Picture it: It’s been a long day and you finally settle under the covers to drift off to sleep. Are you on your side, like 74% of sleepers? Or are you a stomach or back sleeper? Somewhere in between? More importantly – is it working for you? Your sleeping position can have a huge impact on the quality of your sleep, but in short, the best sleeping position is whichever one helps get you to sleep and stay asleep.
Different people will find comfort in different sleep positions, so there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for the best sleeping position. It really depends on your medical needs and personal preferences. If you aren’t sleeping well and wake up with pain, know that with a little intention and practice you can change your sleep position. It can take some time, but finding the right sleep position may help you to sleep more soundly and avoid issues in your waking hours.
We’ve got you covered with expert’s recommendations for the best sleep positions — both in general and according to individual needs like neck and back pain, sciatica, and sleep apnea.
What Is the Best Sleep Position Overall?
Time for the truth: There is no defined winner in the battle for best sleep position. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic gives top marks to any position that keeps your body in healthy alignment and that doesn’t lead to soreness, numbness, or other pain. For many people, this means switching up your position throughout the night to avoid stiffness — a move your body will do naturally. However some people may require pillows and bolsters to support the spine, neck, and hips for initial comfort.
The best sleep position to try and doze off in, though? Sleeping on your back.
In this position, a person will lie flat on their back with legs extended out in a neutral position and arms either lying flat alongside the body or bent at the elbow with hands across the torso. Sleeping on your back can distribute weight evenly across the body.
If sleeping on your back is uncomfortable, try:
- putting a pillow under your knees for further spine alignment and support
- placing a small pillow under your lower back
- or if you’ve got an adjustable-base bed, set it for the zero-gravity setting, slightly elevating your head and feet, to alleviate pressure.
Note: While it may help many people sleep more soundly, sleeping on your back is associated with sleep apnea or snoring issues, especially for children. However, if you have that adjustable base bed or a wedge pillow — both of which help elevate your head slightly — research shows that you may be able to still sleep on your back and minimize snoring.
Try Side or Stomach Sleeping for Sleep Apnea and Snoring
Nearly 12% of adults have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that can cause lapses in your breathing in the night due to obstructed airways. If you don’t have an adjustable base or a pillow that helps elevate your head, then the best sleeping position for sleep apnea and snoring is on your side or stomach.
Experts recommend sleeping on your side or your stomach because it helps keep airways open. Sleeping on your back may cause your tongue and the back of your mouth to rest against the back of your throat and block your airways.
However, there’s a tradeoff with stomach sleeping. According to the Mayo Clinic, stomach sleeping is also linked to back pain. That's because sleeping on your stomach doesn’t support the natural curve of your spine. Constantly twisting your neck, especially if you face in one direction, may cause neck pain in the long run as well.
To reduce the risk of back or neck pain, try placing a pillow under your lower belly and sleeping with a thin head pillow or no pillow at all for your head.
If you feel sleepy during the day for unknown reasons, it’s worth talking with your doctor to determine whether or not sleep apnea could be to blame.
Best Sleep Position and Tips for Back Pain
Adopting a poor sleeping position can make back pain go from bad to worse, especially when it puts unnecessary pressure on your back, neck, and hips. For the best sleep position for back pain, sleep on your back, as this is the most natural position for maintaining the natural curve of the spine while keeping your head, shoulders, and hips in alignment.
There are many variation of sleeping on your back you can try to get comfortable in, including additional support:
- Under your knees, with a small pillow
- Under your neck, with a small, rolled up towel
- Under your lower back, with a small pillow
If these tips don’t reduce pressure on your spine, try sleeping on your side. To alleviate the pressure even more, the Mayo Clinic suggests adding a pillow between your legs and drawing the legs up slightly toward your chest. However, this may cause pressure points in your shoulder, hips, and knees. If you notice increased pressure in these areas, you may want to consider replacing your mattress for better support.
Best Sleep Positions for Neck Pain
Waking up with neck pain is often a good sign that you might need to replace your pillow. When it comes to the best sleep position for neck pain, research shows that the height of the pillow is an effective way to manage neck pain. However you don’t want a pillow that’s too high or stiff because it’ll limit your neck’s natural movement throughout the neck and cause stiffness.
For these reasons, as a back sleeper, you’ll want to choose a feather or memory foam pillow that can mold to the shape of your neck and head. As a side sleeper, use a molded pillow that is higher under your neck than your head.
If your sleep doesn’t improve after you make these changes, talk to a doctor about any other underlying causes that may be disrupting your sleep. Research shows that neck pain is less likely to improve if you aren’t sleeping well.
Best Sleep Positions for Sciatica
Sciatica — the nerve pain that extends from your lower back down your leg — can be challenging to navigate when you are trying to get a good night’s rest. To manage sciatica while sleeping, it comes down to the cause of your condition and where you are feeling the pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Here are comfort tips for every sleep position:
- If sleeping on your back (such as to find relief from a bulged disc), aim to support your lower back in the same way you would if suffering from back pain.
- If sleeping on your side (which may be good for spinal stenosis, for example), use a pillow between the knees to keep your hips stacked.
- The fetal position might also be a good choice as it provides pressure relief by opening the space between your vertebrae.
Other tips that have helped sleepers with sciatica find relief include:
- adding a small pillow under your waist
- putting a small pillow between the knees to reduce spinal and pelvic pressure
- lying on your back with a pillow or towel under the lower back or knees
- sleeping on the side that’s not injured or sensitive
- sleeping on the floor for a firmer surface
Since there is no single correct way to manage numbness and tingling from sciatica, you should visit your doctor or physical therapist for curated sleeping tips.
Can You Change Your Sleep Position?
If you’ve spent years sleeping in the same position, you might have difficulty breaking the habit. But changing your sleep position is possible. The key is to consciously repeat the new behavior over and over until it sticks. Pillows can be a helpful tool in making the commitment.
- Want to sleep on your side? Use a contour pillow for much-needed head and neck support.
- Need more side-sleep support? Attach a tennis ball or hard foam to your pajamas where your shoulder blades are. Research shows this is effective for maintaining the side sleeping position to reduce sleep apnea.
- Training yourself to sleep on your back? Choosing a softer pillow to help eliminate the stress on your spine. Placing pillows on each side of your body and beneath your knees may also help keep your body rooted in that position. Don’t underestimate the value of a supportive mattress, either, for keeping your spine in alignment.
Don’t Forget that Other Sleep Habits Matter Too
Your sleep position is just one part of the complex equation to a restorative night’s slumber. Your sleep and wake times, what you consume before bed (we’re talking food, medication, and media here), and anything that’s keeping your mind active — even as your body winds down to rest — all factor into your body’s ability to sleep efficiently.
Aches and pains can certainly signal that it’s time to change up your sleeping position, but they can also be the symptom of an underlying condition. Partnering with your doctor can help put any concerns to bed.
Overall, finding the right position for you will require some trial and error. It may involve choosing a new mattress or throwing out your pillows or going through a few nights of practice before your new sleep position becomes a habit.
But don’t be discouraged or let your sleep position be the reason you’re not falling asleep. With all the other factors that might disrupt or cause poor sleep, not being able to change your sleep position is not worth losing sleep over.
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