This article was Expert Reviewed by Dr. Theresa Marko D.P.T.
Rest plays a substantial role in our physical and mental well-being, which is why it is necessary to get quality sleep. You may not have paid much attention to how you snooze, but your sleeping position can impact how well-rested you feel. This is particularly true for those with certain health conditions, including sleep disorders.
While one posture could improve symptoms, another posture could worsen them. Furthermore, your ideal sleep position is going to be individual, meaning what works for some people, may not be beneficial to others. This article will help you discover the best sleeping position for you.
One of the most important things to consider for sleep posture is spinal alignment, and health experts say sleeping on your back is the best position for your spine, as this is the most neutral posture. Back sleeping should help evenly distribute weight throughout the body and avoid uncomfortable or unnatural curves in the spine. While some individuals struggle with snoring in this position, it’s generally considered to be safe and even preferred by chiropractors.
Some individuals find they’re more comfortable in this position with the help of a small cylindrical pillow behind their neck to support the spine. When choosing a head pillow, keep in mind, while you want something fluffy, it shouldn’t be overly stuffed, otherwise, this can put excess pressure on the spine.
Who Shouldn’t Sleep on Their Back?
Pregnant people – Sleeping on your back when pregnant may put pressure on your vena cava, which is the main vein carrying blood from your heart to the rest of the body. This can result in all sorts of problems, including backaches, trouble breathing, digestive issues, and even a decrease in circulation to your heart and baby. Most experts advise that pregnant people sleep on their side with their knees bent, which we’ll go into more detail about in our Side Sleeping Section below.
People who struggle with sleep apnea – Your tongue and soft tissue may fall back and obstruct the airway when sleeping on your back. This leads to less oxygen flowing to the brain, forcing you to wake up gasping for air.
People prone to lower back pain – This sleeping position can lead to a sore lower back. The best way to avoid discomfort is by placing a pillow under your knees or sleeping on your side.
Who Should Sleep on Their Back?
As mentioned, back-sleeping tends to be the recommended position for most people, but for some people, in particular, it can be especially important.
People with neck pain – If you have neck pain, sleeping on your back or side is going to be your best position. If you feel comfortable on your back, be sure you’re using a pillow that won’t interfere with your neck’s natural curve and will be higher under your neck than your head.
People with hip pain – Sleeping on your back should help take the pressure off your hips. However, make sure your mattress is firm enough to prevent the hips from sinking in. Explore our top picks for the best mattresses for hip pain.
People with kyphosis – While it’s natural for the spine to have a small curve, kyphosis refers to when the top of the spine appears to be more rounded than normal. This can result from age, abnormal vertebrae, improper spine development in the womb, and poor posture. Symptoms associated with kyphosis include back pain, stiffness, spine tenderness, and tiredness.
Since kyphosis is directly correlated to the spine, you’ll want to sleep in a spine-friendly position, such as on the back with a pillow beneath your knees or lying on your side.
People with nasal congestion – When dealing with a stuffy nose, you’ll want to use gravity to your advantage. In this case, you should sleep on your back and use pillows to prop up the top half of your body. The incline should help drain your nasal passages.
Those with sciatica pain – For those dealing with pain in their sciatic nerve, which reaches from your pelvis down to your leg, experts say the first step is to diagnose what specifically is causing the pain. This can help determine the right sleep position for you. Check out our best mattresses for sciatica for some great options.
Next, you should try to lie on your back in a neutral position and adjust to what feels good. You may find that sleeping on your side alleviates pain better or arching your back while sleeping on your stomach feels good, but you should always start by lying on your back.
Tips for Back Sleepers
Dedicated back sleepers and those who are just getting used to sleeping in this position should try the following tips.
- Use a supportive mattress – Sleeping on your back requires a firm mattress that supports your spine and keeps it aligned all night. Sleeping on a soft mattress will lead to sinkage, throwing your spine off the alignment and causing back pain. If you suffer from spinal stenosis, check out our Best Mattresses for Spinal Stenosis.
- Use the right pillows – Back sleepers should benefit from a few pillows strategically placed under the head, lower back, and knees. Ensure your pillows aren’t too soft or too elevated, allowing your head and neck to stay in a neutral position. Pillows under your knees and lower back can also help keep your body in alignment.
- Try stretching and breathing techniques – Stretch for about 20 minutes before bed, focusing on your neck, back, and legs. You may also want to try breathing methods such as the 4-7-8 method, which is a great way to relax if you’re trying to get used to back sleeping.
Many people prefer a stomach sleeping position. Who doesn’t love to cuddle into their mattress after a long day? However, in this position, your head is forced to rest to one side while the rest of your body lies flat on the mattress. Cleveland Clinic officials say this strain could eventually cause neck pain7 from the poor spinal alignment.
