There are three distinct sleeping positions. Most of us tend to lie on our side, but some of us sleep better on our backs or stomachs. And many of us move between two or all three positions throughout the night.
But which of the three is the best sleeping position? Each has its pros and cons, although stomach sleeping has more drawbacks than benefits. We’ll go over each position, and you can decide which sounds right for you.
What Can Your Sleeping Position Affect?
If you have a medical condition, the right sleeping posture can ease symptoms, Verified Source Johns Hopkins Medicine University focused on medical research that produces thoroughly reviewed health articles. View source and the wrong one can worsen your condition.
Different positions can lead to:
- Back pain and neck pain: It may take some experimentation to find the most comfortable position to prevent spine pain. Side sleepers may need to sleep with a pillow between their knees. Back sleepers may need to elevate their knees with a wedge pillow.
- Heart disease: A 2003 ScienceDirect study Verified Source ScienceDirect One of the largest hubs for research studies and has published over 12 million different trusted resources. View source discovered that patients with congestive heart failure avoided lying on their left side during sleep. The control group did not avoid sleeping on their left side.
- Sleep apnea and snoring: People with these conditions usually sleep best on their side. Lying on the stomach can also relieve symptoms, but it’s not considered worth the risk of back strain.
- Heartburn and acid reflux: If you have heartburn or a more chronic condition such as GERD, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source lying flat on your stomach can cause symptoms to flare up. Stomach acid can easily flow up your esophagus when you’re lying down. To keep your stomach acid in place, try side sleeping or lying on your back while your upper body is elevated with a wedge pillow or adjustable base.
- Wrinkles: The primary reason experts recommend you avoid sleeping on your stomach is the potential for lower back pain. You may also develop premature wrinkles from pressing your face against the pillow. Side sleepers may also see lines form on the side that rests against their pillow.
“Poor sleep posture is one of the underlying causes of sleep disturbances at night,” says Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “It can also have an impact on physical and mental health.”
“For example, recent research shows there is a relationship between our sleeping posture preference and brain activity during sleep. Data suggest that different sleeping postures influence different brain regions during sleep.”
About Side Sleeping
Side sleeping is by far the most popular position. One survey suggests that 74 percent of us sleep on our sides.
While more research is needed, current scientific literature suggests sleeping positions influence how our brains clear out waste. Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source Lateral sleeping may be particularly helpful with this. Maximizing this waste drainage may prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Your airway is also more likely to remain clear if you lie on your side, deterring snoring and sleep apnea symptoms. Gravity doesn’t push down on your throat’s soft tissue as it does when you lie on your back.
However, there’s no such thing as the perfect position, and side sleeping comes with its own cons. You might wake up with some shoulder pain if your mattress isn’t relieving enough pressure. Switching which side you sleep on and replacing your mattress with a softer one may fix the problem. If it doesn’t, you may have to switch sleeping positions.
If you like to curl up in the fetal position, you may feel some back and joint pain, particularly if you have arthritis. However, the fetal position can also relieve pressure on your joints.
Which Side Should I Sleep On?
The left and right sides don’t have equal benefits and most people are better off sleeping on their right side. It places less pressure on your heart than lying on the left does.
As we previously mentioned, ScienceDirect research Verified Source ScienceDirect One of the largest hubs for research studies and has published over 12 million different trusted resources. View source found that patients with congestive heart failure avoided sleeping on their left side. It also linked sleeping on your left side with higher sympathetic nerve activity. The sympathetic nervous system governs your fight-or-flight response, so less activity keeps you calm.
Evidence suggests sleeping positions may have an effect on maternal and fetal health outcomes. There is some suggestion that side sleeping during pregnancy may be more beneficial than other sleeping positions
About Back Sleeping
Back sleeping is good for spine alignment. The position tends to imitate your posture when you stand up straight. The pressure is evenly distributed across your body, which avoids build-up.
Do you suffer from back pain and want to alleviate it while you sleep? Try elevating your knees with a pillow or adjustable bed frame to reduce pressure on your lower back.
Back sleeping may inflame a few medical conditions. If you have sleep apnea or acid reflux, lying flat on your back may heighten symptoms in the morning. You’re also more likely to experience sleep paralysis on your back, but the reasons for that are unknown.
Raising your upper body can ease symptoms without changing sleep positions. Try a wedge pillow or adjustable bed frame if you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea or GERD.
About Stomach Sleeping
Stomach sleeping tends to be the least common position across polls. Many experts caution against stomach sleeping because the position carries numerous health risks:
- Back pain: Your spine may misalign if gravity pushes your stomach into the mattress.
