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Sleeping on the Floor

While most people are interested in finding the best possible mattress, others are getting rid of mattresses entirely in favor of sleeping on the floor. With roots in ancestry, and support from the people of many countries who traditionally sleep on the floor, this can be a solution for some people.

However, there are pros and cons to this way of sleeping. It is more appropriate for some people than others, and if you’re interested in trying out floor sleeping, it’s essential to make sure you won’t be injured in the long term. To discover more about whether to sleep on the floor (and how to go about it if you do), keep reading.

Is Sleeping on the Floor Good or Bad?

Despite both the long history of floor sleeping and the recent renewal of interest, there has been very little research done on the benefits and drawbacks of sleeping on the floor.

One thing we do know is that indigenous and nomadic peoples share similarities in their sleep postures and that these sleep postures are also mimicked by other non-human primates. This gives us a clue to how we slept before the introduction of soft mattresses.

Many features of these sleep positions are often less important in western civilization: keeping eyes and ears free to watch and listen for danger, minimizing heat loss, and pillowing the head on an arm or shoulder in the absence of a cushion. However, other features show how easily people adapt to the lack of soft bedding.

For example, two characteristic features of the indigenous sleep postures are positioning the body to correct health problems or pain, and also to reduce pressure points against the ground. Some of these postures can be mimicked on soft bedding, while others are more practical on a harder surface.

On the other hand, a study of people with lower back pain found that those sleeping on very hard mattresses (comparable to but still much more giving than a hard floor) had the worst sleep quality over time. There was no equivalent loss of sleep quality for people on medium-firm or firm mattresses, indicating that an even firmer surface might reduce sleep quality further.

While we can hope for further studies into the impact of sleep surface on sleep quality, most of the renewal of interest in floor-sleeping has been based on anecdotal reports and theories by physical therapists and osteopaths. Although anecdotal reports are not scientific, they offer different perspectives on floor-sleeping. Some people experience reduced back pain and increased energy after sleeping on the floor in the short or long term, while others wake up aching and exhausted.

Until there is firmer evidence one way or another, the best answer to whether sleeping on the floor will help you is to experiment with it yourself. However, it is important only to try this if you are physically capable of it. Speak to your doctor and any other health care professionals you see regularly.

What Happens to Your Body When You Sleep on the Floor?

Experts who have spoken on the subject are in agreement that sleeping on the floor is one way to promote a neutral posture for your back during sleep. By aligning the spine with no pressure or stress on any part of it, the back is able to support itself and function normally. As the spine is also a critical component of the nervous system, a properly aligned spine can also affect its functioning as well.

However, those same experts warn that floor-sleeping can compress joints over time, particularly if you sleep in the same position every night. A hard floor has no give, meaning that the weight of your body is resting on contact points and can cause sores, sore muscles, and less mobile joints over time. This substantiates the claims of people who find that short-term floor sleeping can be helpful for back pain, but that the drawbacks increase over time.

There are other theories as to what impact sleeping on the floor has on your body. Michael Tetley, the physiotherapist who studied indigenous and nomadic people, argues that the “kickback” from the ribs to the spine when sleeping on the ground provides a natural adjustment each night to keep the back functioning properly. He also believes that certain sleep postures on the ground can correct malfunctioning joints and muscles.

Similarly, other experts believe that soft bedding prevents movement during the night, and it is this movement which aids in properly functioning, flexible muscles and deeper sleep. Like the other theories, this has not yet been researched properly and is currently only a hypothesis. Of course, with so many people claiming to have been helped by sleeping on the floor, it’s possible that these or other factors mean it is a useful tool for some people.

Don’t Sleep on the Floor If…

Experimenting with sleeping on the floor is only a good idea if you are physically capable of it. There are several groups of people who should either avoid it entirely or be very careful before attempting it.

  • The elderly are rarely candidates for sleeping on the floor. Thinner skin and loss of muscle and fat mean that they are susceptible to severe bruising and pressure sores due to a very hard sleep surface. Joints are also made vulnerable, increasing the risk of serious injury from sustained pressure or even a short fall.
  • People who cannot comfortably sit down on the floor and stand up again unaided should be wary of floor-sleeping. While this can be temporarily waived in the case of people who struggle with motion because of back pain, it is still a significant limitation to keep in mind. Falls can be dangerous for people of any age, and being trapped on the floor and unable to stand up again is a frightening proposition.
  • Cold sleepers may find sleeping on the floor — particularly floors without carpeting — too uncomfortable, even with lots of bedding. Because heat rises, the ground is usually the coldest part of the room. Hard floors also stay cold and leech warmth throughout the night. If you are a cold sleeper and still want to try sleeping on the floor, remember to wear warm pajamas and focus on building a warm padding base. (Heated floors remove this issue.)
  • Anyone with a serious medical issue should be sure to speak to their doctor before proceeding. This is particularly important for people with skeletal or muscular problems, but it is far better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your health.

How to Sleep on the Floor

Preparation

While sleeping on the floor long-term can mean not needing an expensive bed or mattress, there are still some purchases which can make the endeavor easier and more successful.

