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How I Learned to Sleep on My Back

I fully realize that this post will probably not resonate with everyone. But I’m writing it because it’s been on my mind quite literally every night and every morning… and I thought if anyone else has been struggling with back/neck issues due to sleep, it’s worth sharing what has helped me. I mentioned a little bit about this on Instagram DMs and it was actually kind of reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with this!

How I Learned to Sleep on my Back

How I Used to Sleep

For as long as I can remember, I have preferred sleeping on a very firm mattress without a pillow, on my stomach, with my head turned to whatever side is closest to the edge of the bed. Even in childhood, there were some nights where I was so uncomfortable that I would opt to sleep on the floor to get the best very flat “plank” position.

I could totally get away with that sleep position, until… my mid-twenties. I definitely “hold” my stress in my neck, too. So between that and sleeping with my neck constantly “crunched,” it was causing issues.

Back & Neck Pain

All things considered, I’ve been very lucky with physical health. I’ve never broken a bone, never been in a serious car accident, etc. In middle school, though, I developed a little bit of back pain probably after a growth spurt. I have had lingering back issues since. It ebbs and flows and gets particularly bad when I’m in poor mental health (and therefore holding more of that stress/tension). Over the past three or so years though, I started to pull my back out and have back/neck spasms frequently. It was happening, like, three times a year and if I wasn’t in pain, then I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Every time I lifted something, I’d be on edge that this was going to be what did my back in!

Every time it happened, it would be slightly worse than the time before. (On my first trip to Paris, I literally couldn’t turn my head left-to-right my neck was so jammed up.)  I started seeing a chiropractor when I was in Connecticut and she was so great at helping manage my issues. (Side note: chiropractors aren’t for everyone, but it’s the only thing that has really helped me.) But when I moved to Hoboken, I didn’t find a new person to go to and instead would only go when I was already in pain. Whoops. I have, thankfully, found an amazing one here in the suburbs!

Regardless of the state my neck/back was in when I went to the chiropractor, they all asked the same thing: “How do you sleep at night?” To which I have to respond, ashamed, with, “I sleep on my stomach……..” and wait for their response which is always, “You should really be sleeping on your back.”

Sleeping On My Back

Trust me, I have tried and failed many times over to sleep on my back. My brain doesn’t shut off the same way when I’m on my back as it does when I’m on my stomach. I don’t know why! Whenever I attempted to sleep on my back, I would lay there for thirty minutes without feeling drowsy, give up, flip over onto my stomach, and fall asleep within seconds. Why brain, why!

Let me tell you, as I attempted this numerous times and then failed each time, I thought it was impossible. But something has clicked recently and now I’m consistently sleeping on my back. Like once I did a full night of it and woke up without feeling stiff, I think my body succumbed to the realization that this was for the best. Occasionally, I wake up and I’ve rolled over and once I had to sleep on my stomach because I couldn’t fall asleep. But since that first night when it happened, it’s been a consistent change. I’m always a little surprised when I wake up and open my eyes and see the ceiling! Let me just say, if I can do this, you can do this! Back sleeping IS possible!!!!

When I told people I was trying to train myself to sleep on my back, I started to gather advice from people who had successfully done the same thing.

Here’s a bunch of the advice I got:

– Sleep with a pillow under your knees so they’re slightly bent

– Prop pillows along your sides so you can’t roll over in the middle of the night

– Get a special pillow

– Sleep with one arm across your stomach and one arm over and across your chest (as if you were hugging with one arm and pledging allegiance with the other)

– Tell yourself every night that you’re going to sleep on your back, like a mantra

– Sleep with your arms above you and your legs spread a little bit to anchor yourself into the position

I think these are all great pieces of advice if you need to train yourself to sleep on your back. But from my personal experience, I will say that you’ll have to experiment with a variety of these (and/or others) to figure out the “cocktail,” so to speak, that works for you. Below, I’m sharing the specific combination that worked for me.

