Wellness·6 min read

Side, Front, or Back? Why Your Sleep Position Matters

Woman sleeps on her side
Credit: Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Nov 7, 2022

One big reason you might not be feeling 100 today: you slept funny. But it’s not a laughing matter. Because you need deep, restful sleep to function — and maintain your physical and mental health. If you often wake up sore and groggy, then you you’re probably wondering, ‘Which position *should* I sleep in? And why is that better?’

Although everyone’s bodies, needs, and ailments are different, some of the research out there on sleep positions could help inform your form under the covers tonight. So we asked sleep experts Dr. Erich Voigt and Nicole Avena to help us Skimm what you need to know about sleeping on your side, back, and front.

Experts Interviewed

Dr. Erich Voigt

Dr. Erich Voigt, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology and division director of general/sleep otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health

Nicole Avena

Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Does my sleep position actually matter?

Short answer: Yes. If you’re not in a comfortable spot — think: it’s hard to breathe, your arms don’t have a wide range of motion — that will impact your sleep quality, Avena said. Either because the discomfort will eventually wake you up. Or because your breathing issues (see: snoring) will take you out of a deep, restful kind of sleep, Dr. Voigt said.

How do I know the best position to sleep in for my body’s needs?

There’s not one best sleep position for every person. So if you're tired and sore in the morning, then that could be a sign to “experiment a little bit” with new positions, Dr. Voigt said. That’ll help you find the right fit. But there are several things to consider when choosing the ideal way to lay: 

Sleeping on your side…

That’s how most people catch their Zzz’s. Something else that sleep research shows: snoozing on your left side may be your best option. Particularly for people who deal with gut concerns like acid reflux, Dr. Voigt said. Because your internal anatomy is laid out in a way that might make it harder for stomach acid to go up your esophagus.

  • The good: Along with reflux, side sleeping can also reduce snoring, because lying in that position makes your tongue less likely to block your airway. Also: This position is often advised for pregnancy, as back and front sleeping should typically be avoided in the third trimester.

  • The bad: It could increase your risk of shoulder pain. Because side sleeping pins your shoulder to the mattress. And if you have a tight jaw, the extra pressure might make it sore in the AM.

  • Pro tip: Try using a medium-firm mattress, and putting a pillow between your legs to keep your knees from knocking against each other. A firm mattress and pillow can help you keep your shoulders and neck aligned. And if you experience reflux (like many pregnant women do), consider using an “incline wedge pillow so the head is higher than the stomach,” Dr. Voigt said. That will make it harder for stomach acid to rise up your throat.

Sleeping on your back…

If you’ve been told that you snore, then this isn’t the best position for you. But there are some people who might benefit from it.

  • The good: Back sleep can protect the spine, relieve hip and knee pain, and help with congestion. Particularly if you use a wedge pillow, which can help drain the sinuses. (Something that might be helpful this flu season.)

  • The bad: It can lead to more episodes of sleep apnea and snoring. Because it might cause your tongue to fall back and block the throat, Dr. Voigt said. And it’s not recommended during pregnancy. Because by the second and third trimester, lying that way could compress the vessel that connects blood to the uterus — possibly making you dizzy and reducing blood flow to the fetus. 

  • Pro tip: If you’re staying on your back, use a medium-firm mattress. And try putting a pillow under your knees — it can help maintain the curve of your back.

Sleeping on your stomach…

It’s not the most popular. But like the other positions, it has its pros and cons.

  • The good: It might help with snoring and sleep apnea. Because “your head’s typically going to be turned to one side, and that’s actually a very good position to breathe because gravity is pulling your tongue forward,” Dr. Voigt said.

  • The bad: It can put strain on your neck, back, and legs throughout the night, said Avena. Which could be one reason you’re waking up feeling sore. And you’ll want to avoid it during pregnancy, because doing so can help maintain blood flow to your body and the fetus.

  • Pro tip: If you’re sleeping on your front, use a thin pillow under your head — or no head pillow at all. Instead, maybe use a pillow under your pelvis to reduce the strain on your lower back. A soft mattress could cause your spine to sag. So you’ll want a moderate mattress if stomach sleeping is your thing.

Is it too late in life to switch up my sleep position?

No. It’s worth a try if you’re waking with pain or breathing issues. Because a new position could be a game changer. For example: Dr. Voigt said that studies show some people who have sleep apnea when they sleep on their back have a much better quality of sleep when they move to their side.

Switching things up requires trial and error. Dr. Voigt recs testing out different positions. Possibly with a bunch of extra pillows “to kind of nuzzle [you] into a comfortable spot.” And he suggests keeping a sleep diary to record your sleep position and quality.  

What else should I keep in mind when it comes to sleep positioning?

In general, your pillow should provide enough support to keep your shoulders in line, but be soft enough to relax your neck, Avena said. And aside from position, a number of other factors can impact your sleep quality, both docs said. Including: stress levels, bedtime habits, and whether you ate or drank alcohol right before bed.

Experts Interviewed

theSkimm

Your position on the pillow(s) is one factor that goes into getting a restful sleep. So if you’re waking up sore and/or still tired after a lengthy snooze, then it could be time to consider switching things up.


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