If you don’t have the right bedding to create a comfortable sleep surface (see below), it’s important to buy what you need to conduct a proper experiment. Pajamas are another concern: what is comfortable in an ordinary bed might not be the right choice when sleeping on the floor. Cold sleepers might appreciate thick fleece tops and bottoms, but these are also a good choice to help protect places like the hips where a hard surface can create bruising.

You might also have to switch out your pillow if the difference in sleep surface means your head will be at an uncomfortable angle.

Another element of preparation is mental. Even those who find floor sleeping to be very comfortable admit that there is an adjustment period. The first few nights (or longer) can be uncomfortable and lead to an aching body in the morning. It can also be difficult to fall asleep, both because it’s uncomfortable and because it’s new. If possible, schedule the beginning of your experiment for a time when you will be minimally impacted by poor sleep or sore muscles.

Creating the Right Sleep Surface

The ideal sleep surface for floor sleeping varies from person to person. However, the consensus seems to be that the surface should be minimally padded (you don’t want to recreate your mattress on the floor) with layers which can be removed as you grow more used to sleeping on a hard surface.

Floor-sleeping mats (like tatami), sleeping bag pads, foam mattress toppers, and layers of blankets all have their pros and cons and create remarkably different sleep surfaces. By mixing and matching to your preferences, you’ll set yourself up to approach sleeping on the floor properly.

Type of Padding Effect Suggested For
Mats Minimal padding, creates a layer of insulation from cold. The bottom element of your sleep surface.
Sleeping bag pads Minimal padding that is still meant to create a comfortable sleep surface. Usually quite small. Those who already own a sleeping bag pad. It can either be part of your sleep surface or the entirety of it once you have acclimated.
Mattress toppers Very cushioned padding depending on the depth of the topper; memory foam provides plenty of “give”. Thick toppers may interfere with the benefits of floor sleeping. People who weigh more, are side sleepers, or who are concerned about pressure on their joints.
Blankets Very little give, but layering blankets can create insulation and padding which is easy to adjust. Cold sleepers, anyone who needs more padding without give.

Once you have gathered the materials you need, start layering them together to create the right sleep surface. The best way to do this is trial and error: arranging the layers, lying down to see if it suits you and whomever you are sleeping with, and then trying another arrangement.

What you are looking for is a surface which is harder than you are used to but still not immediately uncomfortable. Any problems will worsen overnight, so pay special attention to any places where there is uncomfortable pressure. If you still can’t find a comfortable middle ground, it might be a good idea to examine your sleeping position.

Sleep Positions

The way you sleep can have a major effect on your sleep quality, even on a mattress. When translated to sleeping on the floor, there are different benefits and drawbacks which can be the deciding factor in whether floor sleeping is right for you.

If you have difficulty with your usual sleep posture, consider whether it would be possible to temporarily (or permanently) switch to a different position. Each has its upsides and downsides, so consider carefully and consider speaking to your physiotherapist or doctor about what position will offer the most support for you.

Side Sleeping

The majority of people are side sleepers, either curling up on themselves (the fetal position) or stretching their arms and legs vertically or horizontally.

There are numerous benefits to side sleeping, including better brain function, improving blood circulation and spinal health, and aiding back pain and fetal blood flow during pregnancy. However, sleeping on a very hard surface like the floor can make it difficult to get a good sleep while on your side. Instead of spreading your weight out, sleeping on your side means it will be concentrated on a few points of contact (usually your shoulder, hip, and calf) on one side. This can cause joint compression, bruising, or general discomfort.

If you are a side sleeper and do not wish to change your sleeping position, choose padding materials which will provide an amount of “give” and distribute your weight more evenly. Place pillows or rolled-up blankets in places which needs support (between your knees, under your waist, and/or under your neck) to keep your spine in alignment and further reduce pressure.

Stomach Sleeping

Sleeping on your stomach is the least-common sleep position and is known to be one of the least effective for a good rest. It usually results in back and neck discomfort as well as restricted breathing and blood flow, particularly through the shoulders.

Some people find sleeping on the floor reduces the impact of stomach sleeping, while others find it exacerbates its issues. Consider using a pillow against under your chest to help support you and reduce neck and shoulder strain if you are a stomach sleeper.

Back Sleeping

Back sleeping is the most comfortable position for many floor sleepers. The posture evenly spreads your weight out with few, if any, vulnerable pressure points. Shoulders and buttocks are well-padded when compared to the hip and shoulder edge in side sleeping, and it is much easier to practice good spinal alignment when sleeping on your back rather than your stomach.

However, there are some drawbacks to sleeping on your back. It has a tendency to worsen sleep apnea and snoring, as well as putting pressure on the lower back. A small pillow or blanket arranged against under your knees can help reduce lower back pain, but it’s important to make sure it isn’t so large as to cause further pain.

As with all sleep postures, what works for one person is unlikely to work for another, and changing your preferred sleep position can be difficult. Experiment to find what works best for you, on the floor or a mattress.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in reading more about back pain, sleep health, and how to create the perfect sleeping space, follow the links below for more information.

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