 What worked for me:

– Committing to it. I realized that I was trying it for three nights tops before. I couldn’t do it, so I would quit and then just resign myself to being a stomach sleeper with back pain for LIFE. Well, duh. I’m retraining myself to do something that I normally do for eight-ish hours every single night for as long as I can remember. This is going to take time and patience and if I want to change, I have to stick with it consistently. I feel like it’s worth noting here that it took two months of solid commitment before it fully clicked. This didn’t happen overnight– pun intended 😉

– Having a mantra. This felt incredibly stupid to me, but turns out it was one of the best things I’ve done. Every single night before falling asleep, I would repeat in my head, “I’m going to sleep on my back tonight.” Even if I didn’t end up sleeping on my back, I started with the intention of doing it. About a month in, I noticed that I was repeating the mantra to myself when I woke up in the middle of the night and that helped me reset my sleep and try my back again.

– Starting every sleep on my back. Kind of self-explanatory but how can I learn to sleep on my back if I don’t try to sleep on my back first. I did this for every sleep. Whether I was falling asleep for the first time, taking a nap, going back to bed after going to the bathroom, or just waking up randomly in the middle of the night. I’d start on my back. It didn’t mean that I always stayed there (for a long time, I would eventually flip over), but I gave it a solid try before giving up.

– Listening to a meditation tape. It’s no secret that I love my Headspace app. At this point, I’m fairly comfortable with meditating (900+ days in a row!) so it’s not like I’m also trying something new on top of sleeping on my back. But I play the sleep meditation every night. Now, this works for me like a charm when I’m sleeping in my usual stomach position. It hasn’t worked perfectly for my back, but I’d still go through the whole exercise. I’d almost always get to the end of the ten minutes still awake, at which point I’d do the flip. But now? I barely remember finishing the first minute!!!

– Investing in a new pillow. This is going to be very personal, but finding a pillow that created the best alignment for my neck was crucial in making sleeping on my back a possibility. I ended up with a Tempurpedic pillow after trying a few out. What’s interesting is what felt good to me, was actually not keeping my neck and spine aligned. It required having someone else stand to the side as I was lying down to see if I was straight or not. The pillow I got wasn’t “sink into a nummy sleep” pillow but it DOES provide the perfect amount of support. (Which makes sense now because in retrospect one of the comfiest pillows I’ve ever slept on in a hotel left me with a horrible kink in my neck for two weeks a few years ago!) Anyway, take the time to figure out what pillow gives you that perfect alignment!

– Using my arms as bumpers. That’s the best way I can describe my new arm position. I’ve been trying to take mental notes every time I’m going to bed to share with you the exact positioning I use now. But basically from my shoulders to my elbows, my arms are completely pressed against my rib cage (the inside of my bicep) and the bed (the edge of my arm). And then I have a bend in my elbows and rest my hands in a light clasp against my belly….. like a grandpa who fell asleep in a recliner. HAHA. I find that having my arms pressed against my body and the bed adds stabilization and makes it more challenging to roll over unconsciously in the middle of the night.

The bottom line

I’m now feeling like anything is possible and I’m so glad I stuck with this. When I wake up in the morning, I feel significantly less stiff than I used to. It hasn’t solved my back pain completely, although I’m hoping that this and the other things I’m doing (core strengthening exercises, posture training, and chiropractic care) will all help alleviate some of the aches and pains.

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30 Comments

Daisy

Ok so this is a super random question but I just recently started sleeping on my back too. Do you notice yourself having more vivid dreams? Literally I have been having the craziest, most vibrant dreams since sleeping on my back. At first it was a little distracting, but now I’m enjoying recapping when I wake up lol. Anyways, great post and advice!

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Kate

I just read this post (not sure how I missed it!) but growing up my mom always said you’d have more vivid dreams, sometimes nightmares, while sleeping on your back. I’m already a vivid dreamer so I “avoided” this by sleeping on my stomach. I actually have to willfully tell myself I WILL NOT have bad dreams when I’m laying on my back falling asleep. Haha!:)

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Sarah Willett

I just posted my comment without reading the others but this is exactly what I said! The dreams are so crazy. Glad I’m not the only one!

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ROBIN

Thank you for this! Life-long stomach sleeper here. Every time I go to the chiropractor/physiotherapist/massage therapist they tell me how bad it is, but I’ve had no luck switching so far. I’m going to give it another shot with these tips!

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Ciana

Getting pregnant works too 😅 I always slept only on my stomach until my first pregnancy. I never really went back to it either. During pregnancy you’re supposed to sleep on your side but after the baby came I became a back sleeper. Pregnancy pillows (big u-shape) might help people sleep better even if you’re not pregnant.

