My mind remembers how to sleep. My body does not.
October 27, 2020 10:10 AM   Subscribe

As I've gotten older, I have found that I can only sleep in exactly one position. As I've gotten even older, even that position doesn't feel sustainable due to a number of factors. Can I learn how to sleep in other positions? Is there something I can buy to fix this? Where do I even begin tackling this? Stomach-sleeping edition, so, so many details within.

On my stomach, head facing right, left arm under the pillow, right hand hand in my left armpit. As I've gotten older, my left arm has started to go numb if I'm not positioned perfectly, which is putting a damper on my sleep.

In order to maintain this position, I need a pillow that compresses down really flat (I currently use an Ikea pillow). If the pillow is not flat enough, I have trouble breathing. If the pillow compresses too flat, I find I have ear pain from where my head rests on my arm. Therefore, I often wake to flip the pillow over to have less-compressed and cooler side under my head.

I'm on a Stearns & Foster mattress which I find pretty comfortable. It's relatively soft. For a period of a couple of years, I slept on a Leesa, and these issues were even worse - they've improved since switching to the Stearns & Foster.

Other positions:
-If I try and turn my head the other way, I can't generally fall asleep due to discomfort and/or trouble breathing in my left nostril (not a problem on the other side). If I manage to fall asleep, I wake up shortly after due to ear pain.

-If I try and sleep on either side, I don't feel stable (I feel like I'm gonna roll onto my front or back) and just can't fall asleep.

-If I try and sleep on my back, I can't usually fall asleep due to not being able to breathe properly. If I do manage to fall asleep, I start snoring and wake myself up.

-When I try to sleep on my back or side, I use an additional pillow.

Other issues:
I'm really sensitive to temperature, and need the room to be pretty cold in order to sleep. If I feel too hot, that adds to any of the discomfort that I'm already feeling from any other position and makes it hard to sleep.

Other details:
I'm early 30s, and relatively healthy, just very fidgety. While sleeping in certain positions makes it difficult to breathe, I don't think I otherwise snore very much, and so I don't think I have sleep apnea (though I'm open to reconsider that). I don't really have trouble falling asleep due to things like mind racing, etc. and my sleep hygiene is pretty good - I think my issues are physical (musculo-skeletal?) rather than psychological. I share a queen-sized bed with my partner, and I definitely sleep better when in the bed on my own, but can't change that at the moment.

-I think my ideal solution would be to spend a bit of money (ideally <50$ and certainly <$100) on a pillow or something that would make it more sustainable to sleep in my current preferred position, and might enable me to sleep in another position. Does this thing exist? I'm pretty wary of buying something without the ability to return it, given that I'm so fussy/particular.

-I'm also open to the possibility that this is all on me, that I'll be uncomfortable irrespective of my pillow, and so that I'll need to do work to change my sleep position. If so, do you have suggestions for how to go about this? Are there physical objects (like a pillow between my knees or something) you recommend? What about techniques or resources to retrain myself how to sleep?

Thank you!
posted by taltalim to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For sleeping on your side, you might try a body pillow -- or even two, one front and one back -- that give you a greater feeling of stability down the entire length of your body.

I learned to sleep on my back, but only by buying a new adjustable bedframe that is way out of your price range. You could try using a piece of plywood and some heavy books to pop up the head of your bed, though, and see if you can approximate the effects of an adjustable. Google for info on the best angles.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:27 AM on October 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I've found that sometimes a fairly mild ache or pain makes me restless because I'm continually searching for a more comfortable position, and an acetaminophen (Tylennol) acts like a sleeping pill.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:33 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

if you have decent coverage you might want to see an ENT about your breathing situation. You shouldn't have just one working nostril and you shouldn't be unable to breathe on your back.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:45 AM on October 27, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am currently recovering from shoulder surgery and sleeping on my back on a 45-degree foam wedge. My preferred sleeping position is on my side, on my bad shoulder, and I thought it would be impossible to sleep like this (also while in pain, in a bulky brace, while strapped into a cold therapy machine) but actually it's fine. You definitely can learn to sleep in a different position if you have to. Maybe a wedge would allow you to sleep on your back without breathing problems? Mine only cost $40. And also maybe go see if you have sleep apnea, which sounds like a real possibility.
posted by HotToddy at 10:53 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I sleep like you and it’s been really hard to change. My second favorite position (to being in prone position on my stomach with my head to the right on a flat pillow with another flat pillow tilting my right side up slightly) is to lay on my side with my arm draped over a temper multi pillow ( they are quite stiff) good luck.
posted by pairofshades at 10:55 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, but it's also possible to have sleep apnea (or UARS, another sleep breathing disorder) without it.

