The Best and Worst Sleeping Positions

Featured Article, Mental Health & Sleep Center, Sleep
on January 20, 2015

Are you a side sleeper? An on-your-back snoozer? A belly-flop recliner? It may matter: How you position yourself in sleep can affect pain, breathing, and even mood, according to research at the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service in London.

Researchers looked at six common sleeping positions and found that positions were linked not only to personality but to mental and physical qualities. Below are common positions, the way they may affect your well-being, and suggestions for sleeping in healthier form.

FETAL POSITION: 41 percent of those in the Sleep Assessment study slept like curled-up babes—and twice as many women as men.

Effect. Actually, this is a terrific position, likely to minimize back and hip pain, snoring, and breathing issues, says Terry Cralle, a spokesperson for the Better Sleep Council in Alexandria, Virginia, and an independent consultant for sleep education: “But it may be bad if you have shoulder pain.”

Solution.Put a plush-top on your bed to soften your shoulder’s resting spot, says Cralle.To lessen pressure on your back and hip, put a pillow between your knees.

LOG POSITION: About 15 percent of people sleep on their sides but with their arms and legs straight.

Effect: You probably won’t sleep as comfortably as you might with your knees bent, which could lead to grumpiness the next day.

Solution: Putting a pillow between your knees may add some bend in your legs.

YEARNER: 13 percent of people lie on their side with their arms perpendicular to their body and their legs straight.

Effect. Like the other side positions, this one will help you breathe better and is a good position for your spine. But straight legs won’t chase away back and hip pain as well as bent ones.

Solution. Prop a pillow behind bent legs to encourage them to stay that way.

SOLDIER. Eight percent of people lie on their backs, arms by their sides.

Effect. “Lying flat on your back can worsen sleep apnea,” says Cralle. Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous condition that causes interrupted breathing during sleep, which can raise blood pressure and risk of heart disease. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep apnea affects more than 18 million Americans.

Solution. Sleep on your side, placing a tennis ball or two in a sock and pinning it to the back of your pajamas: no one wants to flip over on that, says Cralle. Or consider hugging a body pillow. You can also find online sleep belts—a belt with a back hump—that will keep you, if not fashionable, then at least on your side.

A new device, the sleep position trainer, may be available through your physician. The device is a sensor that gently vibrates when you shift onto your back, training you over time not to. According to a 2014 study at the Sint Lucas Andreas Hospital in Amsterdam, 106 patients with mild or moderate sleep apnea wore the device strapped to their chests for 6 months. It cut the time patients slept on their back and improved sleep quality.

STARFISH: Five percent percent of people sleep on their backs with their arms over their heads.

Effect. You’re more likely to snore and sleep badly in this position—and it too aggravates sleep apnea.

Solution. All the solutions for the “solider” position apply here as well.

FREEFALL: About seven percent of sleepers lie on their stomachs with their heads turned to the side, their arms under or around their pillows.

Effect. “You can get neck pain, if you’re a stomach sleeper,” says Cralle. And the position can strain your lower back because it flattens the spine’s natural curve.

Solution. Buy a flat or very soft pillow—or skip the pillow completely. If you want to break the habit, start out lying on your side, hugging a big pillow that will make it tough to belly flop.