Guide to Better Sleep Posture

Table of Contents

Good health depends on several factors, one of which is healthy sleep. Healthy sleep requires adequate time to rest, the ability to reduce emotional and nervous system tension, and a sleeping posture that doesn’t cause or exacerbate pain. While sleeping postures will change throughout the typical night, most of us have a go-to sleep position in which we spend most of our time.

Posture

The position of the limbs or the carriage of the body.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.

Sleeping Postures

Though there is no single sleep posture that’s best for everyone, some are considered healthier than others. Sleeping in the wrong position can disrupt sleep and cause discomfort and soreness, while the right position can promote deeper and more restful sleep.

Which sleeping position is best for you? It all depends on your personal health, anatomy, and preferences. We take an in-depth look at the pros and cons of each sleeping position below.

Back Sleeping

While only 14% of people sleep on their backs, back-sleeping may be the healthiest of all sleeping positions. Many back sleepers spend some portion of the night on their sides and, less commonly, their stomachs. These are known as combination sleepers. Back sleeping is often recommended for people with orthopedic conditions, or after certain types of surgery.

Guide to Sleep Postures article, back-sleeping graphic

Pros:

  • Alignment. Sleeping on the back aligns the neck, spine, and head, and helps them maintain a neutral position
  • Orthopedic comfort. Back-sleeping distributes body weight evenly and minimizes tension on pressure points. This may help minimize or prevent orthopedic pain
  • Aesthetics. Back sleeping can help prevent lines on the face from sleeping against a pillow, as well as the sagginess that may develop after years of pillow pressure against the skin from side or stomach-sleeping

Cons:

  • Acid reflux. Back sleeping may worsen acid reflux due to the position of the esophagus, which can allow acid to flow into the throat. Elevating the neck and head can help return acid to the stomach during sleep
  • Snoring and sleep apnea. Snoring and sleep apnea may be exacerbated by sleeping on the back due to the position of the tongue and muscles of the throat and palate. Back sleeping can allow the tongue to fall back into the throat or the muscles of the palate to collapse, blocking the airway. Snoring and sleep apnea may also be helped by elevating the upper part of the body
  • Comfort. Despite its benefits to the back and spine, many people consider back-sleeping uncomfortable or awkward, and have difficulty sleeping in this position for extended periods of time
  • Pregnancy. Back sleeping can decrease circulation during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, and is best avoided in favor of side sleeping

Tips for Back-Sleeping:

  • Choose a pillow specifically designed for back or combination sleeping. Your head, neck, and spine should be in neutral alignment for maximum comfort and spinal health
  • Try using a pillow under your knees to help relieve pressure on your lower back
  • If you’re trying out back sleeping, be patient. It may take time for your body to adjust to a different position, particularly if you’re used to sleeping exclusively on your side or stomach. To help keep you on your back, place pillows on either side of your body to prevent you from turning onto your side
  • Make sleeping on your back easier by elevating your head. Try a wedge pillow or memory foam pillow that will keep its shape

FAQ

Q: What is memory foam? A: Memory foam is made of polyurethane, and was first developed in 1966 by NASA to improve the safety of aircraft cushions.

 

Side Sleeping

Side sleeping is the most popular of all sleep positions. Sleeping may occur on either side, and take place in a fetal-type position or with one or both legs down. 41% of people report sleeping in a fetal position, making it the most common sleeping posture. Sleeping on the left side in particular may be helpful in pregnancy and for certain health conditions.

Graphic for Sleep Postures article, sleep education

Pros:

  • Brain health. Some animal studies show that side sleeping may help the body clear toxic proteins from the brain, potentially lowering the risk of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases. This may help explain the propensity for side-sleeping in both human beings and animals
  • Smooth digestion. Sleeping on your left side helps your body take advantage of gravity to ease the passage of waste material through the colon. This may make sleeping on the left side particularly helpful for people with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome
  • Acid reflux. Right side sleeping can exacerbate acid reflux by relaxing the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach. Left side sleeping, however, may help reduce reflux by keeping the gastric sphincter above the level of stomach acid and preventing acid from flowing into the esophagus
  • Snoring and sleep apnea. Sleeping on either side of the body can keep the tongue and muscles of the throat and palate from falling into the throat and causing snoring or sleep apnea. Side sleeping can also help open airways and promote air flow
  • Pregnancy. Sleeping on the left side during pregnancy can keep uterus from pressing on other organs, increasing circulation and leading to more restful sleep

Cons:

  • Shoulder and arm pain. Pressure against the mattress from side-sleeping may cause shoulder or arm pain, or even numbness due to impaired circulation
  • Jaw pain. Pressure on the jaw from sleeping against a pillow or mattress may cause jaw pain or soreness
  • Skin wrinkling. Sleeping on the side with the face pressed against a pillow or mattress can lead to sleep lines, wrinkling, and eventual sagging of the skin

Tips for Side-Sleeping:

  • Purchase a pillow designed for side-sleeping to help align the neck and spine
  • To help prevent sleep lines and wrinkles, try a pillow designed to support your head and neck without touching your face
  • Choose a mattress made specifically for side sleepers
  • When sleeping in the fetal position, avoid bending the neck or spine
  • When sleeping sideways, avoid placing a hand beneath the pillow or under the head as this can cause numbness in the fingers due to compression of nerves in the shoulder

Neurodegenerative

Resulting in or characterized by degeneration of the nervous system, especially the neurons in the brain.

