Learning how to sleep on your side may not sound ideal when you’ve been comfortably resting on your stomach or back for years. We’ve researched a few tricks to help you make the transition comfortably.
Side sleepers typically enjoy this position due to improved back alignment, which helps with snoring and sleep apnea. In addition, this lateral posture opens up your airways making it easier to breathe. Laying on your side offers other benefits like a reduced risk of back pain and improved abdominal health, potentially providing a more restful and healthy night’s sleep.
By shifting your sleep position, you could aid digestion, reduce snoring, and relieve back pressure; we detail how you can make this an easier transition below.
Pros and Cons of Sleeping on Your Side
Can help apnea and snoring problems – The lateral position is less restrictive on airways, allowing them to remain unblocked, which is a common cause of apnea and snoring. Research has found that men who sleep on their backs experience sleep apnea twice as much as men who sleep on their left sides. Couples often struggle with one person snoring, given how common the issue is. Luckily, shifting your position might let you and your partner get better sleep.
Looking for a mattress that helps alleviate sleep apnea symptoms? Check out our top picks for the best mattresses for sleep apnea.
Good for sleep during pregnancy – Back sleeping can create breathing problems, leading to low blood pressure and poor blood circulation to the baby and heart. Resting on your stomach is physically more difficult as the pregnancy develops. Using a body pillow or cushion between your legs when sleeping on your side might help you snooze with more comfort during pregnancy.
Clears toxins – Sleeping flushes out toxins, but researchers have found that resting laterally can remove up to 25 percent more toxins and plaque from your brain that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Try sleeping on your side— you may be able to extend your life and heighten its quality.
Can alleviate neck and back pain – Stomach snoozers put a strain on their necks because they are constantly placing pressure on their lower back and often their necks as well. Many chiropractors warn against this posture because of this exact issue. A number of these sleepers suffer from back pain because of spinal misalignment. Sleeping on your side can help with proper spine alignment, relieving some of that back and neck pain.
Paresthesia describes a sensation of “pins and needles.” Otherwise known as when a part of your body “falls asleep,” paresthesia is when a body part is restricted from blood flow long enough to feel numbness, tingling, or burning. Some individuals experience this in the arm that they are putting pressure on during the night.
You may be able to avoid this sensation by sleeping in the “yearning” position, on your side with your arms stretched out in front of you, avoiding excessive pressure on your lower arm.
Possible hip and shoulder pain – Sleeping on your side may cause your hips and shoulders to sink more into the mattress, resulting in back, neck, and shoulder pain. When you lie on a narrower surface area on your body, you are concentrating more pressure on a smaller portion, leading to increased discomfort. A thoughtfully crafted mattress made with quality products should eliminate this concern.
Explore our top picks for the best mattresses for hip and shoulder pain.
Can cause facial wrinkles – Squishing your face against the pillow can lead to wrinkles due to the prolonged pressure of your skin on a pillow. Shifting in the night is often unavoidable, and the wrinkles in your pillowcase could also create temporary indentations in the face. With this said, silk or satin pillows are known for protecting against this issue.
The Best Way to Sleep on Your Side
Side-sleeping isn’t always comfortable for everyone. Many people prefer sprawling out on their stomachs or resting on their backs. However, there are ways to train yourself to sleep on your side, and you don’t necessarily have to lose sleep in the process.
Using the guidance of additional pillows can provide the extra support necessary to keep you from shifting around unconsciously at night. Tips like placing a pillow between your legs, employing a contoured pillow for neck support, or positioning your arms differently than usual could help you find relief in side-sleeping.
How to Train Yourself to Sleep on Your Side
Stomach or back sleepers experiencing aches and pains may want to consider changing positions, as sleeping on your side is generally the most suitable for gut, nasal, airway, and spinal health. Stomach sleepers tend to twist their spines in unnatural positions and spend the night with their necks turned up to or more than 90 degrees. This irregular stomach posture often causes soreness in the lower back and neck, while those who spend the night on their backs may experience snoring or spinal pain.
Those who are reading this nodding their head, you might want to convert to your side. Forcing your body to sleep in a way you’re not used to may take some time, but several tricks can help you.
Try positioning pillows next to you, propping them to prevent you from reverting to your back or stomach. For example, a pillow under the arm may assist those who rest on their stomach, and a pillow behind the back should keep back sleepers in the lateral position. A body or pregnancy pillow may also come in handy if you tend to move around a lot throughout the night.