Based on the nose thing, I wonder if it could be an issue with your nose. Have you had this checked out with an ENT? Do you have allergies or other things like that that could be contributing and if so, can you try to get better control over them?

I had sleep issues due to ENT stuff. Like you, I didn't snore, so it took a really long time to get it taken seriously, but once I found the right doctors and finally got diagnosed, the sleep doc and ENT surgeon really saved my bacon. I know that's super-hard right now - pandemic etc. - but if you have the option to look into that, it could really help.

In the meantime, I'd suggest trying Breathe-Rite strips (get the extra-strength, non-store-brand ones if you can) to keep your nostril open. I'd also suggest buying a bunch of pillows to prop yourself up/provide side support. Don't focus so much on buying the perfect single pillow. Buy a bunch of cheap ones and see what works. I like king-size pillows for the side support, personally - cheaper than the full-body ones. There are even huge U-shaped pillow cradles out there.
posted by pie ninja at 12:19 PM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but I'm a lifelong stomach sleeper in my late 30s, and I've recently found that I can sometimes sleep on my back with the use of weighted blankets. I think they replicate some of the pressure I'm expecting on the front half of my body from sleeping face down normally.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:18 PM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I am currently recovering from shoulder surgery and sleeping on my back on a 45-degree foam wedge. My preferred sleeping position is on my side, on my bad shoulder, and I thought it would be impossible to sleep like this (also while in pain, in a bulky brace, while strapped into a cold therapy machine) but actually it's fine. You definitely can learn to sleep in a different position if you have to.

Swap "shoulder" for "knee" and "45 degree foam wedge" for "stack of pillows" and I could have written this.

Granted, for me it didn't work out in the short term - but that's more a function of my leg having different needs for support as it healed, and of how fussing around to find the right pillow configuration was made all the more complicated by a big horkin' heavy cast. But ordinarily I am a side sleeper, on the side with the bad knee - and through some combination of body pillow and stacking other pillows between my legs and around me, I've gotten sufficiently propped up. Last night my knee was feeling a little grumpy (I overdid it a bit) and I slept on my back again for safety's sake and that worked fine.

Seconding the bunch of cheap pillows approach, but also suggesting a body pillow because you can bend those things into whatever unique configuration you need. One such thing that has been working for me lately is me on one side and hugging the top end of the body pillow, which runs down my front and then bends to come between my knees, and my bad knee rests on top of it with the foot on two other stacked pillows. (I have to get my roommate to come put the covers on me after I assume the position, but this has worked so far.) That body pillow has also been good for bending around my back and forming a pair of armrests when I sit up in bed during the day.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:03 PM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have started taking ibuprofen before I go to bed, so that mild aches and pains don't keep me awake or wake me up early.

And sometimes I take a small amount of an antihistamine if I'm feeling wound up and anxious, to help me fall asleep. (An antihistamine in liquid rather than pill form allows me to take a smaller dose.)

If you're going to try a new sleeping position, you might find that these things could help.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:19 PM on October 27, 2020

Speak to your doctor about sleep apnea for sure. Don't let them be dismissive without actually evaluating you. A CPAP might solve all your problems and drastically increase the quality of your life (and decrease the probability of having a stroke!) once you get used to it.
posted by callmejay at 3:11 PM on October 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've slept on a small buckwheat pillow ever since living for a short spell in Japan, where they are common. I love the buckwheat pillow because the fill of hulls provides flexible support -- I can dig my head among the hulls into a new position, and the pillow stays cool through the night.

The arrangement tends to keep my head in that position unless I decide to lift my neck and readjust. Although I mostly fall asleep on my stomach, it's also the only pillow that I've ever felt comfortable sleeping on my back with.
posted by Theiform at 5:50 AM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

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