This year, my husband and I made a small but unusual change in our lives: We started sleeping on the floor.
It happened by accident. In August, my dog Sam, a large doberman pinscher, got sick and couldn’t climb on the bed. Sam spent years in a shelter, and I’m a former public defender who worked in jails, so we have a special relationship. I cultivate his sense of entitlement. Feeling bad for him, I joined him one night, sleeping on the living room floor. It was cold, hard, and uncomfortable. But I fell asleep fast and woke up feeling good.
The next night I was better prepared: I took blankets with me. Sam, still ailing, seemed pleased to have company.
On night three, my husband, Jeremy, took a floor shift too. Over the weekend, we made it a slumber party, watching movies on the desktop.
Soon, Jeremy—a serious sleep lover—proposed we ditch the bed altogether. I agreed. I was strangely thrilled as we mulled over the possibilities: woven mats, delicate tatami, quilts, and sheepskin.
In retrospect, I see why ditching the bed appealed to us. We met in the Peace Corps in Senegal. Our romance began in sleeping bags on cement slabs. Moving to the floor has reconnected us with our younger selves who wandered the world, comfort be damned. It also frees up one of the two rooms in our house, and improves our tiny cabin aesthetically. Plus, we sleep well—and Sam seems to appreciate the solidarity.
We settled on sleeping on cloth mats atop rollable wood slats, with sleeping bags for warmth. Jeremy needs nothing else, as he’s a New Hampshire-bred stoic. But I fold my sleeping bag into a flowered quilt, a process now known as “making the burrito.” Some lucky nights, Jeremy makes it for me. During the day, we roll all our gear into two baskets, which we keep in the liberated room that held the bed and is now my very spacious office.
Obviously, most people aren’t desperately searching for ways to give up their beds. People love beds. But you don’t need one—really.
Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a spinal surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, explains that from a medical perspective, all we need to sleep well and be healthy is evenly-distributed support. You can get that on a bed—and on the floor, too. He points out that in some places, like Japan, snoozing on mats is traditional. Preschoolers in the US are perfectly happy to lay down on mats during naptime, too. ”Maybe beds give us emotional support,” he jokes.
There’s no scientific evidence that mattresses in particular aid health, according to the surgeon, nor is there any evidence that sleeping on the floor is bad. In fact, it provides good support for the spine, and Goldstein says patients often switch to floor slumbering when their backs go out. But once they’re better, they return to bed.
That said, the surgeon is reluctant to rank wellness benefits of sleeping on the floor as opposed to the bed. “Sleep’s very personal,” he says, “and even a soft mattress has support. As long as it’s not like a marshmallow, with lumps and bumps, any flat surface is good.”
As for what my husband and I are up to, he says with a laugh: ”What you’re doing isn’t normal though.”
Dr. Josh Levin, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, agrees that there’s no harm in my experiment. “I don’t hear too often that people are ditching their beds,” he says. “But from a spine standpoint, it’s fine.”
I did find some fellow floor enthusiasts on Reddit’s stoicism section. Some claim health benefits: ”I have slept on the floor by chance during my travels,” one contributor writes. “My back didn’t hurt any more, so I started sleeping on the floor full time.” (Levin cautions that there’s no reliable evidence that floor slumber strengthens the spine, however.)
There are other benefits as well. One person in the Reddit chat notes he’s less of a slouch now that he’s snoozing on just a few blankets, “like I don’t lay in bed watching Netflix,” he writes. “The floor is comfortable, but only when I’m ready for bed.”
The most notable realization that I’ve had since jettisoning the bed is that, even though I fancy myself the kind of person who asks hard questions, there are a lot of basic conventions I’ve never bothered to challenge. I’m encumbered with a lot of things—from material objects to abstract ideas. Who knows what else might be worth giving up?