When we have the space to move, we often take advantage. To prevent yourself from adjusting in the night, you can try sleeping on a couch or a narrower surface for a couple of nights to force yourself not to turn. Our bodies should sense that there is not enough room to lay comfortably on the back or stomach.
For those who are happy to try a more radical approach, some people recommend taping or sewing a tennis ball (or any round object) to the front or back of their shirts to make it uncomfortable when turning over.
Falling asleep on your side yet waking up in your old position is common. Keep trying—each time you find yourself lying somewhere other than your side, move back. Eventually, your body should adapt without your conscious intervention.
Which Side is Best to Sleep on? Left or Right?
Does the side you sleep on really make a difference? Research says yes. Left-side sleepers experience less heartburn and acid reflux, and doctors recommend pregnant women lie on their left to increase blood flow and circulation. Left-sleeping also helps your brain filter out more toxins than the right.
Snoozing exclusively on the left may cause some problems, however. You may put pressure on your stomach and lungs, making it uncomfortable after a while. More shoulder and hip pain can come from laying in one place for too long, as well.
Why Left is Best?
According to a study in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, scientists found that lying on the left led to a lower frequency of heartburn in participants. They fed a group of volunteers high-fat meals on different days, had some lie on their right and others on their left for four hours after eating, then measured esophageal activity. Heartburn was significantly greater for those on their right.
Additional research proves the same result. So how does this work, exactly? Well, due to the placement of your stomach and other organs, sleeping on the left allows gravity to do its thing and helps digest food more quickly and easily.
Right-resting can make heartburn worse, as your body has to work against gravity to digest properly. If you have trouble staying on the left and are still experiencing heartburn or acid reflux, scientists recommend sleeping at an incline to ensure your head is above your stomach. In addition, you can use pillows to prop yourself up or bed risers at the head of the bed to avoid possible neck pain.
Can Side-Sleeping Cause Shoulder Pain?
Although it’s generally the most comfortable position, side sleeping can cause shoulder pain for some. In addition, if your mattress or pillow is not offering enough pressure relief for your shoulder, you might feel especially unpleasant in the morning. However, there are a few things that you can do to assuage this.
Although there is an ideal side to rest on, moving positions throughout the night will help distribute the strain between the shoulders. Likewise, stretching and exercise during the day can help increase blood flow and relax your joints. You can also try pulling your pillow down lower to decrease the stress on your shoulder.
Last, make sure your pillow and mattress are best suited for you. The wrong mattress firmness level could stress the spine, causing neck, back, hip, or shoulder pain.
Side Sleeping Posture Variations
The fetal position is the most common way people sleep; this is when a person is huddled up with their legs tucked in close to their body. It resembles the way a baby is naturally positioned in the womb.
But there are all kinds of ways to position your side-sleeping self, and some come with more benefits than others. For example, using a pillow can step up your napping game and give you both a healthy and comfortable night’s rest.
Placing a pillow between the knees can relieve pressure on the hips and keep the knees from rubbing against each other, avoiding discomfort; this can alleviate back pain because it encourages spine alignment.
A cushion behind the back can also keep the spine straight while assuring support when you may want to turn onto your backside. Finally, hugging a pillow can put your shoulder pain to rest—the position will open your shoulder joints to lessen the pressure.
Play around with pillow placement to find what is most comfortable, and focus on those areas that might feel more pressure than others. Everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for you.
The Fetal Position
Side sleepers who curl up in bed with their legs bent towards their heart or torso are sleeping in the fetal position. Research indicates that this posture is healthy for pregnant women because it’s been shown to improve circulation for the fetus and the mother. Some individuals may experience pain in their hips from this position. However, you can often avoid this discomfort by placing a pillow between your knees.
The log position is just as it sounds, sleeping on your side with your arms straight down by your sides. This position is commonly great for those who struggle with sleep apnea or snoring, but those with arthritis may want to steer clear due to strain on their joints.
The yearner position is similar to the fetal except this position stretches the arms out in front of the body. This posture can be an excellent fit for those who suffer from breathing issues. However, if you have arthritis, this pose could make your condition worse.
Check out our picks for the best beds for arthritis pain.
The Pillow Hug
Pillow huggers often enjoy this posture because the cushion helps to prop their bodies up. This position could offer great comfort for those who struggle with achy joints or weak bones, as the pillow can provide additional pressure relief.
Proper Pillow Position for Side Sleepers
Where you place your pillow can help make side sleeping more comfortable, especially if you’re new to it. The following are examples of where you can put your pillow when you sleep. We encourage you to try each one out to see what feels best.
