What’s the best way to sleep? There isn’t one answer. “Everybody’s ideal sleep position is different,” explains Sujay Kansagra, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
There are five main sleep positions, and which one is right for you depends not only on which is most comfortable but also on a variety of health issues that can interfere with top-quality slumber.
In other words, while you probably prefer one sleep position, if you’re experiencing any sleep difficulties, it might time to shake things up. And while it’s true that habits like how you sleep can take a while to change, with consistency it is possible. “By deliberately trying to fall asleep in a new position every night, your brain will adapt,” Dr. Kansagra says.
Here’s what to keep in mind to find the perfect overnight pose for you.
Back Sleeping Is the Best Option for Pain Management
Got back pain? Lying on your back with your arms by your sides and your knees slightly elevated may be the best sleep position for you. “This can take strain off the back,” Kansagra says, especially if you place a soft pillow or rolled up towel beneath your knees.
What’s more, sleeping this way, also known as the soldier position, allows your spine to stay in neutral, kink-free alignment all night, which helps reduce aches all over, says Charla R. Fischer, MD, orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health’s Spine Center in New York City.
There are cons, though. If you have sleep apnea or snore, back sleeping can be the worst position. “In this position, your tongue can fall into the back of your throat,” Dr. Fischer explains.
If you need to sleep on your side, elevating your head with pillows or the head of the bed — via an adjustable mattress or by placing bricks under the top bed posts — can be helpful in reducing sleep apnea and snoring, as well as acid reflux.
Sleeping on Your Side Helps You Breathe Easier
For most people, side sleeping may be one of the best sleep positions for avoiding breathing difficulties, making it especially good for people with sleep apnea or snorers. “In this position, you alleviate the effects of gravity on your airway, allowing for better oxygen delivery,” explains Terry Cralle, RN, a clinical sleep educator in the Washington, DC, area.
If you have back pain, side sleeping is an excellent option because it doesn’t place direct pressure on the back, Fischer says. Another benefit of side sleeping is that it helps clear harmful waste from the brain, potentially reducing the risk of neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study conducted with rodents.
In addition, another study found that sleeping on your left side eases heartburn, whether due to gastroesophageal reflux disease or another cause, such as pregnancy or a hiatal hernia. Be aware, however, that sleeping on your right side increases the risk of heartburn, probably by relaxing the sphincter muscle between the stomach and esophagus, allowing acid to slip through.
Sleeping on your left side is recommended for pregnant women, too, as it increases the flow of blood and nutrients to the placenta and the fetus, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
There are cons, though. Sleeping on one side sometimes causes gradual or sudden and severe shoulder or hip pain. Putting repeated pressure on the small fluid-filled sacs in those joints called bursae may cause them to become irritated and inflamed. If you’re feeling any shoulder or hip pain on one side, try sleeping on the other side.
Side sleepers often sleep with their elbows and wrists curled up by the face, too, which raises the risk of a pinched nerve, Fischer notes. Wearing an over-the-counter splint to keep your elbows and wrists straight can help prevent that problem, she says.
Another unexpected negative? “Sleeping on your side can create wrinkles on that side of the face,” Cralle says. Plus, it makes your breasts lean downward, causing sagging over time, she says. If you’re a devoted side sleeper, consider using a soft pillow designed to support the breasts during sleep, such as LaPellow.
Stomach Sleepers Tend to Snore Less
Like sleeping on your side, sleeping on your stomach helps keep your airways open as you snooze, reducing the risk of the unhealthy pauses in breathing that are the hallmark of sleep apnea, Cralle says.
There are cons, though. Tummy sleeping lets your core sink deeper into your mattress, making it tough to maintain good spinal alignment. This may strain your neck and lower back, increasing the risk of discomfort in these hard-working areas of your body, especially as you age, Fischer says. If you’re waking up with pain, it’s probably time to consider switching positions.
Another potential problem is that stomach sleepers tend to slumber with their hands by their head, forcing them to bend their wrists and elbows. This sometimes causes nerve compression, triggering tingling in the hands. And just like side sleeping, sleeping on your face can lead to facial wrinkles, Cralle says.
Sleeping Curled Up Is the Most Popular Sleep Position
A whopping 41 percent of adults choose to sleep with their knees tucked in toward their chest, making the so-called fetal position the most popular sleep position of all, reports the National Sleep Foundation. The benefits of this sleep position are essentially the same as side sleeping, including taking pressure off your back and decreasing snoring. This exaggerated curl could also help people with spinal stenosis, Fischer says.
There are cons, though. Bringing your knees too far into a curl position could potentially cause changes in the discs and vertebrae in your spine, leading to lower back pain, especially if you have any type of disc disease, Fischer says. She recommends modifying this position by uncurling your knees a bit or sleeping with a pillow between your knees to help support your lower back.
Sleeping Like a Starfish Is Linked to Shoulder Pain
People who favor this variation on back sleeping sleep with their arms overhead, which increases pressure on the shoulders, in turn increasing the likelihood of shoulder and lower back pain. Placing a pillow under your knees is a good preventive step, Fischer says. Better yet, try to train yourself to sleep with your arms at your sides.