It has been seven years now since I started transitioning away from sleeping in a typical bed (bed frame, mattress, and pillow) to a firmer setup on the floor. There are several reasons why I find floor sleeping to be beneficial to me, my family, and potentially to you, too. Although mattresses and pillows are the standard today, this is simply due to the course of history and not because they are the best kind of bed. Like all the things you and I do day in and day out, it is important to reflect on why we do what we do in a particular way. As I spend a significant portion of my life sleeping (or at least, in bed), I want that time to be spent in the best possible manner to serve my wellbeing. This has brought me to where I am today.
From Hard to Soft
The oldest known beds were made of plant materials layered into a mat, the purpose of which was to help keep the sleepers warm and ward off insects. Similarly, when Egyptians and other early peoples created wooden, metal, and stone sleeping platforms, the main idea was to raise the body off the ground in order to keep warm and away from bugs and rodents. Over time, wealthy people developed beds that were more elaborate, but other than showing off their wealth, the main purpose of beds remained the same: keeping a person warm, safe, and comfortable. As mass-produced, fluffy, thick mattresses became available to more than just the upper class, the setup of a bed frame, mattress, and pillow became ubiquitous across Western culture. While even the cheapest of today’s beds seem highly luxurious compared to the mats of plants and straw that most of humanity has slept on historically, many people still struggle (and spend a lot of money) to find a more comfortable bed.
Like other animals, we are drawn to comfort, and that often means soft and squishy. However, like sugar, this would have been rare in the wild while our species was evolving. For hunter-gatherers, seeking a soft and squishy bed would have meant piling some plants on top of the ground, and that was about as plush as it was going to get. Now that humans have become much more technological in developing their beds, we may have gotten carried away. Just like sugar, there is a lot more cushion available to us than our bodies are designed to handle in the long run.
Based on my education of how the body works, soft and squishy beds aren’t ideal because feeling pressure from our surrounding environment is important to the health of our cells. Cushioning in our shoes trains us to land our feet harder on the ground as we walk or run because our feet can’t feel the ground rising up to meet them. Similarly, our bodies don’t register the pressure of laying on a mattress the same way as laying on a firmer surface. This means that it becomes more comfortable to remain still for a longer period of time, rather than switching positions occasionally as you sleep. Just like remaining still for eight hours during the day is going to have certain impacts on your health, keeping to a single sleep position for eight hours in the night is also going to lead to issues like less blood flow and stiffness in certain areas. While some may say that the “best” sleeping position is lying on your back or on your side, even a “good” position is not good if you remain there for too long. The minor discomfort of laying on a firmer surface will naturally prompt you to change it up more often during the night. Of course, you may find your discomfort to be more than minor at first, but this can change over time as your body adapts.
We Adapt to What We Do Every Day
Our bodies adapt to the pressures around them. When subjugated to repeated pressures, our soft tissues develop calluses and densities appropriate to protect and support that activity. Think of how you grow thicker hand skin so you can use garden tools with greater ease. Or if you are a weightlifter, think of the way a barbell resting on your shoulders results in those spots getting tougher with time. When you sleep on a firmer surface, it may feel hard and uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it. But over time, with practice, the parts of your body that experience the pressure of the floor will toughen up. This means it will eventually get more comfortable to sleep on any harder surface, which can be pretty handy if you like camping or visiting faraway friends.
Starting every day down on the floor means you need to get all the way up and all the way back down from the floor every day. Even if this happens just a couple times a day, this movement will maintain your ability to keep doing it your entire life. Being able to move your body to the ground and back is an important part of your personal autonomy, such as being able to reach and care for your own feet, clean your own house, and do other things for yourself without the help of other people or tools. It can be an action that is taken for granted when young but will get more difficult to do the less you do it. With floor sleeping, you get even more movement opportunities when you make your bed up in the morning or when you wash your sheets. You were looking for fifteen minutes to squeeze a workout into your day, and here it is!
While, historically, sleeping on the floor used to be less desirable because you would have been on the cold dirt among the animals and vermin, it’s probably a much different scenario in your house. We keep our houses much cleaner and warmer than even the wealthiest of houses in the past. We even have rooms designated just for sleeping, keeping our beds separate from our daytime activities. Today, one doesn’t need to sacrifice warmth or cleanliness by sleeping on the floor. You may, however, still want to have your bed up on a low platform in order to provide air flow and prevent mold. Another method of mold prevention, used by my family, is to pick one’s bed up in the morning and leave it hanging up during the day, so it airs out.
