The Best (And Worst) Sleeping Positions

There's nothing like a good night's sleep to make the day seem a little brighter and put that extra spring in your step. Unfortunately, too many of us fall short of meeting this goal, leaving us chronically sleep deprived or experiencing poor quality sleep.

Now, if you've already taken steps to implement a healthy nighttime sleep routine but still wake up feeling sluggish, you might be overlooking an important part of the equation — the position you sleep in. In this article, we'll reveal the best sleeping position and the worst to make sure you're getting the best sleep possible, something most of us sorely need. So, let's get started!

Quick Guide: Sleeping Positions Infographic

The Best (And Worst) Sleeping Position [Infographic]

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Why Your Sleeping Position Is Important

Sleep is as vital to your health and well-being as oxygen, food, and water. When you lack enough sleep, both your body and mind suffer as a result. Over time, this can affect everything from your physical appearance and mental state to increasing the risk of serious health conditions like cancer, diabetes, strokes, and more.

Equally important is the quality of your sleep. To feel and function at its best, your body needs sufficient rapid eye movement or REM sleep — the dream part of the sleep cycle where eyes typically dart back and forth.

Now, if you get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night but still find yourself feeling groggy or achy in the morning, the problem may have to do with the position you normally sleep in.

While the best sleeping position is the one you personally find most comfortable and that allows you to wake up feeling refreshed, certain positions are more conducive to a good night's sleep than others.

The Best Sleeping Positions (And Worst)

How to Identify Your Preferred Sleeping Position

It's not unusual to favor a sleeping position that may wind up causing pain over time or strains your internal organs. To determine if your sleeping position may be negatively affecting your health, you first need to identify your preferred sleeping position.

All you have to do is note the position you think you'll sleep in tonight and see if that corresponds to the actual position you wake up in the following morning.

If the two match, you've identified your preferred sleeping position. If not, you simply repeat the process the next night. Now, if you don't get a match after the second or third attempt, you happen to be someone without a preferred sleeping position, and that's okay!

Types of Sleeping Positions

Most people fall into one of the following preferred sleeping position categories:

  • Side Sleepers
  • Fetal-Position Sleepers
  • Back Sleepers
  • angle-double-right
    Stomach Sleepers

Each position has advantages and disadvantages as far as the amount of strain placed on the body. Let's take a closer look at each...

Side Sleepers

Approximately 63 percent of us prefer to sleep on our side, but not all side sleepers are alike:

  • Roughly 6 to 15 percent of side sleepers assume the "log position" wherein the body remains straight with both arms down and close to the side of the body.
  • Another 13 percent assume the "yearner position" wherein the arms stretch out in front of the body as if reaching for something.
  • The rest of the side sleeper population loves to drift off to sleep in a "fetal position" — a variant so common that it warrants its own category which we'll cover in a moment.
Side Sleepers

Irrespective of the variation, side sleeping has many benefits:

  • When coupled with the right pillow, it allows your head and spine to stay as straight as possible, which can reduce morning aches and pains. Sleeping with your knees slightly bent toward your chest also elongates the spine, which can alleviate chronic back pain specifically.
  • It eases the stress on the internal organs, which can facilitate everything from breathing to digestion and circulation.
  • It helps open up the oropharynx, which can reduce episodes of snoring and sleep apnea.
  • It may help the glymphatic system in your brain clear away harmful wastes that can lead to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

Interestingly, experts advise that sleeping on your left side is preferable to sleeping on your right because it facilitates digestion and reduces nighttime acid reflux due to the arrangement of the internal organs.

Sleeping on your left side also promotes better circulation since blood returns to the right side of the heart. In fact, pregnant women are encouraged to sleep in this position precisely for this reason.

Pillows For Side Sleepers

While being a side sleeper is generally healthy and by far the most common sleep position, it does have a few drawbacks:

  • If you sleep with your arms straight down by your side (log position), the weight of your body can cut off the circulation to the bottom arm and leave you with numbness or unpleasant "pins and needles" sensations when you wake up.
  • If you tend to sleep with your arm curled up under your pillow or over your head, you may wind up with shoulder pain.
  • It may put extra strain on pressure points, such as your hips and shoulders, and cause back and hip pain if your spine isn't properly aligned.
  • It can lead to early wrinkles from having your face squished against the pillow and may exacerbate acne by keeping your face in contact with the oils and other dirt on your pillowcase.
  • thumbs-down
    For women, it allows gravity to pull on the tissue of the breasts, which may lead to sagging.