Pillow Under the Head
Side sleepers need a bit more support than back or stomach sleepers because of the pressure this position puts on their neck and head. With a higher, loftier cushion, your neck and head should be better supported, allowing for better spinal alignment and preventing the head from dipping too low. Ideally, you’ll want your spine to lie as straight as possible.
Pillow Under the Neck
A double contour pillow is an excellent way to ensure your head and neck are both adequately supported in the side position. These cushions slope subtly up around your neck, lifting for a gentle cradle. Supporting the neck is important for people living with arthritis or scoliosis.
Pillow Between the Knees
Placing a pillow between your legs is a fantastic way to give your body the alignment it needs to sleep in a healthy posture. However, some individuals find fluffy pillows too thick for comfort, and often a thinner cushion is more comfortable.
Pillow Behind the Back
Tucking a pillow behind the back while side-sleeping is an excellent way for back or stomach sleepers to train their bodies to sleep on their sides. When you’re not used to sleeping a certain way, forcing yourself into the habit can be challenging. The cushion should provide additional guidance during the night to prevent you from rolling over onto your back.
Sleeping on Your Side FAQs
Is there a better mattress for side sleepers?
We recommend that side sleepers find a medium-firm mattress for two reasons: A firm mattress may not allow proper pressure relief for the shoulder and hip problem areas. The hips and shoulders may not sink in enough to keep the spine straight, leading to all sorts of discomfort. Two, a mattress that is too soft may not provide the proper support for those same problem areas, and too much sinkage can cause the same problems as a mattress that is too firm.
Generally speaking, those who sleep laterally prefer a softer mattress than people who rest on their back or stomach, so keep that in mind when shopping.
Check Out Our Guide: Best Mattresses For Side Sleepers
Is there a better pillow for this position?
Side snoozers usually benefit from a firm, thick pillow to ensure that the neck stays aligned with their spine. Keep in mind, your head is pretty heavy—around 10 or 11 pounds. If the pillow is too thin or soft (think feather pillows), your head might sink in too far, and you could wake up with an achy neck or back.
Memory foam pillows can be a good option. They provide support while also contouring the shape of your head and neck. If you want to rest your shoulder on the pillow, it may help relieve some of that pressure.
View Our Guide: Top Rated Side Sleeper Pillows
How can you sleep on your side without hurting your shoulder?
Sleeping on your side isn’t always comfortable, especially if you rarely change sides. Regular side sleepers may struggle with neck, back, and shoulder pain. For this reason, you may want to consider doing a few things to avoid this discomfort.
- Consider a medium-firm mattress – A medium-firm mattress is often the best for side sleepers as it offers the right support and pressure relief. If your current mattress isn’t as comfy for this position and you don’t have the budget for a new bed, you can purchase a mattress topper that fits your needs. Toppers adjust the feel of a mattress and are significantly cheaper than buying a new mattress altogether.
- Shift sides – One of the best practices for side sleepers is changing sides. Many say sleeping on their left side is healthier than sleeping on the right, but it’s often the most comfortable to switch regularly.
- Place a pillow between the knees – Placing a pillow between your knees can prevent the knees and hips from collapsing. A pillow between the knees can also help create a better spine alignment.
Side sleeping is healthy and beneficial, and dedicated back and stomach sleepers could benefit from switching to their side. Although it may feel strange initially, you can train your body to sleep on the side. Plus, things like a mattress topper and body pillow can help you feel more comfortable in this position. After a few days, side sleeping will come more naturally, and it won’t take much longer before you feel the benefits.
Sources and References:
-  “Effect of Sleep Position on Sleep Apnea Severity”, Sleep, U.S. National Library of Medicine
-  “Best Sleeping Positions While Pregnant”, American Pregnancy Association, July 16, 2021
-  “Could Body Posture during Sleep Affect How Your Brain Clears Waste?”, ScienceDaily, August 4, 2015
-  “Sleep Positions”, Hosmer Chiropractic Health, April 20, 2021
-  Robert H. Shmerling, MD., “Hands or Feet Asleep? What to Do”, Harvard Health, February 21, 2020
Rachael is a content writer for Sleep Advisor who loves combining her enthusiasm for writing and wellness. She’s had a passion for writing since she was a kid when she wrote awful poetry. She’s honed her craft quite a bit since then and considers herself a lucky duck to get paid to do what she loves.
Embracing the remote work life, she occasionally takes her work on the road and lives out her travel writer pipe dream.
In her free time, she attempts to meditate regularly, rides her bike to Trader Joe’s, and enjoys trying every type of food that she can get her hands on.