How Your Sleeping Positions Impact Your Wellbeing

older woman sleeping in bed on her side

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Sleep is essential for our mental and physical wellbeing, so it's important for people to get adequate rest. One component of sleep that impacts wellbeing is the position we settle into when we climb into bed at night, whether we prefer to be on our back, side, and stomach. While each sleeping position has benefits and drawbacks, some positions may be better for you than others depending on your specific health concerns.

This article will start by explaining the factors that impact sleeping position. It will then delve into the positives and negatives of back, side, and stomach sleeping positions and wrap up with a brief summary of which position is best for you.

What Factors Impact Sleep Position?

You likely know the position you like to fall asleep in. However, research has shown several factors influence our preferred sleeping position. In particular, while adults tend to favor sleeping on their sides, as they get older, that preference becomes stronger. In addition, while everyone moves around during sleep, 20 to 34-year-olds move more than those over 35, and men tend to shift positions more than women.

The Positives and Negatives of Different Sleeping Positions

Many of us may not give much thought to our sleeping position well into our mid-20s or 30s, but as we get older, sleeping position can become increasingly important to our wellbeing.

Sleeping in one position over another can be the difference between struggles with issues like acid reflux, back and neck pain, or sleep apnea, a disorder in which an individual stops breathing during sleep. Here are the positives and negatives of each of the primary sleep positions.

On Your Back

Experts point to back sleeping as the best position for overall wellbeing because it keeps your weight evenly distributed across your whole body while you sleep. Despite this, it’s not particularly popular: only 18% of those asked in a Better Sleep Council survey referred to sleep on their backs.

Positives — People with neck pain and some kinds of back pain may find sleeping on their backs can offer relief as the position ensures the spine stays in alignment.

People with nasal congestion due to allergies or illness who prop up their upper bodies while sleeping on their backs may experience more relief than if they sleep in other positions. This is because back sleeping while partially upright can help drain their noses and keep their airways open.

Negatives — Back sleeping won’t benefit everyone equally though. People with some kinds of back pain may find this position can make things worse. To avoid this, you can prop your knees up with a pillow enabling the spine to assume its natural curvature. This takes pressure off of it and will potentially diminish the pain.

Sleeping flat on the back is considered the worst position for those who snore or have sleep apnea because it can cause the tongue to fall back in the throat, restricting the airway and increasing the severity of symptoms. In addition, people with acid reflux tend to experience an increase the frequency of episodes when they sleep on their backs.

On Your Side

According to the Better Sleep Council survey, two-thirds of respondents preferred to sleep on this sides. Fortunately there are a number of benefits to this position.

Positives — Side sleeping can open up your airways, which helps to ease snoring and other breathing problems, including sleep apnea. It’s also good for alleviating lower back pain. If you suffer from back or hip pain, putting a pillow between your legs in this position may be especially beneficial.

There’s also evidence to suggest that sleeping on your left side with your head elevated can help relieve acid reflux, although sleeping on the right side may make acid reflux worse. On the other hand, sleeping on the right side is ideal for those who have heart issues. While sleeping on the left can lead to shifts in the position of the heart, causing discomfort and other difficulties, sleeping on the right keeps the heart in the correct place in the body, lessening potential problems.

Side sleeping is also considered the ideal position for pregnant people as it relieves the pressure of the pregnancy on the body and enables better blood flow.

Negatives — Despite side sleeping’s many positives, there are also several downsides. Side sleeping can lead to shoulder pain, although you may be able to minimize this problem by choosing a pillow and mattress that ensures your hips and shoulders rest below your middle spine.

Plus, if you don’t shift positions during the night, the pressure created by staying on your side for too long can lead to a loss of blood circulation causing numbness in your arms, a problem that's uncomfortable and disrupts sleep.

On Your Stomach

Sleeping on your stomach is considered the worst position. Luckily, the Better Sleep Council survey found that it's the least popular sleeping position, with only 17% of respondents reporting it as their favorite.

Positives — Although stomach sleeping isn’t recommended for most people, it can be a good choice for those who want to curb snoring or alleviate mild cases of sleep apnea.

Negatives — Sleeping on your stomach is considered the worst position because it leads to the worst body posture. When you sleep on your stomach you have to turn your head to the side in order to breathe, which throws your spine out of alignment. This can lead to neck and lower back pain. Stomach sleeping also results in more tossing and turning to get comfortable, which can lower sleep quality.

In addition, because stomach sleepers press their faces into their pillows, which distorts and compresses their skin, they are more likely to develop facial wrinkles. Moreover, sleeping on your stomach can significantly elevate interocular pressure, a risk factor for glaucoma.

Parents should avoid putting their babies to sleep on their stomachs as studies have shown an association between an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and stomach sleeping.

Which Sleeping Position Is Best?

Ultimately, the best sleeping position for you is the one that enables you to get enough quality sleep and doesn’t worsen any health issues you have. If you're most comfortable when you sleep on your stomach and you're consistently well-rested and don’t have any other health problems, you should continue to sleep in that position.

On the other hand, if you sleep on your back and find that it makes episodes of acid reflux worse, disrupting your sleep and leaving you groggy during the day, you may want to try switching positions.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.