Sleeping Positions – Make Yours Work for You

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    Did you know that your sleeping position at night can affect how you feel when you wake up? It’s true! How your body positions itself as you rest can mean the difference between waking up feeling refreshed or awakening with aches and pains.

    There are three basic sleeping positions: on the back, stomach, or side. There’s variations of each one, and many people will actually be combo sleepers, meaning they switch between two or three of these positions at night.

    No matter your sleeping position, what’s most important is that you achieve proper spinal alignment. In other words, you want to make sure your neck, shoulders, and back are aligned. This alignment means there’s less tension placed on sensitive parts on your body, which may reduce the risk of waking up feeling sore.

    Want to know if you’re sleeping properly? Don’t worry; we’re reviewing all three major sleeping positions here, so you can learn how best to optimize your current sleeping posture.

    Side Sleeping

    Correct side sleeping posture.
    NotionPic/Shutterstock.com

    Research shows that side sleeping is the most popular position among adults. Increases in age and body mass index also correlate with a greater preference for this position.[1] Most people typically prefer either their left or right side.

    Drawbacks

    Many doctors recommend side sleeping for plenty of reasons (more on that below), but this posture isn’t perfect. The biggest cosmetic drawback to sleeping on your side? It might increase wrinkles.[2]

    Benefits

    Fortunately, though, there’s plenty of benefits to resting on your side. Sleeping on either side may reduce snoring and help with acid reflux.[3] In fact, it may even help remove waste from the brain better than other sleeping positions.[4] Right side sleepers specifically may notice improvement in their breathing, fewer heart palpitations, and better control of certain nervous system activities.[5,6]

    Conversely, left side sleeping is great during pregnancy. By sleeping in a fetal position on the left side, pregnant individuals can relieve pressure on their liver, which is located on the right side of the body. Left side sleeping during pregnancy may also improve circulation, which is better not just for the parent, but also for increasing blood flow to the fetus.[7]

    Correct Sleep Posture

    Correct sleep on side posture by place a pillow between legs.
    solar22/Shutterstock.com

    To reap the benefits of side sleeping, though, you’ll have to make sure you’re doing it properly. Depending on height and weight, side sleepers may notice that parts of their body curve uncomfortably. These curves may result in discomfort upon awakening. For side sleepers who find that they wake up with pain, a pillow may be able to help.

    To correct side sleeping posture, find a pillow or roll up a towel or blanket. Then, place it between your legs. This placement may help align the spine as you rest.

    Choosing the Right Mattress

    Your bedding, too, might also make a difference in how your neck, shoulders, and back align. You should always keep in mind factors like height, weight, preferences, and specific medical conditions. However, most side sleepers prefer soft or even medium-firm beds.

    Why? Because less of their bodies touch their beds. That means the parts that do come into contact with the bed place greater pressure on it. So, this sleeping position requires beds with more “give” to them, to accommodate the curves of side sleepers’ bodies. That makes foam, latex, and even some hybrid mattresses great options for these types of sleepers.

    You can read our guide to see our top picks for the best beds for side sleeping.

    Side Sleeping at a Glance
    Pros Good for pregnancy, reduces snoring, may improve brain function, may help with acid reflux​
    Cons May worsen wrinkles
    Tips to Correct Posture Place pillow between legs
    Best Mattress Type Foam, latex, or hybrid
    Optimal Bed Firmness Soft or medium-firm

    Back Sleeping

    Woman demonstrating correct and incorrect sleeping postures on back.
    NotionPic/Shutterstock.com

    Back sleeping is another popular sleeping posture for adults. Research shows that women are slightly more likely to choose this position. However, preference for this posture tends to decrease with age and weight gain regardless of gender.[8]

    Drawbacks

    This posture won’t work for everyone. Those who snore may find their condition worsens when they slumber face up. Additionally, experts don’t recommend this posture for those who suffer from sleep apnea, as it may exacerbate the condition.[9]

