Sleep is important for all recovery, and it’s no different after a mastectomy or breast surgery. But did you know that how you sleep after a mastectomy or breast surgery can make a huge difference to your recovery?
Read on for helpful tips on how to sleep after a mastectomy or breast surgery, as well as some handy tools that you can use to make sleep more comfortable and encourage your healing.
Why Sleep is So Important After a Mastectomy or Breast Surgery?
After a mastectomy or breast surgery, how you position yourself for sleep can either promote or inhibit your healing.
Sleeping boosts our natural energy, which means slumbering soundly and comfortably is one of the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle. And sleep is just as crucial for the healing process, whether after a mastectomy, breast surgery, or any other type of surgery for that matter.
In addition to fostering a healthy immune system to protect your body and open wounds from harmful bacteria, sleep provides post-surgery patients with the daily boost of energy required to heal and improve each day. During the various cycles of sleep, the brain also releases essential chemicals that promote tissue repair around surgical incisions.
How to Sleep After a Mastectomy or Breast Surgery
Although it’s physically possible to sleep on your side or your stomach after a mastectomy or breast surgery, it’s not very comfortable and it comes with risks that are not worth taking. Namely, pulling or stretching on the breast tissue when laying on your side, or putting too much pressure on incisions, drains, or implants when laying on your stomach.
Instead, plastic surgeons and healthcare specialists advise that the best way to sleep after a mastectomy or breast surgery is on your back, with your upper body elevated. This puts your breasts in an optimal position to heal.
Sleeping, or even resting, in this position minimizes any gravitational pulling on the chest tissue, and avoids pressured weight resting on surgical drains or implants. Additionally, sleeping on your back after breast surgery helps to reduce bruising and swelling, and circulation is also improved, which further promotes the healing process.
Furthermore, the slightly elevated position makes it easier for breast surgery patients to get in and out of bed without putting too much pressure on tender chest muscles.
Tips & Tools for Sleeping on Your Back After a Mastectomy or Breast Surgery
It might feel more natural for you to sleep on your stomach or your side, but doing so after breast surgery can put unnecessary pressure on your surgical site. Breast surgery patients also typically have surgical drains exiting their incisions for 6-8 weeks after the operation, which can cause additional discomfort if pulled when rolling over during sleep.
If you are not a habitual back sleeper, the following tips and tools can help:
Practice Before Surgery
If you usually sleep on your stomach or your side, it can help to practice sleeping on your back for a few weeks before your surgery. Prop some pillows on either side of the body to prevent you from rolling over during the night. See here for a more detailed guide on using pillows after breast surgery. Alternatively, ask your partner to give you a gentle nudge if they wake at any stage and find you have rolled over.
Use a Reclining Chair
Laying down and getting back up can be quite painful for the first few days after breast surgery, and many patients have found it easier to sleep in a reclining chair for the first week. If you don’t have one, ask a friend or family member if you can borrow one and arrange to pick it up before your surgery so it’s waiting for you when you come home from the hospital.
Pillows for Support
Once you feel like sleeping in your bed again, elevating the upper body will help to reduce bruising and swelling of the breast tissue. However, the elevation also helps you to remain on your back if it’s not something you are used to. Some breast surgery patients use pillows behind the head and upper back, as well as either side of the body, to achieve this elevation, while others purchase a wedge pillow.
A wedge pillow is placed under or over your mattress to raise the upper back area to a medically recommended angle. This not only makes it easier to sleep on your back but also helps mastectomy and breast surgery patients to lie down and get back up with less pressure on tender breast tissue.
Step Stool at Your Bedside
Rolling onto your side to get in and out of bed can be uncomfortable for a few weeks after a mastectomy or breast surgery, but having somewhere to rest your arm and support yourself while getting up and down can be a lifesaver. An anti-slip step stool at the side of your bed is incredibly helpful in this situation. Just make sure the legs have rubber anti-slip coverings so the step doesn’t slide off while you are using it.
Underarm & Seatbelt Pillow
In addition to providing cushioning on seatbelts, many breast surgery patients recommend using a special underarm & seatbelt pillow to protect the sensitive surgical incisions from rubbing against the inner arm. These specially designed pillows can also help to improve sleep during the recovery period when slipped between the breast and the arm overnight.
Check out these Mastectomy Seat Belt Pillows from women’s health experts Intimate Rose, with adjustable Velcro straps and a special pocket for a gel pack to provide either hot or cold therapy.
Cold Pack Therapy
After breast surgery, the tissues around the breast will be sore and fragile for a few weeks, and this type of tissue trauma often emits heat. Applying a cold pack to the area for up to 30 minutes at a time will help to alleviate discomfort and prevent swelling.
Some breast cancer patients recommend wearing two cotton sports bras and placing a cold pack in between to prevent skin burn, while others prefer to use special mastectomy pillows with adjustable velcro straps and a pocket for the cold pack, like the Mastectomy Seatbelt Pillow from Intimate Rose mentioned above.
Front Button Nightgown or Shirt
Due to the discomfort experienced around the breast tissue and pectoral muscles after breast surgery, surgeons generally advise that patients refrain from raising their arms for the first few weeks. For this reason, front-button nightgowns or shirts are also recommended.
In addition to this advice, breast surgery patients suggest purchasing a smooth satin nightgown for bedtime that moves seamlessly against sheets and won’t get caught up in the lanyard drains or supporting pillows.
Prepare For Sleep
In addition to sleeping on your back and elevating the upper body during recovery after breast surgery, you can prepare yourself for a more comfortable slumber by avoiding sugar-loaded foods or caffeinated drinks for a few hours before bedtime. Dressing your bed with fresh bedsheets and setting your thermostat to a comfortable temperature help too, as well as resisting the urge to watch TV or scroll on your phone for at least 30 minutes before sleep.
Most of your healing happens during sleep, and it is, therefore, vital to prioritize sleeping as comfortably as you can when recovering from surgery. Sleeping on your back with the upper body elevated after a mastectomy or breast surgery means your breasts are in the most ideal position to promote the healing process.
As well as preventing the breast tissue from pulling or stretching, sleeping on your back after breast surgery also helps to improve circulation and reduce post-surgery swelling.
However, should you experience any excruciating pain while sleeping on your back when recovering from breast surgery, schedule an appointment with your doctor or surgeon ASAP.
Cancer.Org – What To Expect After Breast Reconstruction - https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/reconstruction-surgery/what-to-expect-after-breast-reconstruction-surgery.html
Wilmington Plastic Surgery – Sleeping After Breast Surgery - https://www.wilmingtonplasticsurgery.com/Blog/293836/Sleeping-After-Breast-Surgery
National Breast Cancer Foundation – Checklist for Recovery after Mastectomy - https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/blog/checklist-for-recovery-after-mastectomy/
Cancer.Org – Mastectomy: What to Expect - https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/surgery/mastectomy/expectations
Breast Cancer Now – Sleep Disruption - https://breastcancernow.org/information-support/facing-breast-cancer/going-through-breast-cancer-treatment/side-effects/sleep-disruption