How Do Sleep Positions Change As You Age? | Tuft & Needle

How Do Sleep Positions Change As You Age? | Tuft & Needle

June 04, 2020

Author: Erin Cline

I used to be an exclusive stomach sleeper. Like, full plank. With my arms by my sides, I would tuck my hands under my body and get my full 8 hours, sleeping so soundly that I’d wake up in almost the exact position in which I’d fallen asleep.

A few years ago, everything changed.

Getting to sleep became a marathon. Every night for two weeks, I would lie awake for an hour, sometimes two hours, unable to get comfortable enough to drift off. This was very out of character, as it was kind of a running joke for most of my life that I could fall asleep anywhere. I have photos of myself at a young age, sleeping on the couch, or in the backseat of my mom’s car, or in the middle of the living room floor in my signature plank position. So when you’ve always been a ‘good sleeper’ and then suddenly you can’t, it’s very confusing and frustrating.

As I began researching reasons why I might be struggling to fall asleep, most of what I found was information about insomnia. While insomnia is a very common condition, I was sure that wasn’t what I was experiencing. Then, I stumbled upon this study about how physiological changes to your body as you age could impact how you sleep and a lightbulb went off. The question wasn’t Why can’t I sleep? It was How should I be sleeping?

Ahh, yes, the joys of aging. I’m not old by any means, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed the fun changes that pop up with each passing year: A shiny gray hair (or three) near the front of my hairline; the sharp pain in both of my big toes if I wear unsupportive shoes for an extended period; a bitter intolerance for being outside my home after 9pm. I didn’t consider for a second that sleep might be next on the list of things that would change with my age.

But after this realization, I remembered that a few months before I started having trouble sleeping, I’d been waking up in the middle of the night with middle/upper back pain. I’d wake up and a deep breath felt like pressure and stiffness in my diaphragm. I attributed this development to my not-so-great mattress, which was probably partially true, but once I read this study, I decided that switching up my sleep position was worth a try.

I’ve never cared much for side-sleeping because it puts pressure on my knees and hips, and I have never been able to fall asleep on my back EXCEPT during the day, which is irrelevant in this instance but odd enough for an honorable mention. So if I ever wanted to fall asleep ever again—cue theatrics for effect—I had to learn to be a side-sleeper.

Who knew that becoming an effective side-sleeper was really as simple as getting a better mattress and using a body pillow to put between my knees to align my hips? I’ve now graduated from your typical body pillow to a King-size Original Foam Pillow, which is big enough to be a body pillow, honestly.

Just within the past few months, my difficulty falling asleep has become a problem again, but I used the first Sleep-Position Shake-Up experience to influence my approach. Currently, my comfortable sleep-position is a hybrid between side and stomach, with my legs in the shape of a jackknife on top of a pillow. It doesn’t make sense, but it works. For now.

If you’re suddenly struggling to fall asleep and you can’t figure out why, try to switch up how you’re sleeping. I expect that my sleep position will continue to evolve and keep me guessing every so often. And honestly, that’s ok with me. Even if the next sub-hybrid-sort-of-back-side-front sleep position doesn’t make sense, if it gets me to sleep, I’m on board.

How to find the sleep position that’s best for you

When you’re not sure how you should be sleeping, there are a few factors to consider, as not all positions are created equal for everyone.

If you have neck or back pain

If you experience neck pain, sleeping flat on your back could make the pain worse. Stack several pillows at an angle and lie back, distributing your weight evenly on the pillows. This might take some of the pressure off your neck and allow you to get some rest.

But if you have lower-back pain, sleeping on your back might be the solution for your tossing and turning. This could also be a good time to experiment with pillows to find what works for you. For example, lying on your back with a pillow elevating your feet can help reduce low-back pain.

If you snore

For the snorers among us, you know that back-sleeping is your partner’s worst enemy. Positioning yourself on your side or stomach might not stop the snore completely, but it certainly won’t make it worse.

If you have acid reflux or heartburn

Sleeping flat or on your right-side could be kryptonite to the heartburn-sufferer. To cool the burn of acid reflux, you can flip to your left side, or sleep at an upright angle.

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