What Are The Best Sleeping Positions?

From Holly Phillips, MD

It’s no secret that sleep is critical for good health. In fact, a growing body of research supports the idea that an adequate amount of shut-eye is as critical for your body as a healthy diet and regular exercise.  Yet, even though 54% of American adults say they feel their best after 8 hours of sleep, 73% of them sleep less than that (source National Geographic Channel).  

Importantly, the benefits of sleep aren’t just about quantity, quality matters just as much. While chronic insomniacs usually know who they are, people who experience small sleep disruptions throughout the night may wonder why they’re wiped out despite logging in 8 hours under the sheets.  In my book, “The Exhaustion Breakthrough,” I uncover dozens of common habits that stealthily sabotage good sleep – And the position you choose for slumber is one of the most important.

When it comes to sleep positions there are really just 3 options on the menu: Back, stomach and side.  And the best one for you, depends on, well….you.  So here’s how to know if you’re striking the right pose in bed:

Back Sleeping

Pros:  This position tends to be good for those with back and neck pain.  Lying flat with arms at your sides or on your stomach keeps the back straight, preventing uncomfortable contortions. Place a pillow or foam wedge under the knees to maintain the natural curvature of your lower back.  You can support the neck with a round neck pillow behind it and a thin flat pillow under your head.  For anti-aging enthusiasts, this position is also heralded as the best for preventing facial wrinkles and breast sagging.  If you add a 10-15% incline with a body wedge or adjustable bed, back sleeping can also minimize acid reflux.

Cons:  Snorers beware!  Back sleeping allows the base of the tongue to collapse into the airway, creating or worsening snoring and breathing problems. In fact, for patients suffering with sleep apnea, one of the first remedies prescribed is switching from sleeping on their backs to their sides.  These respiratory challenges could explain why back sleeping is the least popular position (only about 10% of the population goes with this one) and are a good argument to limit your time in Savasana pose to the yoga studio.  One exception:  Back sleeping is always right for infants.  It prevents sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and should be the only sleep position for babies.

Side Sleeping

Pros:   Widely considered by experts to be the most restful sleep position, it seems one need not be an expert to figure this out — More than 70% of the population sleeps on their side.  It generally complements the natural curvature of the spine; even more so with a pillow placed between the legs.  This keeps the pelvis straight and takes stress off the hips.  If you’re pregnant, choose the left side to improve circulation to the heart.  Also go with the left to lessen symptoms of acid reflux and high blood pressure.  If you suffer from kidney stones, sleep on the side opposite the kidney that’s usually affected.  Either side can take snoring down a notch.

Cons:  Side sleepers may experience shoulder and hip pain if the neck and knees aren’t properly supported.  Side sleeping is also not the best cosmetic choice, as skin on the face may be stretched out during the night, lessening elasticity and sadly enhancing wrinkles.

Stomach Sleeping

Pros:  Frankly, there’s not a lot to celebrate with this position.  Stomach sleeping may minimize snoring in some, but overall is regarded as the least restful pose, and most associated with multiple wakenings during the night.

Cons:  Sleeping belly down forces the head and neck to crane posteriorly in order to keep the mouth elevated enough for breathing.  This creates tightness and tension in the cervical vertebrae at the base of the neck in just 15 minutes.  It also flattens the natural curve of the lower spine, a set-up for low back pain.  Stomach sleeping can be a hard habit to break though; Folks in their 30’s, 40’s and up may have learned to do it in infancy before back sleeping was discovered to be safest for babies.  If you’re stuck on the stomach, make sure to place a pillow under your lower belly and hips to support your low back.

For more sleep advice from Holly Phillips see these tips on unwinding before bed, also see this post on how to get a better sleep