- Neck pain: You have to sleep with your neck twisted in one direction to breathe. Stretching your neck muscles in this way causes pain.
- Hip pain: If you sleep with one leg raised on top of the other, such as leaving your left foot resting on your right calf, it can twist your hips and lower back.
Stomach sleeping’s sole benefit is to minimize the chances you’ll snore or develop sleep apnea. However, you can reap that same benefit from side sleeping without all of the side effects you might experience lying on your stomach.
How to Switch Positions
You may need to change up your favorite sleep position if it starts causing you health problems. For example, a back sleeper with sleep apnea may want to train themselves to sleep on their side. It can be a challenge to see the change through, but it’s well worth it for a better night’s rest and improved health.
The best way to change your sleep posture is to find a way to restrict your movements:
- You can try sleeping with a body pillow.
- Alternatively, you can surround yourself with firm pillows that are unlikely to move.
Some stomach sleepers who transition to sleeping on their side find that hugging a pillow helps. This pillow can mimic the feeling of the mattress pressing against your stomach.
You will likely need to invest in a new mattress and pillow. Otherwise, you risk waking up with a sore back and neck from improper support or insufficient pressure relief.
Sleeping on the Right Mattress
Your preferred sleeping position affects what mattress will best keep your spine aligned and provide you with a good night’s sleep. Some styles need more back support and others more pressure relief.
The best mattresses for a side sleeper should have a soft to medium feel. Conforming materials such as latex, memory foam, and poly-foam provide pressure relief for hips and shoulders. Side sleepers may wish to avoid an innerspring mattress and opt for a hybrid mattress if they want a bouncy bed.
The best mattress for back sleepers has a medium-firm to firm feel. Some back sleepers find that a medium mattress with extra lumbar support is perfectly comfortable.
A mattress for stomach sleeping must be firm to keep the stomach elevated and the spine in a neutral position. Look for a mattress with thin comfort layers to minimize sinkage.
Buying the Right Pillow
The best pillow for you depends on your preferred sleeping position. Why? How you’re positioned affects the width between the neck and the mattress.
An unsupportive pillow causes neck muscle strain. This is likely to leave you with morning neck pain and a headache.
Side sleepers have the largest gap between their necks and mattresses because of the distance their shoulders create, which is why they need the thickest pillows. If you sleep on your side, look for a high-loft pillow around 4 to 6 inches. To get the best possible pillow, you might want to measure the length of your shoulder from your neck.
If you’re a side sleeper, you may find hugging a second pillow helps you fall asleep faster. This additional pillow gives your arm a place to rest.
Back sleepers should shop for a flexible mid-loft pillow that will mold to the neck while also cradling the head. Pillows with adjustable fills such as down and shredded memory foam are good choices.
Stomach sleepers should look for a flat pillow that’s under 3 inches thick. A stomach sleeper may also sleep better without a head pillow. Instead, keep a pillow under their abdomen to prevent sinkage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it better to sleep on your side or back?
Neither position is unhealthy. Back sleeping may be the best position to maintain spine alignment. We recommend side sleeping since it offers more health benefits, such as reducing pressure on the heart.
Side sleeping can also reduce snoring, obstructive sleep apnea, and acid reflux symptoms. Back sleeping tends to aggravate these conditions thanks to the effects of gravity.
What sleeping position is best for breathing?
Side sleeping is the best position for keeping the airways clear. It’s often recommended for anyone with snoring or sleep apnea problems.
Back sleeping tends to cause airway blockage since when you lie down flat, gravity tends to press down on the soft tissues at the back of your throat. Stomach sleeping can reduce snoring and sleep apnea symptoms as well. However, this benefit isn’t worth the risk to your back.
Is it bad for your back to sleep on your stomach?
Sleeping on your stomach can cause chronic back pain, according to sleep experts. When you lie down on your front, gravity tends to push your belly into the mattress. If the mattress lets your stomach sink in, the spine overextends to compensate.
Side sleeping is often regarded as the best sleeping position since it offers various health perks. However, back sleeping is also a good position, particularly if you want to prevent or alleviate back pain. Most tend to agree that stomach sleeping is the worst position and you should avoid it.
About the author
Sanchita Sen is a full-time writer focusing on the sleep health and mattress industry. She is a former journalist who has written numerous articles on the healthcare sector. Some of the topics she has covered include how to lucid dream, fever dreams, melatonin for sleep, and best gel memory foam mattress. Sanchita holds a Master of Arts in Communications from Convergence Institute of Mass Media and Information Technology Studies. She is also a published author, who seeks inspiration from both real life and the world of fiction.View all posts