Luckily, there are ways to address at least a few of these pitfalls and it all comes down to supporting the natural curvature of your spine as much as possible:

  • Place your pillow high enough so that your head doesn't tilt toward your shoulder like you're straining to hear someone speak.
  • Place a pillow between your legs to help keep your hips in proper alignment.
  • Place a small pillow under your stomach to keep it from pulling on your middle spine (optional).

Fetal-Position Sleepers

A popular variation of side sleeping, approximately 41 percent of people sleep with their chin and knees tucked into their chest, like a baby curled in the womb. For reasons unknown, twice as many women as men are likely to sleep in the fetal position.

As you'd expect, fetal-position sleepers share most of the same benefits as other side sleeper variations:

Fetal-Position Sleepers
  • It can help reduce lower back and hip pain by opening up the lower spine.
  • It benefits snorers and sleep apnea patients alike as the airway is less likely to become obstructed.
  • It promotes better circulation as it alleviates pressure on the major blood vessels on the right side of the body that return blood to the heart.

The downsides to sleeping in the fetal position are also like other side sleeper variations:

  • It may lead to early wrinkles, more frequent skin breakouts, and sagging breasts.
  • It can cause neck and back pain if you tuck your chin and knees in too tightly.

While not all these concerns can be solved, there are a couple of things you can do to optimize the fetal sleeping position:

  • Try not to bring your knees in too far to avoid creating too much of an unnatural arch in the back.
  • Place a pillow between your knees to relieve pressure on the lower spine and hips.

Back Sleepers

Kudos to you if you're among the 13 percent of people who sleep on their back. According to experts, sleeping on your back is the best sleep position for your body and overall health as it tends to keep the spine in a neutral position and allows the mattress to support the natural curvature of your back as intended.

Back sleepers typically fall into two categories: 

Back Sleepers
  • Approximately 8 percent assume the "soldier position" wherein the arms remain straight down the side.
  • Another 5 percent assume the "starfish position" wherein the legs remain slightly bent and the arms positioned over the head.
  • angle-double-right
    The rest of the back sleeper population has no set preference, but are rather variants of the other two.

Back sleeping of any kind has several benefits:

  • It can alleviate nighttime acid reflux as the pillow keeps your esophagus above the level of your stomach.
  • It may improve the quality of your skin as it keeps your face away from the pillow, which reduces the chance of wrinkles and acne from contact with dirt that may be on the pillowcase.
  • It tends to create the least amount of back pain for the majority of people.
  • For women, it may help prevent breast sagging.
Pillows For Back Sleepers

While being a back sleeper is generally regarded as the best position to sleep in (more on that in a moment), it does have a few cons:

  • If you snore or have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, back sleeping should be avoided as your airway is more likely to become obstructed.
  • If you're a starfish sleeper, you might experience shoulder pain as keeping your arms above your head for an extended period places strain on the nerves of your shoulder.
  • If you're pregnant, back sleeping can cause digestive problems, breathing difficulties, backaches, and poor circulation for both you and your baby as the increased weight of your abdomen puts added pressure on your internal organs and major blood vessels.

Assuming you're not pregnant and don't suffer from sleep apnea, there are a few things you can do to become a better back sleeper:

  • Look for a mattress in the medium-firm range for the optimal level of spinal support.
  • Place a pillow under your knees to help ease pressure on your hips and lower back.
  • Avoid overly thick pillows as they can tilt the head too far forward, which can cause neck pain and make breathing more difficult.

Stomach Sleepers

If you tend to sleep on your stomach in what's known as the "freefall position," you're a rare breed indeed. Only about 7 percent of people sleep on their stomachs with their head resting to one side and arms placed under the pillow.

Because of the position of the neck and arms and the flattening of the curvature of the lower back, the freefall position is the one most likely to cause significant aches and pains.

Stomach Sleepers

The benefits of being a freefaller are few:

  • You're less likely to snore as gravity helps to keep the upper airways open.

