When—and why—it's OK to sleep in your recliner

Rest is best, no matter how you get it

A person naps in a chair with a book. Credit: Getty Images / Tom Merton

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Forget Martin Crane’s tatty, tape-covered chair from Frasier, Joey’s beloved leather beast from Friends, and your Granddad’s ragged tufted throne. Recliners are no longer the ugly duckling of home furnishings—and there’s generally no need to feel guilty about using one for a bed, either, say medical professionals.

Dr. Deanna O’Dwyer, a biology professor and owner of Melrose Family Chiropractic & Sports Injury Centre in Massachusetts, says, “Sleep is very reparative physically and neurologically—if you don’t get sleep, it can lead to a lot of different dysfunctions. I tell my patients that any way they can get sleep is probably better than not sleeping.”

Recliners also fit Dr. O’Dwyer’s recommendations for proper sleep positioning, which include lying on the back with the neck in line with the spine. Chair rest can even reduce the temptation to roll over in the night into what chiropractors typically consider the worst resting pose: On the stomach.

Luckily, the tufted turtles of the living room are no longer objects of ridicule and have become showpieces that have family members elbowing each other out of the way for cushy armrests, says Christopher Gaube, Brand Director for Raymour & Flanigan.

“Recliners continue to innovate in serving the needs of the consumer,” says Gaube, adding that bells and whistles include massage options and Bluetooth capabilities. “Recliners have come leaps and bounds from being an item in a corner to a centerpiece of a home.”

Today’s designs are a perfect marriage of form and function for those aging in place who may have mobility issues that prevent them from moving to second-floor bedrooms—or those with ailments like sleep apnea, breathing issues, or back pain—says Cole Bawek, director of public relations for Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc.

If your health issues are preventing a restful night’s sleep, consider opting for a recliner as an alternative to your bed. Here are a few things to consider before shopping.

Massage motion mimics your baby years

Dr. Aran Kadar, co-director of the Sleep Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts, doesn’t endorse specific products, but he does say the gentle rocking motion of certain recliners may mimic successful sleeping patterns.

“There’s something left over from when we’re babies, who learn to self-soothe in certain positions,” he says. “Movements can help young kids doze off, and a motion chair may offer more of that gentle movement than a bed.”

Background noise can be a good distraction

Credit: Getty Images / tommaso79

Passing out to the television isn't ideal but it's not harmful.

Babies aren’t the only ones who sleep well using white-noise machines, says Dr. Kadar. He often recommends a bit of background sound for the adult patients he serves, and while television isn’t necessarily his top choice, it’s not harmful either.

“A TV or some background noise they’re not ‘logged into’ can be helpful—this comes up a lot for those who have lost a spouse” and may even avoid the bed they used to sleep in, he says.

However, there is some programming he suggests avoiding. “You can see why watching the news as you try to fall asleep wouldn’t be restful or refreshing,” he says.

Keeping it cool helps

Recliner sleep may help eliminate another common complaint with those who catch their zzz’s on a mattress: It’s just too hot.

Dr. Kadar explains, “When you’re talking about sleep environments, temperature is one of most people’s issues—most tend to sleep better in a cooler environment. All of that bedding can be too much, and people wake up sweating.”

Recliner sleep may also offer relief for those whose rest is disturbed by a partner whose shared space causes them to overheat.

“As long as you feel well-rested during the day, it’s not the worst thing to fall asleep with your partner and then get up in the middle of the night,” he says. “People want to sleep in the same room as their partners, but will often sleep better by themselves.”

Apnea can be less severe when sitting upright

Credit: Getty Images / vladans

Staying at an upright angle can alleviate people with sleep apnea and emphysema.

It’s recommended that those with conditions like sleep apnea and emphysema sleep at a more upright angle versus on their backs, says Dr. Kadar, but that’s easier said than done.

“A lot of my sleep apnea patients struggle with their machines in bed,” he says, because the equipment requires a mask with tubes. “Sleep apnea can be less severe in an upright position, but people can be very sensitive to positional changes.”

A chair with myriad recline positions may help “retrain” those who have been sleeping flat on their backs for decades. But, Dr. Kadar recommends using some props first, like wedge pillows and even buckwheat hull pillows (that has a structure that is more turgid than traditional pillows, and prevents overheating).

If these don’t work, a pricier recliner may—but Kadar’s advice? “Try before you buy,” he says. “You want to know what it feels like to manipulate it and get in and out of that position. Make sure it’s easy.”

Power lift recliners can help with circulation

A power lift recliner can “lift” its seat to help you get in and out of it. Some can also rise your feet above your heart. This promotes better circulation and relieves back pain, while the cherry on top is a lift option for those who need a little oomph.

Lifting the chair’s ottoman a few inches higher than traditional recliners can help enhance blood flow from the legs to the heart.

O’Dwyer says, “Sometimes it helps for people with poor intravenous return to elevate their legs for an extended duration, usually when they’re sleeping.”

However, most people move around when dozing in bed. So, the structure of a recliner and the inability to move to one’s side or stomach, for instance, are ideal ways to keep legs stationary, says O’Dwyer.

Shorter armrests won’t cause back pain

“Most furniture is made for someone who is about 6-foot, one-inches,” says O’Dwyer.

Accordingly, not many recliner models feature shorter armrests, but this is important because higher armrests can make many folks inadvertently shrug their shoulders. Heavily padded headrests can push forward the necks of shorter sitters.

The result can be neck or upper back pain, which can be prevented by using a small rolling pillow behind the neck.

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