Night night sleep tight or tension and insomnia?

3 pillows

Sleep - photo of 3 pillows

Do you get a good night’s sleep? ‘Night night sleep tight’ is OK if it means sleeping well but if tight means holding tension, then it’s not such a great phrase.

Sleeping positions

I am asked regularly about the best positions for sleeping and so I’d like to draw your attention an earlier  blog post about sleeping positions. This has suggestions for different set ups whether sleeping on your back, side or front. My view is that it’s best to get a good night’s sleep and to not worry about trying to find the perfect position. However, there are suggestions for pillow arrangements that may help.

Body Scans to aid sleep

Of course, it’s also worth some Alexander Technique ‘thought support’ to help free up any tension from the day. A body scan starting can address this, freeing up the neck, jaw, back and limbs. Thinking from brain to body helps us to become aware of where we hold tension so that we can free it up. Once we’re asleep we can’t act on this but we can think things through before we drop off to sleep or if we wake in the night.

Our minds can be pre-occupied and so running thoughts through the body bring us into the present moment, quietening down the mind chatter.


Having suffered from insomnia on and off over the years, I’ve tried out a few things that have helped:

  • We have daytime thinking and night-time thinking. Daytime thinking can be more logical and is often about planning things or working things out. Dreamlike thinking can be quite random and even surreal. If you can’t sleep and you’re thinking daytime style have a go at having some more random thinking. I either try to get back into my dream or to get into random thoughts that have nothing to do with my everyday life, eg zoo animals, colours floating through my mind, to see if this takes my mind elsewhere.
  • Some people like music or white noise. The best thing for me is to plug myself into some podcasts. It’s a good idea to tuck the headphone cords above the head to avoid getting strangled. Either I have an interesting listen or I drift in and out of sleep.
  • Not worrying about not sleeping. A book on sleeping advised that we all wake in the night a few times and that’s normal. The problem is when we can’t get back to sleep. Knowing that it was normal to wake really helped so that I stopped getting into a pickle about having insomnia and relaxed more.

I went to a talk recently on the neuroscience of sleep. The main pieces of advice are to try to go to bed at a similar time each night and to ensure that the bedroom is as dark as possible. These all help with melatonin levels. Light from TVs and electronic devices can also be problematical for some in getting to sleep and low level lighting before bedtime is a good idea.

Good posture in bed

Baby sleeping - very relaxed unlike adults who sleep with tension
Baby sleeping - very relaxed unlike adults who sleep with tension

Let’s look at sleeping positions. Do you wake up with neck pain or back pain and feel stiff and achy in the morning? What is a good pillow height? Do you sleep on your back, front or side? Here are some ideas to experiment with.

Pillow Height

The height of the pillow makes a difference. You need to find a height where your neck is in neutral. Your neck needs to be aligned with your spine rather than bent down or up.

If you sleep on your back, you many need a different height pillow than if you sleep on your side or front. Below are ideas for each position:

Sleeping on your back

Have the pillow height so your neck is comfortably aligned. If the pillow is too low, your chin will poke up in the air and the back of your neck will be shortened. If the pillow is too high, your throat may be constricted and your neck may be pushed up at the back.

Some people like their neck to be supported but others prefer just their head on the pillow. See what works best for you.

Experiment with a pillow under your knees and see what effect this has on your lower back pain.

Sleeping on your side

Find a pillow height so the neck is in neutral. It’s not advisable to tuck the chin into the body, as this can cause neck strain.  You may need a slightly more pillow height on your side than when you are on your back.

Try a pillow between your knees. This opens the hips up and doesn’t pull on the back so much.

If you have a longer pillow or a V-shaped pillow, you could also have one end of the pillow between your ankles.

If your arms feel bunched, hug a pillow (or a person!) to open up more in the chest.

Lying on your front

Depending on your body, you may not need a pillow at all – experiment to see how the pillow affects your neck.

Sleeping on your front can cause back strain for some. If it causes low back pain but is the only way you can sleep, try putting a slim pillow under your pelvis and/or lower abdomen.

Pillows – normal, V-shaped and small

Pillows are a personal choice and it is hard to gauge the pillow’s height as they sink and move under the head weight. Some shops have beds that you can lie on to test out pillows so this can help avoid an expensive mistake.

For pillows between the knees, you can use a normal pillow. A smaller pillow or a cushion can be easier to manage, especially when you turn over. Another option is a V-shaped pillow, where the point of the V goes between the knees and the long lines sit between the ankles and thighs. This is very comfortable. Breastfeeding pillows that have a curved shape work well too.