We’re “supposed” to sleep flat on our back, spine and neck perfectly aligned. Despite this being the ideal sleeping position, most of us still find ourselves face-down, half suffocated by our pillow or curled into a fetal position by the middle of the night. It’s not that big of a deal, until one day you develop debilitating back pain — the global leading cause of disability. But is sleeping on your stomach really a certain culprit, or can you get away with keeping your preferred sleeping position?
If you’re not already in pain, you may not need to make many major changes. But more than how you sleep, what you sleep on is of importance, as is how you align yourself. Hypothetically, you can indeed sleep on your stomach and maintain proper spinal alignment, you just have to prepare yourself accordingly.
Often, when people sleep on their stomachs, they’re placing pressure upon their neck and spine. Without the mattress properly cradling them, the weight of the body is centered primarily upon the torso. The spine and neck have to work in order to hold the head up when propped up on a pillow, too. According to the Mayo Clinic, though, this pressure can be remedied by placing a pillow beneath your hips when you’re sleeping. This helps align the spine, as well as relieves some of the pressure inherent to the position. Sleeping without a pillow under your head but keeping one beneath your hips can also help.
If you’re a truly devoted stomach sleeper, you may also consider purchasing mattresses and pillows specifically designed for your style of sleep. Per the New York Times’ product-recommendation site Wirecutter, mattresses ideal for stomach sleepers will be firm enough to maintain spinal alignment while still soft enough to cradle the head and neck. They specifically recommend medium-firm to firm mattresses, including some memory foam varieties. If you’re not able to spring for a mattress right now, a thin but firm pillow may be an improvement for your neck, and just about any supportive pillow beneath your hips will do.
In our healthiest world, we’d probably all be sleeping pillowless on the floor, our spines perfectly neutral. Personally, I’d rather enjoy my eight hours of warm fluffiness and suffer the consequences later. And anyway, while the position you sleep in might not be the best thing you can do for your back, neither is sitting hunched over a desk all day. Ultimately, getting enough sleep is far more important to your health than exactly how you lay while you do it. Make the appropriate changes if you can, but focusing on your back during your waking hours by stretching, exercising and being mindful of your posture will probably serve you better than focusing on your back during sleep.