I Tried the “Tennis Ball Trick” to Train Myself to Sleep on My Back — Here’s How It Went

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Back Sleeper min

In the quest for a good night’s sleep, many of us have tried numerous remedies, from the “Sleepy Girl Mocktail” to meditation apps. Of course, the mere act of falling asleep doesn’t always equate to a good night’s rest, especially if you’re in the habit of contorting yourself into an uncomfortable sleeping position. Have you ever considered adding a tennis ball to your bedtime routine? The latest trend in the sleep world involves a decidedly quirky technique: sewing a tennis ball into your shirt to train yourself to sleep on your back.

The Back Sleeping Dilemma: A Pain in the Neck!

Sleeping on your back can seem like an impossible feat if you’re not one of the elect who is naturally comfortable that way. According to PopSci, only eight percent of people normally sleep on their backs. Most of the rest of us sleep on our sides, whereas I am part of the seven percent of weirdos who sleep on our stomachs

Sleepopolis’s own Dr. Shelby Harris says that if you wake up pain-free, there’s no need to worry about changing your sleeping position. However, I suffer from spondylosis of my cervical vertebrae, a condition in which one of my neck bones doesn’t line up with the others. When I lie down to sleep on my stomach, I almost always turn my head to the right side, exacerbating my wonky neck. This leads me to wake up pretty much every morning with a stiff, painful, tender neck and shoulders.

 As it turns out, the predicament of turning over in your sleep is rather common. Many people find it challenging to maintain a supine position throughout the night. Unfortunately, sleeping on your front or your side can lead to all kinds of discomfort, including the potential for snoring, heartburn, and shoulder and neck pain. But fear not, for the tennis ball is here to save the day.

You might be wondering, “How does a humble tennis ball end up as the star of our bedtime show?” It’s all about strategic positioning. By sewing a tennis ball into the front of your sleepwear, you create a deterrent to sleeping on your stomach. Trust me, nothing screams “reposition yourself” quite like the gentle jab of a tennis ball against your diaphragm.

Who Should Try the Tennis Ball Technique?

This technique is for anyone who:

  • Wants to train themselves to change their regular sleeping position
  • Has not found success using pillows or other props to change how they sleep
  • Either sleeps alone or with an understanding partner who won’t complain about nocturnal interruptions

Who Should Not Try This Technique?

This technique is not for anyone who:

  • Is prone to stomach upset 
  • Strongly prefers sleeping nude
  • Has a hard time getting back to sleep after waking up multiple times in the middle of the night

Crafting Tennis Ball Sleepwear: The Hilarity Ensues

It’s time to transform your least favorite sleep shirt into a back-sleeping masterpiece. Start by choosing a shirt that you don’t mind permanently attaching a tennis ball to, as this method is not for the faint of heart (or fashion). Find the ideal spot on your shirt’s front—I recommend a spot where the ball will sit securely over your diaphragm, for maximum nocturnal salience—and secure the tennis ball using strong stitches. Voilà! You now have a sleep aid that doubles as a conversation starter.

Because I am not a particularly talented seamstress, when I first tried to attach the tennis ball to my shirt, I used safety pins to secure it in place. I’m sure, gentle reader, that you are cleverer than I was and that you immediately recognize the problem with this approach. I had imagined, in my hopeful laziness, that the safety pins would stay securely closed. I should have known better. It took only about two hours after falling asleep before I thrashed over onto my stomach. In one graceful motion, I gave myself what felt like a punch in the gut, opened a safety pin, and stabbed myself. Never one to let good sense get in the way of something I’m determined to do, I refastened the safety pin and tried again. I spent at least an hour after the initial jolt of being poked struggling to fall asleep again, listless in the throes of adrenaline drop. Eventually, I drifted off.

When I pincushioned myself awake during my second abdominal puncture wound of the night, I ripped off my shirt, cursed in frustration, and flung the entire contraption across the room. Did I mention that I tried the tennis ball technique while on a solo trip so that I wouldn’t disrupt my partner’s sleep? This meant that I chucked my shirt clear across an unfamiliar hotel room in the dark. While I normally have terrible aim, this time I heard the loud, satisfying thwack of a tennis ball hitting the wall that separated my room from the next guest’s.

I sprang up in horror, trying to catch the shirt that was now ricocheting off the walls. I didn’t want to be that obnoxious American playing tennis in the hotel room next door at three in the morning. However, groggy from both the time change and my interrupted sleep, I also didn’t register that I was unfamiliar with the layout of the furniture in the space. In my Golden Retriever-like attempt to stop the damn shirt from bouncing around the room, my toe hooked around the leg of the swanky cane-backed rattan chair that had been keeping watch over the desk next to the bed. I went down in a tangle of chair, desk, and self, while the tennis ball shirt continued to mock me from the far corner of the room.

Adventures in Tennis Ball Back-Sleeping: My Final Review

Undeterred, I tried again the next night after having procured a sewing kit from reception. Although my stitching leaves a lot to be desired, I figured out a way to keep the ball in place without puncturing my torso this time. After putting on the shirt, I settled in for the night, falling asleep all the more quickly due to my mishaps the night before. It’s a good thing that I was tired, since the shirt wasn’t supremely comfortable. Considering that I don’t usually wear anything to bed, I had a hard time getting used to the feel of fabric and rubber around my middle.

The process of falling asleep didn’t prove elusive for long. At least part of the reason why I normally sleep on my stomach stems from the fact that I dislike the feeling of ambient light on the back of my eyelids while I am trying to fall asleep. Once I figured that out, I was able to fall asleep on my back with the aid of my trusty weighted eye mask, listening to my favorite meditation teacher on the Calm app.

I woke up feeling uncomfortable pressure on my stomach after rolling over in the middle of the night. Because I have a sensitive stomach that can be aggravated by poor rest like the previous night’s, getting poked by a tennis ball in the gut made me feel a little unwell. Since I’m also a light sleeper, I had a hard time getting back to sleep. Lying face up just didn’t feel natural.

I ended up giving the tennis ball technique a good try for the next two nights, but the exercise made me increasingly cranky because I just wasn’t getting the uninterrupted sleep that my body craves. It also made me grumpy that my poor sleep meant that I had less energy to use to explore London. I think this technique might ultimately have worked well if I had stuck it out longer, but the barrier to entry proved too high for me. If you’re keen to try this technique, my recommendation would be to do it at a time when it doesn’t matter whether you sleep poorly. Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Alexandra Berrie

Alexandra Berrie

Alexandra Berrie is a linguist, anthropologist, writer, and teacher based in Los Angeles, California. Despite all of that, she tries not to take herself too seriously. She's happiest when she gets ten and a half hours of sleep a night.

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