing that can jolt them awake, gasping for breath. It also produces very loud snoring, which can be extremely disruptive to a sleeping partner.
The best way for snorers and sleep apnea sufferers to successfully sleep on their backs is to elevate the upper body slightly with a larger pillow or two. You can also use a wedge pillow to elevate your upper body. Elevating your head can also provide relief from sinus congestion or postnasal drip.
Pregnant women should also avoid sleeping on their backs. In the supine position, the fetus is resting on the mother’s organs. Back sleeping can lead to low blood pressure and decreased circulation to the fetus’s heart. According to the American Pregnancy Association, the best position for pregnancy is on the left side with a small pillow between the knees. This position prevents backaches, breathing troubles, digestive issues, and hemorrhoids.
Are You Ready to Try Back Sleeping?
How you sleep impacts your overall health and well-being, and training yourself to sleep on your back may just improve your day-to-day. Using the tips we outlined here, you should master back sleeping in no time.