Stomach Sleeping

Stomach sleepers make up only 16% of the population, slightly more than back sleepers. Stomach sleeping is known for putting stress on the neck and spine, and is generally considered the least healthy of the sleep positions.

Sleep A-Z article, sleep postures

Pros:

  • Comfort. Many stomach sleepers find lying on their stomachs comfortable, and may fall asleep more easily in this position
  • Breathing. Sleeping on the stomach can help reduce the risk of snoring and sleep apnea due to the position of the throat and tongue

Cons: 

  • Spinal strain. Stomach sleeping causes poor head and back alignment, and counteracts the natural curve of the spine. This may lead to muscle and joint pain during waking hours, as well as pain while sleeping
  • Facial lines and wrinkles. Lying with the face pressed into the pillow as happens during stomach-sleeping can cause sleep lines as well as wrinkles and sagging skin over time
  • Pressure. Stomach sleeping can put pressure on the nerves and muscles, creating pain, tingling, and discomfort
  • Lower back strain. Due to the position of the pelvis, stomach sleeping puts stress on the lower back. Even one night of sleeping in this position may cause pain and muscle tension

Tips for Stomach-Sleeping:

  • Put a pillow under your pelvis. To help take pressure off the lower back and align the spine, slide a pillow under your hips before falling asleep. This may reduce back pain and muscle strain
  • Use a flat pillow, or no pillow at all. Sleeping on the stomach puts tension on the neck by forcing it to turn to the side, and putting a pillow under the head only increases this tension. Look for a flatter pillow designed specifically for stomach sleepers
  • Try a firmer mattress that will keep the hips in alignment with the shoulders. The softer the mattress, the more likely you are to sink into the surface, causing further misalignment in your neck and spine
  • Alternate the direction in which you turn your head to help relieve muscle stiffness and reduce strain on the neck

FAQ

Q: How do I know if my spine is aligned properly when I sleep? A: The spine is in neutral alignment when the ears are in line with the shoulders and the chin is in line with the sternum.

 

The Importance of Your Mattress and Pillow

The right mattress and pillow are as crucial to healthy sleep as your sleeping position. A mattress should be firm enough to provide support for the natural curve of the spine and help keep it in natural alignment. Your mattress should also be comfortable and leave you feeling rested after a full night’s sleep. Most mattress professionals recommend replacing your mattress every eight to 10 years, or sooner if it becomes less comfortable or sags.

The primary role of the pillow is to provide support for the neck and alignment of the neck and spine. A pillow that is too full or too flat can obstruct breathing, exacerbate snoring, strain the neck or joint muscles, and cause headaches. The right pillow can relieve pressure on the spine and help the body maintain a natural posture.

To increase comfort and alignment, side sleepers may choose to place a pillow between their knees, while back-sleepers might slide one under the knees. A body pillow that runs from the shoulders to the knees can also support a healthy posture and reduce vertebral strain during sleep.

Last Word From Sleepopolis

Sleeping positions are as unique and individual as each one of us. Your choice of position depends on your anatomy, health, and what feels most comfortable to you. Though each sleeping position has potential downsides, not all will occur with everyone. The right pillow and mattress can help maximize the comfort of your chosen position and minimize the drawbacks.

If you’d like to change your sleeping posture for health or comfort reasons, use a pillow designed for your chosen position and allow your body to adjust gradually. Combined with good sleep habits, the right position can improve the quality of your sleep, promote daytime alertness, and boost overall health and wellbeing.

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Rose is the Chief Research Officer at Sleepopolis, which allows her to indulge her twin passions for dense scientific studies and writing about health and wellness. An incurable night owl, she loves discovering the latest information about sleep and how to get (lots) more of it. She is a published novelist who has written everything from an article about cheese factories to clock-in instructions for assembly line workers in Belgium. One of her favorite parts of her job is connecting with the best sleep experts in the industry and utilizing their wealth of knowledge in the pieces she writes. She enjoys creating engaging articles that are chock full of information and make a difference in people’s lives. Her writing has been reviewed by The Boston Globe, Cosmopolitan, and the Associated Press, and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. When she isn’t musing about sleep, she’s usually at the gym, eating extremely spicy food, or wishing she were snowboarding in her native Colorado. Active though she is, she considers staying in bed until noon on Sundays to be important research.