Sleep is incredibly personal, isn’t it? Some of us are night owls, while others abide by the “early to bed, early to rise” philosophy. By this point, your sleeping position may be entirely habitual. If you’ve been settling into that same position in bed since adolescence, you likely don’t even think about it. But you probably can’t fall asleep until you get into your position.
Personally, I’m a stomach sleeper. I usually stretch out on my back as soon as I lay down—this is my starting rest position, arms up behind my head and under my pillow. But I don’t actually fall asleep like this. I eventually roll over onto my stomach to snooze. And even if I lay down on my side for a quick nap, I inevitably wake up on my stomach.
But according to Dr. Carl Rosenberg, a neurologist certified by the American Board of Sleep Disorders Medicine, we stomach sleepers are the minority. A recent study found that only about 7% of Americans sleep on their stomach. Which might be good, because according to Dr. Rosenberg, it’s the least beneficial to your health. So, I’ve got that to work on, apparently.
Then again, for young and healthy people, sleep position is less important, says Rachel Salas, M.D. , an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “We could argue that some are better than others, but there are caveats.” For instance, when it comes to alleviating pain, sleeping on your back is a mixed bag, Salas says. If you have neck pain, sleeping face up can sometimes make that pain worse. But a lot of people find the position helpful for alleviating lower-back pain. So what is the ideal body position for a healthful night’s rest? Here’s what the doctors recommend, from worst to best.
Worst: Stomach Sleeping
If you’re like me and tend to sleep face down, it may help decrease the sound of snoring, but in general, that’s where the benefits end. With your head raised on the pillow, it can be difficult to keep the spine in a neutral position—straining both the neck and back. Because the middle of your body is the heaviest part, stomach sleeping causes the spine to overarch. This can lead to soreness or nerve issues, and you may notice numbness or a tingling sensation in your arms or legs. And since you cannot sleep on your stomach with your head down (like how you would lie on a massage table), turning the head to one side while lying down can limit blood circulation and reduce the size of the airway.
Not Great: The Fetal Position
Some people find comfort by balling up in the fetal position. This keeps you on your side, which the docs recommend, but they’re quick to note that this particular position is not recommended. Though the body is situated on the side, the extreme curvature of the spine can cause strain and discomfort in the neck and back. Being tightly curled up while sleeping can also limit space for the diaphragm and restrict breathing, keeping you from deep sleep.
Pretty Good: Sleeping on Your Back
The supine position is the second most common sleeping position, with about 38% of those surveyed claiming this as their go-to. Sleeping with your back flat on the bed enables the spine to stay in a more natural position. This prevents some of the neck, shoulder and back pain experienced with other postures. And by elevating the head with a pillow, it can also be helpful in reducing problems associated with acid reflux.
But, keep in mind, this position exacerbates snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. This is because the tongue and soft tissues in the throat often relax once you’re asleep and gravity can pull them down into the airway. If you tend to sleep on your back but notice that it leads to lower back pain, the doctors suggest modifying the position. Use a lower pillow to support the neck or try a neck roll pillow to prop up your knees. This will help reduce discomfort and strain on the lower back.
Best: Side Sleepers
Over 54% of people say that this is their preferred sleeping position—by far the majority, and for good reason. The lateral posture is recommended by sleep specialists because it has a myriad of bodily benefits. With the right mattress—think soft yet supportive—the spine can remain elongated and relatively neutral while you lay comfortably on your side. This helps prevent undue neck, back and shoulder pain. For those that suffer from regular heartburn, sleeping on your left side may help. Plus, positioning yourself on your side or stomach can help the airways stay open to reduce snoring and alleviate mild apnea.
* FYI: Is there a link between sleeping position and personality? Professor and sleep expert Chris Idzikowski surveyed just over 1,000 adults to draw connections between the most common ways we sleep and personality traits.