The Science Behind Sleep Positions and How They Can Help You Get a Better Night's Sleep

It’s a pain when you’re trying to fall asleep and just can’t get comfortable. The position in which you’re trying to fall asleep can have a bigger impact on how long it takes you to fall asleep than you realize. In addition, certain sleep positions can actually exacerbate health issues while sleeping.

If you suffer from snoring, sleep apnea, acid reflux, back and/or neck pain, or are overweight or pregnant, it’s especially important to consider how your sleep position is affecting you.

Back Sleeping

male sleeping on his back

Sleeping on your back is the ideal position for most healthy adults. It promotes good spinal alignment and can reduce pressure between spinal discs.

Cosmetically speaking, it’s also the best sleeping position to fight wrinkles and acne because it keeps your face away from other objects. Many sleeping positions press your face into a pillow or mattress for hours at a time, which can exacerbate wrinkles over time. Your sheets and pillows also contain a buildup of oils from your hair and face, which can lead to acne if they are not washed frequently enough.

There are two main variations when sleeping on your back: plank and starfish position. The plank position keeps your body mostly straight, with your arms placed next to your body and your legs extended along the length of your bed. Starfish position refers to any variation where your arms and legs are splayed out away from your body.

You should aim to keep your spine in a neutral position, but this isn’t always possible depending on your mattress or body type. If you experience lower back pain, you can help reduce pressure in this area by placing a pillow underneath your knees. Using a neck pillow can also provide vital support at the top of your spine and aid in your comfort.

Medium to firm mattresses are best for providing support for back sleepers. Foam and latex mattresses can contour to your body’s natural shape without indenting too much.

You should avoid sleeping on your back if you are pregnant, have sleep apnea, are prone to snoring, have acid reflux, or are overweight, as back sleeping can lead to complications. If you have existing neck or back issues, speak with your doctor to decide if sleeping on your back will alleviate or worsen your pain.

Side Sleeping

Most adults sleep on their side. As we get older and different health concerns emerge, side sleeping can be beneficial for many people. Pregnant women should sleep on their side both for their own health and their babies’ health. Side sleeping can also alleviate breathing issues associated with sleep apnea and snoring. If you have acid reflux, it’s important to avoid sleeping on your right side as this can worsen heartburn and other symptoms of GERD.

Sleeping on your side can lead to arm numbness and issues with your shoulder, depending on how you sleep. It can also put pressure on your stomach and lungs. If you’re a side sleeper, it’s best to switch up your positions to avoid causing long-term damage.

Many people who side sleep end up in the fetal position, which is when they curl their legs and arms close to the core of their bodies. While this can reduce stress on the hips and spine, it can also constrict the diaphragm and restrict breathing.

There’s also the half fetal position, where only one leg (usually the one on top) is brought close to the chest. There are similar issues with this position as the full fetal, including an increased likelihood of contorting your spine and hip alignment.

pregnant female sleeping on her side

You can use a pillow to help find the perfect position and provide support while sleeping on your side. Placing a pillow between your legs, specifically around the knee area, can help to align your back and knees, helping reduce pressure and avoid aches and pains.

Some people also enjoy using a full body pillow. This sleep accessory can provide support for your shoulders and prevent them from compressing into your core, opening your chest for better respiration.

Whether you should opt for a firm or softer mattress depends on your body type. If you have wide hips, a softer mattress can help contour to your shape, while narrower hips can benefit from a firmer surface. You should research mattresses with memory foam that can alleviate pressure points created in the side position.

Stomach Sleeping

While sleeping on your stomach can ease snoring, that’s really the only benefit to be had when sleeping in this position.

Stomach sleeping flattens the natural curve of your back, which can create long-term health issues. It also throws your neck out of alignment because most people twist their heads to the side to breathe properly.

If you are determined to sleep in this position, placing a pillow under your hips can help maintain the natural curve of your spine.

People who sleep in this position either sleep with their hands and legs going down the length of the bed or spread out with their arms or hands by their faces and legs extended out to either side. They also sometimes sleep half on their stomachs, half on their sides, which can also contort the spine.

When deciding on a mattress, stomach sleepers should look for medium to firm support to avoid sinking into the mattress. Responsive foam is a good material to accomplish this.

Training Your Body to Sleep Better 

After reading this article, you may want to switch up the way you’re sleeping to promote better health. It can be hard to make the change, though, especially if you’ve slept in other positions for a long time. However, training yourself to sleep in a position that better aligns your neck and spine can promote overall well-being and quality sleep.

If you want to switch the way you’re sleeping, it’s important that you invest in the right support. This will require a bit of research into mattress types and styles, but there are plenty of informative mattress-buying guides available online.

You should also invest in good pillows that support your form. Pay attention to where your sleep position is creating pressure and figure out where you need support from pillows. The goal is to keep your spine straight while supporting its natural curves and keeping your hips squared forward (as opposed to rotated).

It may take some time to become accustomed to a new sleeping position but you can work on it every night by ensuring that your body is comfortable in the new arrangement. You can always make adjustments, like adding or removing pillows, as you go.

How to Promote a Better Night’s Sleep

Once you’re in the right position, on the right mattress, with the right pillows, it’s time to turn your attention to creating the right atmosphere. Lower the thermostat in your home to help your body reach the ideal temperature for sleeping (between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit).

Try meditation or other stress-reducing practices to quiet your mind and get it ready for sleep. This can include talking with friends or family or simply listening to music or podcasts that you find calming.

Also, avoid devices that emit blue light at least two hours before bed. This includes televisions, smartphones, tablets, and computers. Blue light can signal to your brain that it’s time to be awake, so don’t send your body the wrong signals close to bedtime.

You can also try natural sleep aids, such as chamomile tea, melatonin supplements, or white noise to decrease distractions. It’s important to speak with your doctor if you believe your sleep issues are being caused by medical issues.

Finding the right sleeping position is a major step toward getting a better night’s sleep and feeling refreshed in the morning. Try different positions and see what works best for you. Dedicating time to this pursuit is a simple way to create a huge impact on your daily life.