In contrast, the downsides of sleeping on your stomach are many:

  • It places significant strain on the muscles and joints of the neck, as well as the shoulders, lower back, and hips.
  • It can make you more prone to premature wrinkles and skin breakouts.
  • It might exacerbate allergy symptoms as it forces you to breathe in potential dust mites and other allergens throughout the night.

If you can't break away from sleeping on your stomach (or if you're a chronic snorer who chooses to sleep this way), there are a couple of steps you can take to try to minimize those morning aches and pains:

  • Sleep with a very thin pillow or none at all to prevent your neck from bending upward as well as to the side.
  • Place a pillow under your pelvis to relieve the pressure on the lower spine.

The Best Sleeping Positions for a Healthy Body

Which Sleeping Position is Best and Worst Overall?

When you consider the impact of the various sleeping positions on the musculoskeletal and other body systems, there are definitely clear winners and losers...

The majority of experts advise that sleeping on your back is best for your body, followed by sleeping on your side or in the fetal position.

When sleeping on your back, it's best to stick to the soldier position as having your arms sprawled over your head all night can lead to shoulder pain.

Placing a pillow under your knees will also help flatten your lower back against the mattress for added support and keep your legs more in line with your lower spine.

On the other end of the spectrum, sleeping on your stomach is the hardest on the body and is the one position you may want to seriously consider changing to avoid chronic neck and back pain. That said, some chronic snorers or sleep apnea sufferers may benefit from sleeping in this position.

The Best Sleeping Position for Select Health Conditions

Although the back and side sleeping positions tend to be the best as far as promoting deep, recuperative sleep, and avoiding morning aches and pains, they may not necessarily always be the best choice if you suffer from certain health conditions. Let's take a look at these...

HEALTH CONDITION

BEST SLEEPING POSITION

RATIONALE

Back Pain

Back

Provides optimal support for the spine and keeps it in its natural alignment when using a medium to firm mattress.

Broken Ribs

Injured Side

Allows your uninjured side to expand more fully for deeper breathing. Depending on the extent of the injury, some over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers may also be in order.

Digestive Problems

Left Side or Stomach

Makes it easier for food to pass from your stomach into your intestines.

Heartburn

Back (with head elevated 4 to 6 inches)

Uses gravity to keep acid from entering the esophagus.

Hip Pain

Side or Fetal-Position (with pillow wedged between knees)

A pillow helps to open up the hips and alleviates pressure on the pelvis.

Nasal Congestion

Back (with head of the bed elevated)

Having a slight incline promotes sinus drainage.

Cough

Side or Propped Up

Allow mucus to drain from the lungs and throat.

Knee Pain

Back or Side (with pillow between knees)

Allows the body to remain in natural alignment. A pillow also reduces weight and pressure on the knee joints.

Lower Back Pain

Side (with knees drawn slightly toward the chest)

Helps restore the natural curve to the lower back and eases compression in the lower spine.

Neck Pain

Back or Side

Helps keep the cervical spine in proper alignment.

Shoulder Pain

Good Side (while hugging a pillow) or Back (if both shoulders hurt)

Keeps weight off the affected arm.

Sciatica

Side (with top knee brought slightly toward head and a pillow underneath)

Helps open up the lower spine and helps alleviate the pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Sleep Apnea

Side, Fetal-Position or Stomach

Prevents gravity from pulling the tongue toward the back of the throat and allows the airway to remain open.

Snoring

Side, Fetal-Position or Stomach

Keeps the airways open and allows for easier breathing.


Back Pain

Best Sleeping Position: 
Back

Provides optimal support for the spine and keeps it in its natural alignment when using a medium to firm mattress


Broken Ribs

Best Sleeping Position:
Injured Side

Allows your uninjured side to expand more fully for deeper breathing. Depending on the extent of the injury, some over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers may also be in order


Digestive Problems

Best Sleeping Position:
Left Side or Stomach

Makes it easier for food to pass from your stomach into your intestines


Heartburn

Best Sleeping Position: 
Back (with head elevated 4 to 6 inches)

Uses gravity to keep acid from entering the esophagus


Hip Pain

Best Sleeping Position:
Side or Fetal-Position (with pillow wedged between knees)