Mattresses and pillows can end up supporting our bodies in alignments that don’t serve us well in the long run. More and more of us are struggling with “forward head” posture, in which one’s head and neck becomes fixed in a position more forward of our shoulders and upper backs due to all the time we spend bending our heads toward computers and phones. When we rest our heads on a pillow for the night, this posture is maintained even further as the pillow props our heads forward or above our shoulders. A lot of money can be made selling super technical mattresses and pillows (and similarly, office chairs and running shoes) that all try to convince us we need the extra scientifically advanced supportive cushioning to hold our body parts “just so.” If we’ve been training our bodies for fifty years to rely on this kind of support, then yes, we may need this technology at the moment because our bodies have lost the ability to do that supportive work for themselves. I don’t believe that hunter-gatherers were waking up with aches and pains because they didn’t have the right mattress or pillow. You and I can train our bodies to be able to sleep well without all the cushioning, and gain more resilient, adaptable parts along the way.
In the above pictures: a) We can support our neck in a neutral position, and that's fine! b) But sometimes we need to move our necks, too. c) If we can get some of that movement while in bed, that's great!
My Experience with Floor Sleeping
Like you, I spent most of my life sleeping in a bed because my parents gave me a bed. When I learned about the idea of sleeping on the floor, I was in my twenties and had a body still relatively good at accommodating change quickly. Therefore, I transitioned a little hastily out of my typical foam and what-not mattress to simply laying a blanket over a rug on a hardwood floor. While it wasn’t that comfortable at first, it wasn’t too drastic of a change for my body which also got to go camping (actual camping, involving a sleeping bag in a tent and no other furnishments) pretty regularly.
Transitioning out of pillow-use was also pretty swift for me. For the prior year, I had been searching fruitlessly for a pillow that would help me wake up with less “tweaks” in my neck and fewer headaches. It turned out that moving in the opposite direction was the key. First, I ditched my regular pillow for a couple folded towels, stacked inside a pillowcase. The towels helped me adjust to having something firmer under my head while still elevating it to the position my neck was used to. I also liked that I could easily fold the towels to be higher for side sleeping, and then unfold them for sleeping on my back. As I felt ready, I reduced the height of the towels until I no longer had anything under my head. Very occasionally, I still use a balled-up sweatshirt for some mild softness. We all have some days where we feel hardier, and some when we need to be gentler with ourselves.
Over the years, I’ve tried out different bed setups. For three years we slept on a wool mattress topper, about 2 inches thick, that we draped over a half-wall during the day. When we moved to my current house, we simply spread a big sheet over the carpeted floor at night. That was very easy, but I didn’t like to think about what chemicals we might be breathing in from sleeping directly on the carpet. When we replaced the carpet with tile floor, we switched our bed up again. Now we have tatami mats, which provide a bit of air flow and warmth between us and the tile floor. On top of the tatami mats, we have a ¾ inch wool felt pad (made by this company, www.woolsleepingbag.com). We hang these wool pads up during the day. For my family, this provides the perfect amount of firmness and cushion. If I feel discomfort during the night, it is due to having a non-perfect body that has issues like everyone else. I am glad that the firmness of my bed allows me to specifically position myself in ways that are useful rather than sinking helplessly into the softness of a mattress or being fooled that I’m not stiff and tight by propping myself into a place that perpetuates my issues. Having no pillow always feels good and free and helps me maintain a healthy amount of mobility in my upper spine.
Floor Sleeping with Others
As I mentioned, my switch from a mattress to a much harder surface was very quick. It was actually a bit too quick for my spouse, who remained pretty uncomfortable for longer than I. If I had been a little more patient and considerate, we would have switched to something thinner but softer at first. She also used a pillow for much longer, while I took only a couple months to stop using any sort of pillow at all. Sharing a bed space with someone whose body has different needs than our own requires some compromising. It is important that we meet our bodies where they are at, transitioning at the pace that our tissues can handle, so we don’t end up exacerbating an issue rather than resolving it.
Sleeping on the floor made co-sleeping with my babies very easy. I didn’t have to worry about babies rolling off the bed because there was no distance for them to fall. With no pillows or squishiness to the bed, it felt much less likely that we would accidently roll on top of them. Breastfeeding in bed made sense for me as I didn’t have to rouse my sleepy self out of the warm blankets at all hours. As my first child grew older, we transitioned her initially to her own bed on the floor next to ours. When she was ready, she moved to a floor bed in her own room.
To help us get more movement and less sedentary, habitual positioning during the night, my spouse and I regularly switch which sides of the bed we sleep on. Picking up one’s bed every day helps keep everything from feeling so permanent and ingrained. While it’s good to feel settled, I find it helpful to maintain a measure of flexibility.
On that note, beds on the floor also tend to be easier to move by oneself, and that can just be handy for deep cleaning or moving house.
If you are curious about trying out floor sleeping or just getting more movement while you sleep, I’d recommend checking out the following article with some helpful suggestions on how to scale the amount you change to the degree that is appropriate for your body.
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