The Best Sleeping Position: What Is The Best Position To Sleep In According to Science?

best sleeping position

Do you often wake up with aches and pains? Is a stiff neck and back prevented you from feeling truly rested?

We rarely consider the position we sleep in -- for most of us it’s a habit we formed early in life and we simply can’t imagine sleeping any other way.

Extensive research into the impact of sleep position suggests that we might all benefit from assessing whether or not our chosen sleep position is truly ideal.

The Best Sleeping Positions - And The Worst

Before we get into details - here is an overview over the most common sleeping positions and how beneficial they are for your health.​

  • Best: Sleeping on your back
  • Ok: Sleeping on your side
  • Worst: Sleeping on your stomach​

Now let's get into a bit more detail...

Why Is Your Sleeping Position So Important?

We spend a staggering 1/3rd of our lives sleeping -- That’s a long time spent in a single position.Imagine spending half of your waking day with your neck bent at a slight angle: Are you comfortable?

Hours spent lying in an awkward position that does not suitably support the neck and spine, or exerts pressure on certain parts of the body undeniably has an effect on our body.

In fact, sleeping in an unideal position can significantly impact your health and general well-being.

Poor sleeping position has been linked to the following health complaints: [1]

  • Neck and back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep apnea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Impaired circulation
  • Headaches
  • Heartburn
  • Digestion problems
  • Premature wrinkles​

Do any of these things sound familiar? It may be time for you to critically assess your sleep position, and -- if necessary -- enact some changes for the better.

sleeping positions infographic

via draxe.com

What Are The Best Positions For Sleep?​

When assessing what position is best for sleep, experts use the following criteria:

  1. Is the body properly supported by the mattress?
  2. Is there excess pressure on any point in the body?
  3. Are the neck and spine properly aligned?​

On Your Back

back sleeper

Sleeping on your back is hands down the most optimal sleep position.

It allows the head, neck and spine to rest in a neutral position, and avoids placing extra pressure on any one area of the body.

However, despite all this only 8% of people choose to sleep on their backs. [2]

Pros


  • Prevents neck and back pain
  • Reduces acid reflux
  • Minimizes wrinkles
  • Maintains breast health

Cons


  • Promotes snoring

On Your Side

side sleeper

Sleeping on your side is a reasonable alternative to on your back, and is by far the preferred sleeping position at nearly 50%.

Side sleeping is superior to back sleeping when it comes to keeping your airways open -- and therefore helps prevent snoring.

Issues arise with the side sleeping position when it more closely resembles a fetal position: With the knees and chin tucked in the spine is far from proper alignment, which can lead to shoulder and neck pain.

Contracting the body inward in this manner can also put pressure on the diaphragm, obstructing breathing. [2]

Side sleepers usually need a softer mattress that supports your body while also promoting blood flow in your arms and shoulders. Check out our recommendations for mattresses for side sleepers here.

Pros


  • Prevent neck and back pain
  • Reduces snoring
  • Reduces acid reflux

Cons


  • Causes wrinkles
  • Distorts breasts
  • May cause shoulder/neck pain*
  • May reduce breathing*

*The negative effects of the fetal position can be avoided by stretching out your body -- keeping the legs and neck relatively straight rather than pulled inwards.

On Your Front

stomach sleeper

Sleeping on your stomach is by far the worst position for your overall health.

While it can help eliminate snoring, it is virtually impossible to keep the spine properly supported.

Additionally, front sleeping puts pressure on your muscles and joints, resulting in cramping and general soreness.

If you really must sleep on your front, it’s best to do so lying completely face down rather than having your neck turned to one side.​

Pros


  • Eases snoring

Cons


  • Can cause neck and back pain
  • Promotes wrinkles
  • Can disrupt breathing
  • Can result in muscle aches and pains

Best Sleep Position For Your Baby or Toddler

best sleeping position for babies

The American Academy of Paediatrics has found a strong association between infant sleep position and the incidence of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Extensive research has informed their recommendation that all healthy infants be placed on their backs to sleep. [3]

While the exact reason why sleep position is so important for preventing SIDS in unknown, it’s thought to be related to “rebreathing:” Babies placed on their stomachs are less able to get new oxygen in, and more likely to inhale the carbon dioxide they have just exhaled. [4]

Placing an infant on their side to sleep was once believed to be a safe alternative to back sleeping, but new findings suggest that it can not compare with the reduction in risk provided by back sleeping.

These recommendations apply to babies during the entire first year of life, but are most important during the first 6 months when the risk of SIDS is at its highest.

Some health concerns may affect the position your baby should sleep in. Your pediatrician will discuss this with you and you should follow their directions about sleep position based on your baby’s individual needs.