Another challenge with snoozing on your stomach is the position it forces your spine to take. While comfortable for many people, this often places unnatural pressure on the lower back, leaving it vulnerable to strain or discomfort. Remember, you ideally want the spine to be in a neutral position so as not to over-extend it.
Given the length of time we spend in bed, it’s wise to be sensitive to any back pain and adjust accordingly if necessary.
Who Shouldn’t Sleep on Their Stomach?
People prone to back pain – Sleeping on your stomach allows your torso to sink deep into the mattress due to the weight. This may result in an arched back and stretched spine that’s no longer in proper alignment, which almost always leads to back pain.
Related: Best Mattress for Back Pain
People with hip pain – Your midsection and hip area carry the most weight while lying down, and when you’re in the prone position, the pressure from your body weight can push your hips into the mattress. As a result, this could exacerbate any hip pain you might have, particularly if your mattress is firmer.
Those struggling with neck and shoulder pain – Stomach sleeping is likely to increase the risk of shoulder and neck pain. You’ll have to turn your head to one side, twist your neck, and move it out of alignment. This also leads to arm and shoulder pain.
People with sensitive skin – Stomach sleepers press their face into the pillow. This can often lead to stretching, pulling, and compressing of the skin, causing premature wrinkles and other conditions.
Elderly people – Since stomach sleeping is generally considered to be the hardest on the body, people who are elderly should avoid this position.
Who Should Sleep on Their Stomach?
As we covered, stomach sleeping is not recommended often. For one group of people, though, stomach sleeping is one of the best positions.
People with sleep apnea – When someone has sleep apnea, their airways collapse and become restricted while they’re asleep. This causes pauses in breathing, which could lead to disruptive noises such as gasping for air or snoring. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine frequent snorers or those with sleep apnea should rest on their side or stomach to help the airways stay more open.
Tips for Stomach Sleepers
Stomach sleepers should find the position more comfortable after implementing a few tips.
- Use a thin pillow – Stomach sleepers should try sleeping with a thin pillow or no pillow at all. Thick pillows strain your neck while sleeping with no pillow helps keep the spine aligned. In addition, you can also add a pillow beneath your pelvis to prevent the hips from sinking into the mattress.
- Try a firmer mattress – If you like sleeping on your stomach but experience lower back pain upon waking up, it may be time to invest in a firmer bed. Medium to firm firmness rating works the best, supporting the body and preventing it from sinking in.
Discover our top picks for the best mattresses for stomach sleepers.
Side sleeping – or sleeping in the fetal position – is considered the most popular position. Cleveland Clinic adds that while sleeping on your side, your head should remain in a neutral sleep posture with your chin straight ahead1.
Some people who rest on their side prefer sleeping with a body pillow or head pillow for additional support. You can do this by laying your leg over a head pillow, or tucking it between your legs, which should foster healthy spinal alignment. Body pillows can also be used this way, and can also provide the arm which is facing up more support, so you can avoid letting it flop limp.
Who Shouldn’t Sleep on Their Side?
People with a shoulder injury – Side sleeping can increase shoulder discomfort. Your shoulders can collapse into the mattress, creating misalignment and pain.
Babies – Medical experts believe that side sleeping might increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in the first six months.
Heart failure patients – People who have had a heart condition, such as heart failure, should avoid sleeping on the side. If this is your preferred sleeping position, try to sleep on the right side.
Who Should Sleep on Their Side?
People with anxiety – Side sleeping tends to be the best sleeping position for those with anxiety since it is the most comfortable for most people– and in some ways, the most comforting.
Try sleeping on your side with a pillow in between your knees and one in between your arms, like you might have held a teddy bear when you were young. This will not only help your spine’s alignment but will feel comforting to that late-night anxiety.
In addition to your sleep position, find other ways to make your bedroom more comforting, whether it be new sheets, a better mattress, or a more supportive pillow.
People with hip pain – Side sleeping is the best position for those with hip pain. Be sure to put a pillow in between your knees, and keep your legs stretched long. This will alleviate the pressure on your hips and keep everything in good alignment.
People with heartburn or acid reflux – Side-sleeping is the best position for heartburn and acid reflux – specifically, sleeping on your left side. In fact, research shows that sleeping on your right side might worsen your symptoms.
Heavier or overweight individuals – People who weigh significantly more typically find that the core of their body tends to sink further into a mattress, which can lead to an awkward spine posture and pain. You are likely to feel the least amount of sinkage by sleeping on your side. Those who are overweight are also at an increased risk of developing sleep apnea, and a side sleeping position should help open the airways.
Additionally, heavier individuals should invest in a firmer mattress designed to support more weight.
People who are pregnant – According to Stanford Children’s Health, the best sleep position during pregnancy is on your left side, as this provides optimum circulation to the fetus. Further, sleeping on the left side is believed to avoid pressure on the liver. Another major advantage of the side sleeping position is that you can support your belly and legs with pillows to reduce unnecessary strain and pressure.