    Pregnant people should also avoid supine sleeping. That’s because this pose may generate back pain and make breathing difficult for the parent. Additionally, back resting can mean decreased circulation to the parent’s heart as well as the fetus.[10]

    Benefits

    So, are there any benefits to sleeping on your back? Research says yes. Like side sleeping, back sleeping may help those who suffer from acid reflux.[11] Unlike side sleeping, though, back sleeping may be better for fighting sleep wrinkles.[12]

    Correct Sleep Posture

    solar22/Shutterstock.com

    Back sleepers may report issues with their lower backs when they rest. Putting a pillow or rolled-up towel underneath the knees may relieve some lumbar tension. If this solution does not work, placing something similar under the lower back itself may help.[13]

    Choose the Right Mattress

    Back sleepers often prefer firmer sleeping surfaces than side sleepers. Everyone’s preferences and particular needs will vary, but many face-up sleepers prefer medium-firm or firm bedding. That makes reinforced foam, latex, or even hybrid mattresses great choices for these people. Just remember: for this posture, what’s most important is finding a bed that can support the lower back.

    If you want more information, check out our guide on the best mattresses for back sleeping.

    Back Sleeping at a Glance
    Pros May help with acid reflux, better for sleep wrinkles
    Cons May worsen snoring or sleep apnea, not great for pregnancy
    Tips to Correct Posture Place pillow under knees and/or lower back
    Best Mattress Type Reinforced foam, latex, or hybrid
    Optimal Bed Firmness Medium-firm or firm

    Stomach Sleeping

    A woman illustrates the right and wrong ways to sleep on your stomach.
    NotionPic/Shutterstock.com

    Stomach sleeping is the least popular resting posture for adults. Research suggests there’s no significant preferences for this position correlated with sex, age, or weight.[14]

    Drawbacks

    There’s a reason you won’t find doctors recommending this posture. First and foremost, it’s incredibly easy to curve your neck and lower back uncomfortably when sleeping prone. That can lead to aches and pains in these sensitive areas.[15] Pregnant people should likewise avoid this posture for obvious reasons.[16] Research also shows a greater risk of SIDS for infants when they sleep on their stomach.[17]

    Benefits

    If you can’t force yourself to rest in a different position, know that at least you’ll be less likely to snore or experience exacerbation of sleep apnea when slumbering on your tummy.[18]

    Correct Sleep Posture

    As stated above, it’s incredibly easy to sleep poorly with this posture. Like back and stomach resters, a pillow may help. Placing a cushion underneath your stomach may alleviate some back tension.[19]

    Choose the Right Mattress

    Due to the nature of this position, stomach sleepers might want to find a shape-conforming mattress made of materials like foam or latex. Firmness levels will vary based on preferences and weight. For example, lighter individuals might need slightly firmer sleeping surfaces. Those who have extra weight around their stomachs might prefer softer surfaces. These softer surfaces allow these individuals’ curves to comfortably sink into the bed, which could support better spinal alignment.

    You can see our top 3 favorite mattresses for stomach sleeping in our guide.

    Stomach Sleeping at a Glance
    Pros Reduces snoring, may help with sleep apnea
    Cons Easier to harm neck or lower back, not good for pregnancy, may increase risk of SIDS for infants
    Tips to Correct Posture Place pillow under stomach
    Best Type of Mattress Foam or latex
    Optimal Bed Firmness Varies

    Proper Neck Alignment

    Where and how you rest your head can also have a significant impact on how you feel upon awakening. No matter the position you sleep in, making sure you find a quality pillow on which to lay your head is crucial for reducing potential neck and shoulder pain.

    You may be attached to your rectangular, down-filled pillow. However, it might not be the best option for properly supporting your body. The firmness of your pillow is incredibly important to keep in mind. Too soft of a pillow, and your neck will sink forward. Too firm of a pillow conversely means your head will lay at an awkward upward angle. Either situation can mean unnecessary strain on your neck and shoulders. Furthermore, the traditional rectangular shape of most pillows isn’t optimized for conforming to the unique dips of the human body.

