When it comes to sleeping posture, do you prefer a prone (stomach), supine (back), starfish (arms splayed), lateral (side) or fetal (knees bent) position? Whether you sleep on your back or your belly—or any of the countless variations in-between—you likely have a position you return to each evening.
While most of us don’t give it as much thought as, say, our mattress, a white noise machine, or the bedroom thermostat setting, our sleep position plays a significant role in our overall sleep quality. As we move through different life stages and experience things like sports injuries, chronic pain or pregnancy, adjusting our sleep position can make the difference between a night of sheep-counting and a solid eight-hour slumber.
No matter your stage in life, it’s worth considering a change-up in the sleep position you’ve grown accustomed to. But how do you determine the one best suited to your body’s needs? And how do you train yourself to effectively make the adjustment?
How Various Sleep Positions Affect Your Body
Most sleep-related pain, including aches in your neck, back, shoulders, head, or legs, can often be traced back to your spine's position. That’s why it’s important to keep it aligned in a comfortable position throughout the night.
Sleeping on your stomach, for example, can help curb snoring, but the benefits stop there. This sleep pose places a strain on your back and spinal column because a majority of your weight is located in the middle of your body. Stomach sleeping can also cause significant neck pain if you're turning your head one way or another in order to breathe.
In contrast, when you sleep on your side with your legs out straight, your spine is elongated, therefore diminishing the potential for back and neck aches. While this popular pose is another one that helps silence snoring, the beauty-minded among us should beware that side sleeping can, over time, lead to facial wrinkles.
According to a Better Sleep Council survey, 47% of adults sleep in the fetal position (on your side with your knees bent toward your torso). While it’s believed to improve circulation, especially during pregnancy, the fetal pose can also put pressure on your hips, so consider wedging a pillow between your knees.
Which Position Is the Best?
Labeling a sleeping position the “best" is a nearly impossible task. After all, connecting sleep posture to things like pains, snoring and frequency of nighttime waking is an imperfect—and certainly quite personalized—science.
That said, based on interesting associations and years of anecdotal (“I slept like a rock!”) findings, the National Sleep Foundation gives top billing to sleeping on your back. As the nonprofit notes in its ranking of healthiest sleep positions, “Sleeping on your back allows your head, neck, and spine to rest in a neutral position. This means that there’s no extra pressure on those areas, so you're less likely to experience pain.” (They caution, however, that this position can be dangerous for sleep apnea sufferers.)
Accolades and anecdotes aside, at the end of the day, the “best” sleep position is the one that’s best suited to you, your body and your sleep needs. If you experience pains throughout the night or routinely feel sore upon waking, talk to your doctor about testing out alternative sleep positions to see which one proves most comfortable.
How to Change Your Sleep Position
Adjusting to a new sleeping position can be challenging at first, but set your sights on the payoff: a decrease in aches and an increase in restorative sleep. Many of us who suffer from issues related to sleep posture have slept in the same position for years, making it a difficult habit to break. As with any behavioral overhaul, developing a new ritual requires practice and repetition. Whatever change in position you’re trying to make, you need to commit to falling asleep in that pose every night until it sticks.
When trying to alter your sleeping position, you may also need to change your bedtime accessories, especially pillows. Those attempting to sleep on their sides, for instance, should use a contour pillow that provides adequate head and neck support.
If you’re determined to start sleeping on your back, try using a softer pillow to support the back of your neck and eliminate stress on your spine. Another back-sleeping strategy involves placing pillows on each side of your body and beneath your knees to help keep you in one, fixed position.
And if that still doesn’t work? Sleep medicine expert Shelby Harris offered this more “advanced” approach to training in an interview with Popular Science: “Sew a tennis ball into the lining of your shirt on whatever side you need to avoid. When you flop onto your side or stomach, the discomfort will ensure you flip back over, even if you’re dead asleep.”
No matter the strategy you employ, don’t let the costs outweigh the benefits. As Harris aptly notes, "Sleep quality is extremely important in your overall health, memory, mood and energy. When trying to sleep differently starts disrupting your circadian rhythms, then you know it's not worth it.”
In other words, whether you’re a reformed starfish or a wannabe supine sleeper, here’s to testing new poses but also knowing when it’s time to, well, call it a night.