I've Never Been Able to Sleep on My Back—Here's Why I'm Learning How to Do It
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For many reasons I won’t bore you with here, over the last year or so I have (finally, some might say) started taking my wrinkles seriously.
I bought and actually continued to use a couple of retinol creams, and I finally opened the packaging on a silk pillowcase that had been stashed in the back of a drawer for ages. I started wearing a hat during sunny outdoor runs. And then it hit me: Dermatologists have told us here at Health countless times that sleeping on your stomach or on your side–my favorites–might not be doing your face any anti-aging favors either.
Those derms always seem to recommend sleeping on your back, since in this sleeping position your face isn’t smushed and creased against your pillow. Which makes sense if you think about it... but wasn't going to happen. I’ve slept on my back on occasion–usually when I’m sniffling through a restless night with a cold–and it's never gone well. I feel like I’m pretending to be a mummy when I lie there flat on my back, and ultimately I get so caught up thinking about falling asleep that I have to change positions to get any rest.
However, I did have some previous experience making a sleep position transition. A lifelong stomach sleeper, I started getting neck pain when I fell in love with a thick, memory foam pillow that simply wasn’t made for tummy-down sleeping. Slowly but surely, I transitioned into a much more comfortable, somewhat curled side-sleeping position, and I’ve been happily settled there ever since. Back sleeping was going to take some professional help.
Shalini Paruthi, MD, was kind enough to take my call. She’s an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and the medical co-director at St. Luke’s Sleep Medicine and Research Center. When we spoke, her first order of business was to reassure me–much to my surprise–that if I’m comfortable sleeping on my side, it’s totally okay to continue doing so.
“For a generally healthy person, whatever position is most comfortable to allow them to fall asleep easily and stay asleep, that’s actually the best sleep position for them,” Dr. Paruthi said. Sure, back sleeping is constantly heralded as the ultimate position for better health, but it’s not necessarily a one-position-fits-all recommendation, she clarified. “For example, for people who snore, sleeping on their back is going to cause an increase in snoring."
Okay, okay, so I don’t have to sleep on my back, great–but what about the wrinkles?! Turns out, Dr. Paruthi wasn’t entirely convinced my side sleeping is aging my face either. “There may be some truth to the idea that sleeping on your back is better to prevent wrinkles because there’s not as much pressure on the skin, but I can’t say I came across any long-term studies.” No one’s done the research, she says, to be able to tell you how wrinkly you’ll end up if you spent 30 years sleeping on your side, for example.
There are some reasons your doctor might recommend a specific sleeping position, including if you have back or neck pain, acid reflux, or sleep apnea, not to mention if you happen to be pregnant. But if your sleep position isn't causing you harm and you're generally healthy and happy in bed, you can pretty much sleep as you please, Dr. Paruthi says. Just be sure to look for a pillow that supports your head in whatever position you choose. (We can help: Check out our expert-approved picks for the best pillows for stomach sleepers, side sleepers, and back sleepers.)
Armed with the comforting information that I didn’t have to become a back sleeper overnight, I set about to try it anyway. Like I said, I'm taking wrinkles seriously. I had to think about some pointers first–including not thinking too hard. “Trying to sleep in a certain position can be very tricky,” Dr. Paruthi warned me. “Sometimes people have the best intentions to fall asleep a certain way but often find they wake up in a different position.” We might shift slightly during sleep–say, when an arm becomes numb–without even realizing it, probably around the time in each sleep cycle when we exit deep REM sleep and enter the lightest phase of sleep, Dr. Paruthi says.
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So how can you actually teach yourself to sleep on your back? There are a couple of strategies. The first is barricading yourself in a way that prevents rolling over; the second is investing in a special pillow that does that for you.
Not ready to make a financial commitment, I stuck with option one. I dutifully placed a spare pillow under my knees to support the natural curve in the spine–and instantly felt more comfortable than when my legs were flat on my mattress while on my back. I was still adamant that there was no way I’d ever fall asleep in that position... and then I promptly dozed off. I woke up halfway through the night, kicked away that knee pillow, and flopped cozily onto my side. Baby steps.
If you have more than one spare pillow–aka, you don’t live in a tiny New York City apartment–you can also try placing one on each side of your body. That way, when you’re tempted to roll to the left or the right, you’re stymied and end up staying on your back.
Pillows like the or might help cradle your head and neck to keep you in back-sleeping position; gadgets like the or the –designed to prevent back sleeping in snorers–could in theory be worn backwards to prevent stomach sleeping instead, Dr. Paruthi surmises. Even a travel pillow–yes, the kind you might use on a long flight–around your neck in bed can keep you from rolling to your side.
I wish erasing fine lines and wrinkles was as easy as spending half of one night sleeping on my back. Just as learning how to sleep in a new position is a long-term process, anti-aging is too. But I’m going to keep trying–every little bit of back sleeping helps, right?