Over the last five years, I've written a lot about how I've change my sleep environment over time. Start with this post, and then read How I Transitioned Out of A Mattress and how I'm further Cleaning Up My Sleep. Then listen to Sleep Movezzzz on the Move Your DNA Podcast.
My usual answer to, “Hey Katy, what’s the best way to sleep?” is “As much as possible.” But then I’ll typically follow it up with something like this:
“There is no ideal sleep position in the same way there is no ideal "all day" position. Humans have been sleeping on constantly varying natural surfaces, curling or opening their body for heat regulation, for eons just like any other animal.”
That all being said, there is nothing less comfortable than sleeping on the ground when your body isn’t used to it. Which brings me to the term “used to it.”
Body-training is something we tend to associate with fitness or athletics. Say you run a few miles every day, slowly increasing your mileage until you get your body used to running five miles, then ten. In this case the term “used to” means you’ve given your tissues and physiology adequate time to adapt. Saying “I’m used to it” really means “I’ve trained for this.”
I’ve just gotten back from four days of camping. Ten years ago, four days of sleeping on the ground or even on a carpeted floor would have left me with a neck spasm that would last a couple weeks. Why? Because I wasn’t used to it. I’d been training my body to sleep on my bed with my pillow for 25 years.
We tend to think of human movement only in terms of exercising, but every movement or position you get yourself into is fed into your body’s “adapt to this” file. Your tissues respond to environment whether the environment is “sleeping on this mattress” or “running 17 miles.” The process is exactly the same. The reason NOT sleeping on your pillow or mattress hurts is the same reason running 4 miles beyond your regular running distance hurts. You’re just exceeding the boundaries of your tissue strength and created a load greater than what you body is used to.
Most of us suck at sleeping without a bed or pillow because we were issued this comfort at birth. The issuing of a pillow and bed to our own children has also become culturally reflexive. I polled our Facebook page, asking them when (and why) they’d introduced a pillow to their children’s sleeping habits. Fifty respondees gave essentially some version of these two responses--"my kid started asking for one because I have one" or "I gave them one once they were sleeping in their own bed." Since we’ve been using pillows for so long, we become as mobile as the pillow allows, setting a pattern where it is required for support in the future.
The hand-me-down practice of pillow use is similar to footwear use. We start using these items because everyone else does and then we get used to it--which means that the cells of our body adapt to shoe and pillow. The use of the bed and pillow have altered the shape of the body, making us fit for plush pillows and mattresses.
Getting rid of your pillow is similar to getting rid of your shoes. Yes, you could throw both of these things out immediately but by doing so you might load underused tissues to the point of damage (as demonstrated by camping-neck or back). Instead, consider a slow and systematic approach to changing the way you move (yes, even the way you move when you sleep. Pillow-less sleeping requires relaxed neck and shoulder muscles. Sleeping without a pillow requires less hyperkyphosis (the excessive curvature of the upper back). You can work on head and neck mobility during your awake-time so you can call upon them at night.
It took me about a year to go completely pillow-free, but what I did was change my pillow height over time. I went from something big and fluffy to something medium and fluffy. I progressed from a less fluffy pillow to a towel to a wadded T-shirt to nothing. I no longer need a fixed head position to keep from aching the next morning. By progressing what I did was gradually load the tissues in my upper body so that they could adapt to my “sleeping” workout.
Over the last six years I've trained to be able to sleep without a pillow (and without a mattress, for that matter). It keeps me up on my game. My sleeping game. Hotel mattresses no longer threaten me. Tent-camping no longer worries me. I am more resilient now, and able to meet my body's needs in varying environments (i.e. my adaptation to my pillow does not keep me at home or require I haul a pillow everywhere I go). The sleep-tone of my body is a lot better than it used to be and this skill set is not really different than any other reason I strive to move more. I also get to train eight hours a night. Or sometimes four. Or sometimes I do interval (sleep) training where I alternate sleeping reps with breast-feeding ones. (I am an attachment-parenting athlete).
Right now your pillow and mattress likely serve the same purpose as an orthotic or "supportive" footwear: they're supporting you in a positions you can't comfortably deal with via your own anatomy. Like an orthotic supports weakness created or maintained by wearing shoes, the pillow supports the body position created by using a pillow*. Just as constant shoe-wearing and flat, unvarying terrain have left you with poor foot mobility and strength, always sleeping on something flat and squishy has altered the mobility and strength of your parts. The body movements required for ground-sleeping are natural and they're currently under used. Your muscles are simply out of sleeping shape (if you want to sleep anywhere besides your current set-up).
*I'M PRETTY SURE THIS IS IRONIC, but I (like Alanis Morissette) have been wrong before.