A pillow helps to open up the hips and alleviates pressure on the pelvis


Nasal Conjestion

Best Sleeping Position:
Back (with head of the bed elevated)

Having a slight incline promotes sinus drainage


Cough

Best Sleeping Position:
Side or Propped Up

Allow mucus to drain from the lungs and throat


Knee Pain

Best Sleeping Position:
Back or Side (with pillow between knees)

Allows the body to remain in natural alignment. A pillow also reduces weight and pressure on the knee joints


Lower Back Pain

Best Sleeping Position:
Side (with knees drawn slightly toward the chest)

Helps restore the natural curve to the lower back and eases compression in the lower spine


Neck Pain

Best Sleeping Position:
Back or Side

Helps keep the cervical spine in proper alignment


Shoulder Pain

Best Sleeping Position:
Good Side (while hugging a pillow) or Back (if both shoulders hurt)

Keeps weight off the affected arm


Sciatica

Best Sleeping Position:
Side (with top knee brought slightly toward head and a pillow underneath)

Helps open up the lower spine and helps alleviate the pressure on the sciatic nerve


Sleep Apnea

Best Sleeping Position:
Side, Fetal-Position or Stomach

Prevents gravity from pulling the tongue toward the back of the throat and allows the airway to remain open


Snoring

Best Sleeping Position:
Side, Fetal-Position or Stomach

Keeps the airways open and allows for easier breathing

How to Transition to a New Sleeping Position

If you wake up feeling rested and you're not experiencing any ill effects from your sleeping position, you shouldn't feel compelled to make a change. But if you find yourself tossing and turning all night or waking up in pain, experimenting with a new sleeping position may be the answer.

Since you've probably been sleeping the same way for years, you should prepare yourself for a few sleepless nights during the process. The following tips can help make the transition easier:

  • Practice good sleep hygieneTurn off all electronic devices one to two hours before bedtime and make sure your room is completely dark when it comes time to sleep. A warm bath or a cup of herbal tea can also help you relax so that you fall asleep easier.
  • Replace your mattress – If your mattress is sagging or over eight years old, consider replacing it. Just be sure to do your homework beforehand to ensure you pick the right type of mattress for your body. And while you're at it, treat yourself to a high-quality pillow, sheets, and mattress cover.
The Position To Sleep In

Now, if you're actively looking to avoid sleeping in a certain way, you may need to resort to more drastic measures until you can adjust to the new position. Here are a few ways to achieve this:

  • Sew a tennis ball into a pocket on your pajamas to discourage you from sleeping on your back or side.
  • Wear a backpack on your front if you need to stop yourself from sleeping on your stomach.
  • Sleep on the opposite side of the bed from where you usually sleep to help unlearn your old sleeping position and adopt your new one instead.

What Does Your Sleeping Position Say About You?

So, we thought we'd end this article with a bit of fun…

Believe it or not, some studies suggest a correlation between a person's preferred sleep position and certain personality traits. Even if the correlation isn't 100% scientifically accurate, it at least provides for some interesting conversation, right? 🙂

Side Sleepers

  • If you snooze best in the log position, you're probably sociable and enjoy interacting with a wide variety of people. You also tend to be very trusting, which can sometimes get you into trouble.
  • If you snooze best in the yearner position, you're probably very open and inviting but might be a bit more cynical and suspicious than your log counterparts. You might also take longer to make decisions, but you're resolute once you've made up your mind.

Fetal-Position Sleepers

  • If you snooze best in the fetal-position, others may view you as a tough cookie on the outside but soft and somewhat sensitive on the inside. You might also be prone to worrying and overthinking problematic situations.
What Does Your Sleeping Position Say About You?

Back Sleepers

  • If you snooze best in the soldier position, you tend to be a natural leader with Type-A tendencies. As the name might suggest, soldier sleepers like structure and discipline.
  • If you snooze best in the starfish position, people probably look at you as a loyal friend and good listener.

Stomach Sleepers

  • If you snooze best in the freefall position, you tend to be a free-spirited risk taker, hence the term "freefaller." On the outside, you might appear playful and gregarious, but you might also be anxious, sensitive to criticism, and secretly wanting more control over your life.

Resources & Further Reading

Now Over to You!

What sleeping position do YOU normally tend to sleep in? Are you looking to change it? Leave your comments below!

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