    Vector illustration showing how traditional pillows do not support proper neck alignment.
    solar22/Shutterstock.com

    Upgrading your pillow may help you sleep more comfortably by better supporting these sensitive areas of the body. Research shows that pillows with taller edges and a dip in the middle may help better support the head and neck for many sleepers. One study found that orthopedic pillows are best in terms of comfort, neck curvature, and temperature when compared to specially shaped memory foam or traditional feather-filled pillows. Memory foam pillows, while not able to provide quite as much support as orthopedic ones, still perform better than traditionally shaped feather cushions.[20]

    Vector illustration demonstrating the proper way to use a pillow to acheive proper spinal alignment.
    solar22/Shutterstock.com

    Final Thoughts

    How you sprawl out on your bed at night can play an important part in how you feel in the morning. No matter your sleeping position, it’s important to make sure you’re properly aligning your neck, shoulders, and back. This way, you may be able to wake up with fewer aches and pains. By finding out how to best optimize your sleeping position, you may find a boost in your sleep quality.

    References

    [1][8][14]Skarpsno, E. S., Mork, P. J., Nilsen, T., & Holtermann, A. (2017). Sleep positions and nocturnal body movements based on free-living accelerometer recordings: association with demographics, lifestyle, and insomnia symptoms. Nature and science of sleep, 9:267–275. doi:10.2147/NSS.S145777

    [2][12]Jaliman, D. (2012). Skin Rules. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

    [3]Katz, L.C., Just, R., & Castell, D.O. (1994). Body position affects recumbent postprandial reflux. Journal of clinical gastroenterology, 18(4):280-3. doi:10.1097/00004836-199406000-00004

    [4]Lee, H., Xie, L., Yu, M., Kang, H., Feng, T., Deane, R., Logan, J., Nedergaard, M., & Benveniste, H. (2015). The effect of body posture on brain glymphatic transport. Journal of neuroscience, 35(31): 11034-11044. doi:https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1625-15.2015

    [5]Day, J. (2018). Is left or right side sleeping best for your heart? Drjohnday.com. Retrieved from https://drjohnday.com/right-side-sleeping-best-for-your-heart/ 

    [6]Fujita, M., Miyamoto, S., Sekiguchi, H., Eiho, S., Sasayama, S. (2000). Effects of posture on sympathetic nervous modulation in patients with chronic heart failure. Lancet, 356(9244): 1822-3. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(00)03240-2

    [7]Hirsch, L. (Reviewer). (2016). Sleep during pregnancy. KidsHealth. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sleep-during-pregnancy.html#

    [9][11][15][18]Robinson, J. (Reviewer). (2019). What’s the best position to sleep in? WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/best-sleep-positions

    [10][16]American Pregnancy Association. (n.d.) Sleeping positions during pregnancy. Retrieved from https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/sleeping-positions-during-pregnancy/

    [13][19]Felson, S. (Reviewer). (2018). 5 sleep tips for back pain. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/sleep-tips-for-back-pain

    [17]Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (n.d.) Research on back sleeping and SIDS. Retrieved from https://safetosleep.nichd.nih.gov/research/science/backsleeping

    [20]Jeon, M.Y., Jeong, H., Lee, S., Choi, W., Park, J.H., Tak, S.J., Choi, D.H., & Yim, J. (2014) Improving the quality of sleep with an optimal pillow: a randomized, comparative study. The Tohoku journal of experimental medicine, 233(3): 183-188. doi:https://doi.org/10.1620/tjem.233.183

    Disclaimers

    This article is for reference purposes only. It is not to replace or complement the advice of a licensed professional, nor is it intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. Any and all health concerns you have should be directed at your doctor.

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