While most sleep specialists would guide you to sleep in whatever way best shuttles you off to dreamland and leaves you feeling rested in the morning, there’s one position that could do you more harm than good—and that’s sleeping on your stomach (which can lead to a misalignment of the spine). But if you’re used to plopping stomach-side down on your bed, figuring out how to not sleep on your stomach and to readjust your body to a new position can be tricky. That said, with a bit of nightly due diligence and patience, it is possible to train yourself to sleep on your back or side instead, and the health-boosting reasons to do so may make it well worth your while.
To backpedal a bit, frequent stomach sleeping is ill-advised because lying on your stomach can smush together the vertebrae in the spine and cause compression of spinal nerves, which may lead to tingling or numbness in the arms over time, physical-medicine and rehabilitation doctor Jaspal R. Singh, MD, previously told Well+Good.
“A stomach sleeping position causes pressure on the lower back and the neck, as you’ll need to turn your face to the side to sleep.” —Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN
And the ripple effect of misalignment can extend up and down the length of the spine, too. “A stomach sleeping position causes pressure on the lower back and the neck, as you’ll need to turn your face to the side to sleep,” says sleep doctor Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN, medical director at Aeroflow Sleep. If you move your head to different sides throughout the night—as those who sleep on their stomachs tend to do—the adjustments of the neck can pull the spine repeatedly out of alignment, she adds.
Not to mention, stomach sleeping can trigger a few non-muscular-related detriments, too: It may make breathing throughout the night more difficult due to the positioning of the trachea, and also expose you to more of the allergens in your bedding, which can cause congestion, says sleep specialist and clinical psychologist Michael J. Breus, PhD, chief sleep advisor at Purple.
But even if you’re fully convinced that it’s time you swap stomach sleeping for its side or back counterpart, actually doing that can be a struggle. After all, “every behavior that successfully leads to a good night's sleep becomes difficult to change, including position,” says Dr. Weiss.
It’s also possible that you may develop a type of “muscle memory” for a certain position—stomach sleeping, included, says Dr. Breus. “When you sleep, your body can be in the same position for up to eight hours, so if you sleep in one position each night for at least two or three consecutive weeks, then each time you lie down, that position is likely to feel the most comfortable,” he says. That's precisely why it’s smart to approach changing your sleep position just like you'd tackle changing any habit: with patience and perseverance.
How to not sleep on your stomach (if you’re already used to doing so), according to sleep doctors:
Both side- and back-sleeping positions are potential options to consider instead of stomach sleeping, as both can allow for a neutral alignment of the spine. Your first step will be to figure out if your pillow feels supportive enough to facilitate either position, says Dr. Weiss. Since she says it's common for stomach sleepers to choose a thinner pillow option, it's possible you may need to opt for a thicker or firmer pillow instead.
If you still find yourself having trouble falling asleep in your new position, you could tap into a few sleep-doc-approved nighttime rituals, like turning down the temperature in your bedroom, sipping tea steeped with grogginess-inducing herbs, and listening to a guided sleep meditation.
Even if you are able to doze off on your back or side, however, it’s also very possible that you could wake up on your stomach in the middle of the night or in the morning, says Dr. Weiss. “Most people change sleep positions about 10 times per night, and some don’t remember moving around at all,” she says. If that happens, though, don’t stress—especially the first few nights when you’re getting adjusted to your new position.
To help keep yourself on your back or side and prevent turning in your sleep, try placing pillows on both sides of you like a "sleep fortress" of sorts, says Dr. Weiss. Another option: Do the opposite of what people who have sleep apnea are often advised to do (because due to the condition, they're advised to stay off their back while sleeping), suggests Dr. Breus: “While we recommend that people with sleep apnea sew a pocket onto the back of a sleep shirt and put a few tennis balls inside, I would say you could do the same on the front of a shirt, if you’re trying to stay on your side and not roll onto your stomach.”
In any case, know that it may take some time for your body to fully acclimate to a new-normal sleep position. But if you make some of these tweaks (and keep at it), back or side sleeping will eventually prove to be just as natural—and, of course, that much more supportive of your overall health.
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