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Lo

I 1000% recommend the U-shaped pregnancy pillow!!! I use it and I’m not pregnant. It’s so supportive and holds me in place. I wake up with hardly any back and neck pain.

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Sylvia

I would also suggest side sleeping. I start on my back to relax and then turning to my side to actually sleep. I put a pillow between my knees for correct back alignment and I hug my head pillow or put my hands under it so I feel cozy. Hugging a pillow on your side might give you that warm protected feel that sleeping on your stomach gives you.

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Morgan Roberts

I am currently going through the same struggle! Your post gives me hope 🙂 Really loving your content lately!!!

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Tami Cain

Thanks for sharing. I have attempted several times to sleep on my back. Like you, I would start out on my back, and wake in the night on my side again. I am attempting this again. Thanks again for the advise..:)

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Heather in Rowayton

😮 omg Thanks Carly! I never comment on Blogs etc but I am a little older than you in my forties and wake up every morning with back, neck, even core pain. Have same experiences with throwing my back out etc. I have been struggling with how to learn to sleep on my back. You are giving me the encouragement I need to break the habit. Bravo for doing in in your 20s😉 (for a few more weeks)

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Elizabeth

Thanks for posting this! I have been trying to train my body to sleep on my back after sleeping for years on my stomach. It’s always helpful to get some tips.

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Genesis

Thank you for this post! I recently just started going to a chiropractor and was told I need to sleep on my back😫 Can I ask what pillow you bought?

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Shelby

Just recently went to the chiropractor and found out a injury from my teenage years and sleeping on my stomach is causing all my lower back and neck pain. It’s been so hard trying to sleep on my back and I end up flipping over almost every time. Can’t wait to try these tips, thank you so much for sharing!

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Adrianna

“Like a grandpa who fell asleep in a recliner. HAHA” had me laughing out loud. Thanks for writing about this, it’s always the simple/normal/regular things that people assume shouldn’t be talked about!

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Robin Malia

Currently going through a very similar journey! Chiropractor appts, trying new pillows to switch my sleeping position. I’m easing into it by switching from stomach to side first. I also have slept on the floor multiple times even as an adult because I felt the bed wasn’t firm enough! So nice to know I’m not the only one struggling with this in my 20s 🙂

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Angela

This is exactly my problem too! Nice to know I’m not alone. But I haven’t been so committed to retraining myself to sleep on my back. And still searching for the right pillow for my neck too. Thanks for sharing the tips.

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Angela

You’ve exactly described my current challenge with changing my sleeping position. I sleep in a tight fetal position with my neck towards my chest and I’ve had neck pain for 2+ years. Nice to know I’m not alone. But I haven’t been so committed to retraining myself to sleep on my back. And still searching for the right pillow for my neck too. Thanks for sharing the tips.

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Janna

I‘m so going through this as well! What weird timing 😄 It‘s so tempting to sleep on my side, but on the back is the best! For the lower back, the teeth grinding, and the neck. Although it‘s quite risky for sleep-talking, since the jaw is so relaxed, and the dreams ARE weirdly vivid. Haven‘t been able to figure out the pillow under knee situation yet, so sometimes it‘s quite hard to „pick up“ me knees in the morning.

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Sarah Willett

I’ve trained myself this last year to sleep on my back as well! It’s amazing how much better my body feels in the morning. The only issue now is that I have THE most vivid dreams!

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Taylor

It is so ironic that you shared this today, because I’ve been struggling with the same thing! I realized on nights that I feel calm, I can easily make myself go to sleep on my back. But if I am feeling anxious or worried about something (which is often lately, as I’m getting settled into a new job), it’s like my body CRAVES being on my stomach. It’s as though stomach-sleeping is a “security” sleeping position for me. So glad I’m not the only one! You’re tips are super helpful, I hope I can get the hang of it soon for the sake of my back.

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Andrea

This is such an amazing post! I sleep on my side but often wake up feeling totally off and twisted…Carly, what Tempurpedic pillow do you use?

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laila polk

This post really resonated with me. I’m still a teenager, but I constantly have back problems. I know I need to sleep on my back, but I just can’t seem to get it right.

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Bella

That’s so weird because that’s how I’ve been sleeping the past few years and I don’t know why I started doing it, but I do wake up more energetic and less achy. I think I also saw that JLO sleeps on her back too to prevent wrinkles so I think I followed suit haha. Great post!!

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