Best Sleep Positions For Specific Conditions​

If you suffer from certain medical conditions, or are pregnant, there are additional factors you must consider when choosing your sleep position:

Best Sleeping Position for Acid Reflux & Heartburn​

acid reflux sleep

People who regularly experience acid reflux and heartburn often find their symptoms are exacerbated at night. If this is the case for you, your sleep position may be to blame. [5]

Back Sleepers: Prop your upper body up at least 6-8 inches. You can achieve this through the use of a wedge pillow, or by raising the head of your bed with blocks.​

Side Sleepers: Avoid sleeping on your right side, as this has been shown to induce relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter -- the tight ring of muscles which is intended to keep the acid in your stomach.

Whereas, sleeping on your left side has widely been shown to be the best position for acid reflux.​

Front Sleepers: If heartburn is keeping you up at night, it’s strongly suggested that you try out an alternate sleeping position.

The pressure on the stomach in this position can force the acid up into the oesophagus.​

Best Sleeping Position for Pregnancy

sleep position for pregnancy

There’s no doubt that pregnancy makes getting comfortable in bed difficult, but there are additional medical reasons you’ll want to avoid certain sleeping positions during this time. [6]

Back Sleepers: As your pregnancy progresses, the weight of your abdomen can cause issues with breathing and blood circulation when lying flat on your back. You may also experience back ache.

Try raising the head of your bed, or sleeping in a reclined position propped up by pillows.​

Side Sleepers: Many pregnant women find sleeping on their left side with their legs and knees bent to be the most comfortable position. A pillow between your knees or under your abdomen can help support your body.

It is not recommended for pregnant women to sleep on their right side as this can decrease the flow of blood and nutrients to the uterus.​

Front Sleepers: Sleeping on your front is not only very uncomfortable for mom, but puts a lot of pressure on baby. It’s therefore best to avoid this position altogether.​

Best Sleeping Position for Snoring & Sleep Apnea​

snoring

While snoring and sleep apnea are not necessarily related conditions, the mechanism causing them is similar, and therefore they can be helped by following similar guidelines for sleeping position. [6]

Back Sleepers: Sleep apnea is exacerbated by lying on your back, as the effect of gravity can lead to a decrease in the size of the airway and increase the risk of obstruction. Therefore, it’s recommended that you switch sleeping positions.

Side Sleepers: Sleeping on your keeps the airway open and is effective in reducing sleep apnea symptoms.

Front Sleepers: Sleeping on your front can help reduce snoring, and in some cases ease sleep apnea.​

Best Sleeping Position for Asthma

woman using inhaler for asthma

Many people with asthma experience sleep disturbance due to frequent night time coughing, wheezing and breathlessness.

  • Studies have shown that sleeping on your back can help relieve asthma symptoms. [7]
  • If you’re still having difficulty, try propping up your upper body similarly to that which is recommended for acid reflux.​

Best Sleeping Position for Shoulder & Neck Pain

woman with neck pain

If you suffer from shoulder and neck pain it’s important to keep the neck properly supported and aligned while you sleep. [8]

  • Neck and shoulder pain is best relieved by sleeping on your back, with a pillow supporting the natural curve of the base of the head and filling the space below the neck.
  • You may opt to sleep on your side, but then it becomes even more important to have the right pillow in order to keep everything aligned.​

Best Sleeping Position for Low Back Pain

woman with back pain on bed

When it comes to low back pain pillows are your best friends:

  • When lying on your back use a pillow under your knees to relieve pressure in the lower spine.
  • When sleeping on your side, tuck a pillow between your knees to keep the hips stacked above one another. This prevents twisting of the lower spine.
  • Generally speaking, it is not recommended to sleep on your stomach with low back pain, as this can exacerbate the lumbar curve. However, certain conditions -- such as herniated disc and degenerative disc disease -- may be alleviated by this position. [9]

Choosing The Right Pillow For Your Sleep Position

No matter what position you choose to sleep in, it’s important that you use a pillow and a good mattress that compliments it.

The right pillow will fill the gaps around your shoulders and neck and keep your head properly supported and aligned with your spine all through the night.​

Sleep Position

Pillow Type

Reason

Back

Fluffy

Conforms to curves of head, supporting while not propping up too much to preserve the natural line of the neck.

Side

Thick

Fills the space between the shoulders and head, providing firm yet giving support.

Front

Thin/None

Avoid causing stress on neck and shoulders by propping head up to any significant degree.

Whether you choose to try out a completely new sleep position, or opt to ameliorate your current one by following these guidelines is entirely up to you.

Even subtle changes -- such as untucking your legs while sleeping on your side -- can have a significant effect on your sleep: One your body will thank you for.​

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