You probably have one or two preferred sleep positions you use to get comfortable and maximize your chances of getting a restful night’s sleep. Obviously, that’s normal. Even animals do it. Unfortunately, for humans (of course) there has to be all this depressing scientific research on the sleep positions people tend to have and all sorts of unwanted effects they can cause on the neck, back, skin, limbs, or other body parts that get in the way.
I’m a stomach sleeper. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this is pretty much the absolute worst position to put your body through when it comes time to catch some Zs. However, in my personal situation, it’s actually super comfortable. I feel awesome, and I usually can’t seem to fall asleep quite the same when I’m on my back or on my side.
It’s said that sleeping on your stomach can screw up your neck (because it’s turned to the side all night) and can also cause back pain due to contorting the natural C curve of your spine. Women who are stomach sleepers also have to deal with their lungs and breasts and uterus getting smooshed, so that’s no fun at all. With that said, I should be a crippled mess of a person right now because of the way that I sleep every night, yet somehow, I’m not.
Spoiler alert: There is no ideal “one size fits all” position for sleep.
Obviously, we’ve all got arms, legs, a torso, a neck, and all that other stuff that comes with being physically human; however, we don’t all suffer from the same aches and pains or airway problems that can rob us of proper sleep and make us feel super groggy during the day. Therefore, it would be silly for someone to recommend that every single person should sleep in one preferred position for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Steven Park says that you really shouldn’t have to change your preferred sleep position unless you’re experiencing pain or any other health problems because of it.
If you absolutely need to sleep on your back, surrounded by 57 pillows, with calming frog sounds playing in the background, while one leg is bent and the other leg is propped up on the other — and you feel GREAT in the morning — then why stop doing something that’s working so well for you?
Trying out different positions when you sleep is effective for relieving pain or finding a way to get a better quality of sleep, but if you don’t suffer from any muscle or joint pain during the day, and you’re happy with the way that you sleep, then there’s probably no need to change anything. Congratulations! You found your perfect position! Besides, it should feel natural.
So, what should you do if you’re a stomach sleeper like I am, knowing that’s still basically the worst position to sleep in? Well, it makes me feel good, so I’m sticking with it. However, if you experience neck pain, back pain, aching muscles, snoring, pins and needles, sleep deprivation, or anything else that may be unpleasantly related to how you sleep, then it may be time to try something new.
The general consensus is that sleeping on your back or on your side is best because you’re less likely to suffer from neck and back pain.
The National Sleep Foundation says that sleeping on your back keeps your spine pretty neutral, and sleeping on your side elongates it. The fact that your spine isn’t curved in any unnatural way makes these two preferred positions the real winners.
If you’re a back or side sleeper, then good for you! You’re doing it right… although there’s always room for a little improvement.
If you sleep on your side, go for a thick pillow that fills up all that space between your shoulder and head — and try placing a pillow between your knees as well.
You need a nice thick and puffy pillow to make sure your head and neck are supported in a neutral position while lying on your side. Placing a pillow between the knees keeps the pelvis straight, preventing your legs from falling to either side and causing any awkward twists in the body.
Try a body pillow if you’re a side sleeper. They’re great if you need to hug something for better upper body stability, and they’re long enough that you can wrap your legs around them too.
The one thing you actually need to avoid as a side sleeper is the fetal position. Bringing your knees and legs way up toward your chest forces a bigger curve in your spine, which can spell out pain for your poor back and neck by morning.
If you sleep on your back, go for a puffy pillow that’s not too thick so it doesn’t prop your head up too much — and place another pillow under your knees and calves.
While sleeping on your back, your head will need to be supported by a proper pillow that prevents it from falling too far side to side, but not so much that it lifts your head way up so that your neck is out of line with rest of your body.
It’s also a good idea to try placing a pillow directly underneath the knees so that it kind of props up the natural curves in your legs, creating support for them and keeping your spine in a flatter neutral position. Placing your arms over your head can force a bigger curve in your back, so try to keep them down by your side.
If you sleep on your stomach, go for an extra thin pillow and avoid using one that’s too thick or puffy.
In fact, if you sleep on your stomach, it might be best to use no pillow at all.
When sleeping on your stomach, the natural curve in your back is flattened out, and your neck is twisted to the side, so propping your head up with a massive pillow is going to just make things worse.
You can also reduce any lower back pain you might have by placing a pillow underneath your hips or abdomen while sleeping on your stomach.
Do what feels comfortable and natural.
There is no perfect position.
I repeat: there is NO perfect position for sleep.
Back pain sufferers should try sleeping on their sides, snorers should try sleeping on their stomachs, and people with stiff necks should try sleeping on their backs. Experiment a little, maybe track your sleep progress as you go, and settle with what feels right.