Lifestyle & Life Moments

Can Sleeping on the Floor Be Good for You?

Men and his dog napping in new living room during the moving in process.
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Most of us would prefer to crash on a comfortable, supportive mattress than have to spend the night sleeping on the floor or a couch.

But a hardy few pride themselves on their ability to sleep on austere surfaces, like cold, hard floors. And some people claim that the rigidity of the floor is more comfortable for them than a bed.

Whether you’re looking to alleviate back pain, you’re planning to hit the road to visit friends without a guest bed, or you are curious how to host your own guests, we decided to ask the experts about the benefits or drawbacks of sleeping on the floor, as well as long-term sleep on a couch or air mattress.

So whether you’re couch-surfing on the road, sleeping on the floor in a child’s room while nursing them back from an illness or hunkering down on an air mattress for the holidays, here’s what the specialists in sleep and orthopedics had to say about getting your best rest.

Is It Ok to Sleep on the Floor?

Archeologists think our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely slept on the hard ground, cushioned only by some grass and ash. Fast-forward a few million years and the ability to gauge sleep quality, and it seems modern-day man does best sleeping on something softer than the floor but not as plush as a pile of pillows.

In fact, study after study shows that a medium-firm mattress is the optimal sleeping surface in terms of comfort, sleep quality and proper spine alignment, since a misaligned spine can cause neck and low-back pain. Other research published in the Lancet found that those who slept on a medium-firm mattress versus a firm one had less pain in bed and upon rising. They also had less disability.

While sleeping on the floor might be tempting if you suffer from back pain, or as a cheap, quick option while away from your own bed, sleep specialists advise against it. “Sleeping on the floor, in particular, has been shown to almost universally increase pain scores in individuals,” notes Dr. Chris Winter, Mattress Firm sleep advisor, neurologist and author of “The Sleep Solution.”

Other Reasons Not to Sleep on the Floor

Sleeping on the floor can augment thermal discomfort and other issues, as well. Since heat rises, the floor can be a cold place to spend the night, which may seem appealing in August but can be uncomfortably cold in January. Additionally, it doesn’t take a neat freak to know that floors can be breeding grounds for all kinds of germs. According to some reports, your carpeting can be 4,000 times dirtier than your toilet bowl.

Is It Ok to Sleep on the Couch?

The couch is a great place to snuggle up with a good book or binge-watch the latest viral show.

But it’s not such a great place to get a good night’s sleep.

A lot will depend on the quality and design of the couch, but most sofas are meant to look a certain way or accommodate you while sitting. They aren’t made to properly support your spine when you’re lying down—and that can spell trouble for your back and neck.

Case in point: One study examined the effects of sleeping on soft, medium and hard mattresses. Researchers found that the torso sinks more deeply into a soft mattress, thereby causing the head and neck to lie higher than the rest of the body (when compared to sleeping on a hard or medium mattress). And that higher head or neck position can put an unhealthy load on the shock-absorbing discs in the neck and spine.

Other Reasons Not to Sleep on the Couch

While your bed’s sheets typically get a regular washing, couches can go weeks, months, even years—if ever—without a cleaning. Sofa upholstery tends to accumulate everything you, your houseguests, your pets and your family bring to the sofa, including dust mites, dead skin cells, spills and crumbs, pollen, sweat, dirt—you get the picture.

Couches generally aren’t wide enough or long enough for you to really stretch out and get comfortable for the night. “If the couch poorly conforms to the individual, then one is at increased risk for potentially falling off of the couch, thus unleashing problems related to the fall,” says Dr. Rahul V. Shah, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Premier Orthopedic Spine Associates.

Couches are also typically smack-dab in the center of where families congregate. When you spend the night on one, you may have to contend with sleep-disrupting noise, light and the shuffling of people through the room.

Is It Ok to Sleep on an Air Mattress?

Softer than the floor and often more supportive than a couch, an airbed seems like a great option when your standard bed isn’t available. At least one study shows that sleeping on one (especially if you can customize the firmness with a pump) can give you better quality rest than if you slept on a futon.

But an air mattress is far from a typical mattress. The material can be squeaky or have a plastic-like smell. There’s also the issue of temperature control, says Winter.

“When I was sleeping on the portaledge [a hanging tent system used by rock climbers who need to sleep while on a climb], the air underneath me was very cold, and despite the foam camping mattress being soft, it did not insulate well,” says Winter. “Inflatable air mattresses can sometimes be very cold as the air in the mattress equilibrates with the environment (if it's cold). In this way, the couch may offer a better temperature and sleep.”

Getting a Better Night’s Sleep—on a Couch, the Floor or Airbed

So given the choices, which surface gives you the best night’s sleep with the least amount of discomfort?

While Winter says the floor is the worst, Shah says it just depends.

“When it comes to spinal health and choosing whether to sleep on the bed, couch or air mattress, the quality of fit is paramount,” Shah explains. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sleeping in any of these environments. As such, trying each of these environments may identify the optimal environment for each individual person.”

How to Sleep Well When You Don’t Have a Bed

  • Use comfortable bedding no matter what surface you’re sleeping on. Make sure you have the right pillows and blankets to make your sleep restful.
  • Protect against scratchy couch surfaces—and, at least to some degree, other unsavory things—with a bedsheet.
  • Try to customize the firmness of your sleep surface with mats or the adjustment pump of an air mattress.
  • Use a thin (versus fluffy) pillow under your head when sleeping on a soft couch. This will help minimize how high your head and neck are elevated in relation to your torso. The more height, the greater the chance of a misaligned spine and head and neck pain.
  • Stick with good sleep hygiene practices. For example, adhere to your regular sleep schedule, going to bed and rising at roughly the same times; keep your sleeping area cool and dark; and limit late-night exposure to light and electronic devices.

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