What is the Best Sleeping Position?

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Mattress Nerd consulted Julia LeBlanc, PT/DPT, to ensure that this article met our editorial standards

There are many factors that contribute to a good sleep experience, but one of the primary contributors to a good night’s rest is the right sleep position. There are several different positions: you’re either a stomach sleeper, back sleeper, or side sleeper (right side or left side), or you may be a combination sleeper who switches things up throughout the night. 

While you may find your default sleeping position to be comfortable, it’s important to realize not all of these positions are the same in terms of sleep quality. In fact, sleeping in one manner can be much healthier than another. In this article, we take a look at each individual sleeping position and analyze the various benefits and drawbacks of each one. We also offer helpful tips to ensure that you’re sleeping the “right way” in order to get a better sleep.

Stomach Sleeping

Sleeping on your stomach is actually one of the worst sleep positions you can choose in terms of health and wellness. When you sleep facing down, you can encounter a variety of issues. Since your face is pressed up against the pillow, it can lead to wrinkles and other skin irritations. You may also experience neck pain and lower back pain due to your spine not being properly aligned (when you sleep on your stomach, your hips tend to sink into the mattress). Finally, sleeping on your stomach can put extra unnecessary pressure on your muscles and joints, leading to you waking up with soreness the next morning.

Although stomach sleeping has the one desirable benefit of keeping your airway open so you don’t snore or suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, the drawbacks greatly outweigh the positives. If possible, you’ll want to try to change up your position to either your back or one of your sides.

The Best Way to Sleep on Your Stomach

If you’re set on sleeping on your stomach and you find yourself unable to conform to a new position, there are steps you can take to make your sleep experience much better for you. First, you need to have a quality mattress. A mattress that has a firmer surface will prevent your hips from sinking in, thus helping with spinal alignment. Look for mattresses made of either box springs or dense memory foam (or a hybrid of both) to help you with your stomach sleeping experience.

If you have a mattress that rates lower on the firmness scale and you don’t feel like changing it, then there is another strategy you can try. Place a pillow underneath your hips as you sleep. This will keep your hips and pelvis elevated at night so that you don’t have to deal with back pain in the morning.

Finally, a method you can try to improve your stomach sleeping experience involves just a little extra work in the morning and at night. Make sure you stretch properly every night before you go to bed, and then follow up with more stretches when you wake up. With all the pressure that’s put on your joints throughout the night, you’ll want to give them proper attention to keep them nice and limber. We have a whole article on how to properly sleep on your stomach if you’re still interested.

Related: Best Mattresses for Stomach Sleepers

Side Sleeping

Sleeping on your side can be extremely beneficial for a multitude of reasons. When sleeping this way, you’re allowing the mattress to help with the natural curve of your body, which is great for spinal health. Sleeping on your side can also prevent snoring and possibly even sleep apnea, as it helps keep your tongue from falling backwards and obstructing your airway. 

Based on the theory that sleeping on your side can keep gastric and stomach juices lower in your esophagus, side sleeping can assist with preventing acid reflux. Side sleeping can also help with your brain filtering out interstitial waste, brain gunk that is responsible for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Finally, pregnant women will be happy to know that sleeping on your side is one of the preferred positions for optimizing maternal and fetal health as it helps with blood flow.

While side sleeping is one of the best sleep positions, you need to consider the negatives as well. Similar to stomach sleeping, resting the side of your head on the pillow can lead to wrinkles and possible skin irritation. You can also experience some shoulder and hip pain if you don’t have the right mattress.

Related: Best Mattress for Side Sleepers

The Best Way to Sleep on Your Side

If you don’t already sleep on your side, then we recommend you start as soon as possible with these helpful tips. First, pick a soft mattress made of memory foam or other lighter materials so that you won’t come up against hip or shoulder pain while you rest. A spring mattress that rates higher on the firmness scale could give you some annoying aches.

Another trick is to put a pillow between your knees as you sleep. This helps keep your hips elevated for spinal alignment and reduces pressure on the knees. Make sure you use a pillow that isn’t too flat or too fluffy for this.

Finally, if you need to pick a side to sleep on, we recommend the left side. Due to how our organs are arranged inside our bodies, left side-sleeping is much more beneficial than right side-sleeping. In fact, sleeping on your left side assists your small intestines in pushing waste to the large intestines, helping to alleviate medical conditions related to digestion. Check out our article on the best side for sleep for more info.

Back Sleeping

Back sleeping is often considered the best sleeping position for good health. By sleeping on your back, you can reduce the chances of acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), keep your spine better aligned, reduce wrinkles and signs of aging on your face, and minimize the chances of neck pain. But, because nothing is perfect, there is a negative side. Back sleepers tend to snore because their airway is restricted, and if you don’t have the right mattress, you can deal with some significant lower back pain. Head over to our article on how to train yourself to sleep on your back or watch our video below if you’re interested in converting.

Related: Best Mattresses for Back Sleepers

The Best Way to Sleep on Your Back

When picking a mattress for back sleepers, you’ll want one that is not too soft but not too firm. Your hips, buttocks, and shoulders can sink into the mattress, so you’ll need something that’s around medium-firmness (usually memory foam mattresses) to keep your body and spine aligned. You can also place a pillow underneath your knees to further promote spinal alignment and to reduce the chances of back pain in the morning.

The Best Pillow for Every Sleeping Position

In addition to finding the right mattress, you’ll also want the proper pillow to give you a good night’s sleep. Each sleeping position comes with its own recommended pillow type.

Stomach Sleepers

When you sleep on your stomach, you’re keeping your head turned to the side throughout the night, and this could lead to neck aches in the morning. In some instances, you might actually be able to sleep without a pillow, but if you absolutely must go with one, we recommend a soft or flat pillow. See our best pillows for stomach sleepers for specific recommendations. 

Side Sleepers

As a side sleeper, you want a pillow that is soft but also keeps your head elevated and in-line with your spine. Memory foam pillows can prop your head up to just the right level while also cradling your head so you don’t have to deal with tension headaches or migraines. You should also look at the materials used in the pillow, as some are better for sensitive skin than others. Our best pillows for side sleepers roundup has more information on this subject.

Back Sleepers

Back sleepers, like side sleepers, will like a pillow that will keep their heads adequately level with the rest of their bodies. However, if you’re trying to reduce snoring or sleep apnea, you should look for a pillow that’s slightly more elevated to keep your airways open at night. Just make sure you do not get a pillow that’s too soft or too flat, as this will lead to your head resting too far down.

In Conclusion

We all have our own sleeping personalities that come with preferred sleeping postures, but it’s hard to ignore the benefits of certain positions over others. The next time you go to bed, think about what kinds of issues you typically deal with and how they can be attributed to your sleep posture. It might be time to change it up and try something new so that you can get the restful sleep you deserve.

Meet Our Medical Reviewer

Julia LeBlanc, PT/DPT Julia LeBlanc graduated from Simmons College and has been practicing outpatient orthopedic Physical Therapy for 15 years. During her career, she’s worked with high level collegiate and professional athletes in the Boston area, the Boston Ballet and also a wide range of post-operative, chronic pain and acute patients. Julia holds certifications in Dry Needling, Spinal Manipulation, Graston Technique, and is also a Certified of Yoga Instructor, allowing her to provide her skills to a wide variety of patients. Julia strives to integrate the benefits of physical therapy and yoga, while pursuing the most current information to provide her patients with the best care.