Also, experts agree that sleeping with the knees bent is recommended for pregnant women, as this relieves pressure from the belly and fosters blood flow throughout the body, fetus, uterus, heart, and kidneys. If you’re feeling especially tense, you may be able to find relief by tucking pillows under your belly, at the lower curve of your back, and between your legs.
Interested in exploring further? Read our full guide for sleep during pregnancy.
Tips for Side Sleepers
Side sleepers usually don’t struggle with much more than pressure build-up, but there are ways to achieve better sleep. Here’s what you can do:
- Use the right pillow – Find a pillow that supports your head and neck, preventing them from sinking in. In most cases, the best pillows for side sleeping are on the firmer side.
- Try a body pillow – A body pillow can help if you don’t know where to put your arms when sleeping on the side. It can also provide pressure relief for the knees.
- Try a softer mattress – Side sleepers often struggle with pressure build-up caused by a firm mattress. Consider buying a softer mattress or a mattress topper to adjust how your bed feels.
Sleeping Position FAQs
How should I sleep to avoid wrinkles?
You probably wouldn’t assume that the way you’re sleeping could affect your appearance. However, research published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal indicates that side and stomach sleepers are placing excess pressure on the skin near their face, which can result in lines around the eyes and mouth (so-called “sleep wrinkles”).
Sleeping on your stomach may feel comfy, but according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, both this position and side sleeping can cause your skin to wrinkle or break out.
How can I train myself to sleep on my back?
Whether you’re concerned about your complexion or want to improve your physical health, there are ways you can adapt to sleeping on your back.
Consider investing in a bed that’s well-made for back support to help you feel more comfortable if you’re not used to this position. Next, you can try placing pillows in areas such as under your knees or lower back to help support you if you’re feeling discomfort.
Ensuring you’re tired before attempting to sleep is also key to changing positions since the more awake you are, the more likely you’ll notice discomfort and go back to your previous method. To help you feel sleepy, try out calming nighttime routines such as a hot bath, drinking tea, or reading a book.
Most importantly, though, you must be persistent and understand that it will take you some time to get used to a new sleep position, but once you do, you’ll be able to reap the benefits.
What is the best cuddling position for sleeping?
Spooning is one of the most popular positions for cuddling. This is when both partners face the same way, but one is hugging the other from behind. Half-spooning is when one partner is on their back while the other is on their side. This is an excellent cuddling position if one partner is a side sleeper and the other is a back sleeper.
The best sleeping positions aren’t the same for everyone. If you are pregnant or have back issues or any other number of things, your best sleeping position will be different from someone else’s.
The important thing is finding out which sleeping position works best, not just for your comfort, but for your health. If you are sleeping in a position that isn’t doing you any favors, you can always change it up, over time and with patience. If all else fails, you can always try upgrading your mattress and pillow game, too.
Our Best Sleep Positions Infographic
Sources and References:
- “Back, Side or Stomach: Which Sleep Position Is Best for You?”. Cleveland Clinic. 2021.
- “Best Sleeping Positions During Pregnancy”. American Pregnancy Association. Webpage accessed December 19, 2023.
- “Say ‘Good Night’ to Neck Pain”. Harvard Health. 2023.
- “Kyphosis”. National Health Service. Last modified May 12, 2023.
- “How to Get Better Sleep With Sciatica Pain”. Cleveland Clinic. 2021.
- “How to do the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise”. Cleveland Clinic. 2023.
- “Best Sleeping Positions for Back, Neck and Shoulder Pain”. Cleveland Clinic. 2021.
- “Choosing the Best Sleep Position”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed December 19, 2023.
- Schjelderup Skarpsno, Eivind., Jarle Mork, Paul., et. al. “Sleep Positions and Nocturnal Body Movements Based on Free-living Accelerometer Recordings: Association with Demographics, Lifestyle, and Insomnia Symptoms”. Nature and Science of Sleep. 2017.
- “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About SIDS and Safe Infant Sleep”. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Last modified October 2023.
- Martin-Du Pan, Rémy C., Benoit, Raymond., Girardier, Lucia. “The role of body position and gravity in the symptoms and treatment of various medical diseases”. National Library of Medicine. 2004.
- Kaltenbach MD, Tonya., Crockett MD, Seth., Gerson MD, Lauren B. “Are Lifestyle Measures Effective in Patients With Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?”. JAMA Network. 2006.
- “Sleep Apnea”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified July 28, 2020.
- “Sleeping Positions During Pregnancy”. Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. Webpage accessed December 19, 2023.
- “Problems Sleeping During Pregnancy”. Medline Plus. Last modified April 19, 2023.
- Anson, Gospel., Kane, Michael A.C., Lambros, Val. “Sleep Wrinkles: Facial Aging and Facial Distortion During Sleep”. National Library of Medicine. 2016.
- “Choosing the Best Sleep Position”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed December 19, 2023.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.