Finding your sleep position
When it comes to the position we sleep in, most of us hardly think it’s relevant, especially if we suffer from sleep issues – most of us are just grateful to fall asleep and stay asleep all night regardless of what position we’re in! However, while it might not be as important as how much sleep you actually get, the position you sleep in does matter.
If you fall asleep in an awkward position it can negatively impact a variety of functions, from your posture, to your joints to your digestive system – it can even make wrinkles worse! That’s why I recommend looking at the guidelines below, especially if you suffer from neck pain or a bad back as these issues can often be exacerbated by sleeping in the wrong position.
Changing your sleep position can be tricky though as most of us become used to sleeping in a certain position in childhood. Therefore, most experts suggest that at first you make small adjustments if you want to change the way you sleep. If, for example, you normally sleep on your stomach, change to your side first rather than trying to sleep on your back straight away as otherwise the likelihood is you will just end up not being able to fall asleep at all.
Sleeping positions – the pros and cons
Sleeping on your back
Pros - Good for your spine
According to sleep.org only 8% of us are sleeping on our back which is a real shame.1 Doctors generally agree that sleeping on your back is the best position for your neck, back, hips and even stomach as this keeps the spine in a neutral position and also allows the stomach to lie in its correct under the ribcage, which can ease stomach pain and heartburn.
It is important, though, that your pillow is under your head, not your shoulders, and is not forcing the neck into unnatural shapes by keeping the head too high or too low. Placing a pillow under the knees will improve the alignment of the spine further, so this is a good idea if you suffer from back pain.
Cons – Bad for snorers
While sleeping like this the tongue falls to the back of the throat which can constrict breathing. For this reason, those with sleep apnoea should avoid sleeping on their back, and those with other respiratory problems may find it easier to lie on their side. Due to the position of the tongue, sleeping on your back also greatly encourages snoring, so if you snore and have a partner, you may have to consider sleeping in a different position!
Sleeping on your right side
Pros – Good for your back and neck
Sleeping on your side is the most popular position - at least 40% of people sleep like this. However, did you know that the side you choose to sleep on makes a real difference? Sleeping on your right side may help to keep your back and neck in neutral positions – as long as you avoid curling excessively, with the knees bent too near to the chest, as this can hyper-extend the spine. It is important to make sure that your pillow allows the neck to be at its correct angle, with the head neither too high nor too low.
Cons – May worsen acid reflux
Sleeping on your right side can worsen heartburn and acid reflux, which is why pregnant women are often advised to sleep on their left side. Also, sleeping on your side can generally lead to more wrinkles. The squashing of your face into a pillow can make the face puffy or lined on waking and may cause wrinkles. If you are worried about this, then try a silk pillowcase instead.
Sleeping on your left side
Pros – Good for your heart and digestive system
Sleeping on your left side is generally considered to be healthier than your right side for a number of reasons. Firstly, if you’re sleeping on your left side it can help to increase the circulation to your heart, a definite bonus if you are pregnant. It’s also thought that sleeping on your left side can help to promote better digestion, encouraging food to move from the large intestine to the colon without placing too much pressure on some of your digestive organs.
Cons – Places pressure on your lungs and shoulders
As good as sleeping on your left side can be, most experts do recommend switching things up from time to time. That’s because constantly sleeping on one side in particular can lead to postural anomalies and, in particular, shoulder problems.
Sleeping in the fetal position
Pros – Helps you to relax
Sleeping in the fetal position can be incredibly comforting and encourages you to relax, allowing your spine to curve into its natural alignment. Similarly to other side facing positions, it’s also thought to be good for supporting healthy circulation.
Cons – Bad for your diaphragm
If you sleep curled up with your knees to your stomach it can restrict your lungs and diaphragm, possibly affecting your breathing during the night. Also, unfortunately this isn’t a good position for your spine either and can worsen joint pain so, to minimise any discomfort with this position, try to keep things looser. Don’t curl up so tightly and consider putting a pillow between the knees to keep the hips properly aligned.
Sleeping on your stomach
Cons: Worst sleep position for everything!
There’s bad news for people who sleep like this – this is the worst position you can sleep in! Most people suggest it is to be avoided at all costs, as it puts pressure on the lower back and forces the neck into an unnatural position. This could lead to many problems, including not only back pain and neck pain, but also headaches and referred pain in the arms too.
Sleeping like this also does not give your internal organs much space, and so puts pressure on them at night when they are trying to recuperate from the day. For this reason, it is likely to make conditions like IBS and acid reflux much worse so try to slowly get used to other positions if you like to sleep like this.
In general, you will sleep better if you are in a position which allows the body to rest as it was designed to. The body should be in alignment without constricting any limbs or twisting into positions that are unnatural.
Tweaking how you sleep could have a huge knock on effect on your quality of sleep and on any aches and pains you have, so it is wise to take a bit of time to consider what position you sleep in, and how to make it as comfortable and beneficial for yourself as possible.
Originally published 9 July 2015 (Updated 5th September 2021)
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