Best Sleep PositionsUpdated on May 12, 2018
Sleeping is pretty straightforward, right? Even if you don’t always get as much of it as you’d like, it’s not something that you feel like you have to put a lot of thought into. However, being intentional about your sleeping position can have a lot of health benefits. If you are waking up in pain, with your skin breaking out, or you spend all night snoring, changing how you sleep could help improve your health, too.
There are many ways to sleep on your back. Some people sleep with their arms and legs straight, like a soldier. Others sleep with their arms up by their head, like a starfish. Even others sleep with a pillow tucked under their knees or on a wedge pillow with their heads elevated. Whatever the exact position, back sleeping is one of the healthiest ways to sleep.
Sleeping on your back is good for your spine. It keeps things in alignment, so there’s no pressure or pulling on your back, neck, or head. This helps you avoid pain when you wake up and can help keep you pain-free all day long.
Back sleeping is also good for avoiding facial breakouts. If you have sensitive skin, the bacteria, chemicals, and oils that build up on your pillow can make your face break out in pimples or other skin conditions. After all, when you sleep you’re basically rubbing your face in whatever is on your pillow for about 8 hours straight.
Sleeping on your back can also help you avoid wrinkles. When you sleep on your side or your stomach, the skin on your face is both pulled by gravity and smashed by the pillow. When you sleep on your back, though, it can hang loose.
Back sleeping is not recommended for snorers, those with sleep apnea, or pregnant women. It can exacerbate these conditions or, in the case of pregnancy, potentially harm the growing child. Some sleepers find that sleeping on their back pulls on the lower back, though that can usually be fixed by placing a pillow under the knees.
There are several variations on the side sleeping position. Some people sleep with their arms and legs straight, like a log. Others sleep curled up more or less in a ball, like the fetal position. Even others sleep with their arms straight out in front of them, as if they are yearning for something. Whatever the exact position, sleeping on the side is the most common sleep position.
Do you struggle with nighttime heartburn or acid reflux? Try sleeping on your side, as it has been shown to alleviate these conditions. In fact, if you have these conditions and you don’t sleep on your side, it might be time to consider changing.
Sleeping on the left side is recommended for pregnant women. This is supposed to improve circulation overnight, which is good for both the mom and the child. In addition, it can alleviate some of the constant pressure on the lower back, especially if the weight of the stomach is supported with a pillow.
Side sleepers often wake up with one arm numb, as their body weight can cut off circulation to one arm during the night. Even if the arm doesn’t fully fall asleep, this can cause a painful pins and needles sensation in it, which usually awakens the sleeper.
Since one shoulder supports most of the body’s weight during side sleeping, staying on one side all night can constrict these muscles. This often results in shoulder pain upon waking.
Finally, side sleeping can compress whatever organs are on the lower side of the body, making it harder to breathe, digest, and more throughout the night.
Most stomach sleepers sleep with all of their body facing down except for the face. Since they have to breathe, they usually turn their heads to one side or another, freeing the mouth and nose. A few people have figured out how to sleep fully face down, finding other ways to get the airflow they need.
Sleeping on the stomach can help some sleep apnea patients, though it’s usually a worst-case scenario. It can also help snorers, as there’s no way for the tongue to fall back into the throat when you sleep on your stomach. Other than that, there’s not much that is beneficial about this position.
Stomach sleeping is extremely hard on the back, as it flattens out the spine’s natural curve. This can cause back pain throughout the day, as well as overnight. When stomach sleepers crank their heads sideways so they can breathe, this also strains the neck. Over time this can cause significant neck pain and problems.
Sleeping on the stomach also puts a lot of pressure on the stomach and the lungs, especially if the sleeper is large. This can make it hard to breathe and to digest throughout the night. If nothing else, the lungs and the stomach end up working a lot harder than they should have to.
Many people actually sleep in a variety of positions throughout the night, even if they have one particular position that they prefer to fall asleep in. Most of us shift positions multiple times overnight, without even knowing it. Some people go through all three of the above sleep positions, while others favor one or two. Others are always side sleepers, but they switch sides throughout the night.
Combination sleepers generally reap the pros of all of the positions they sleep in. While they may not reap any of them fully, they get some benefits from each position they choose.
Changing positions can be a pro in itself, simply because people who move at night avoid the cons that come with staying in one place. They are less likely, for instance, to develop pressure points and wake up in pain
Combination sleepers do reap some of the cons from each position they sleep in, too. This can occasionally lead to a scenario where someone experiences all of the cons from each position. They may have a strained lower back from sleeping on their back, a sore shoulder from being on the side, and a sore neck from stomach sleeping.
Combination sleepers can also be extremely restless. This can disrupt their sleep cycles and cause poor sleep quality, too.
Most sleep experts agree that back sleeping is best unless you fall into one of the populations for whom that position is contraindicated. The next best is usually sleeping on your side, though combination sleepers often reap the benefits of the different sleep positions they engage in. They also avoid a lot of the downsides of any of one position, since they move often enough that they don’t have time for the drawbacks to develop.
In the end, you should sleep in a way that is comfortable and healthy for you. If you’re a stomach sleeper and you don’t struggle with back or neck pain and you can breathe, there’s no reason not to sleep that way. And, if you want to change your sleeping position, all it takes is a little thoughtfulness and the willingness to consistently try something new.