What’s the Best Sleeping Position: Stomach, Back, or Side?

There are three sleeping positions—stomach, back, and side sleeping. Each comes with its own pros and cons, but some are better for your health than others. For instance, side sleeping opens up your airways for easy breathing, while back sleeping keeps your spine neutral. However, stomach sleepers often wake up with sore necks and back pain. Then there are those who alternate between a couple of different positions throughout the night.

Which position is best? Our article will go over the details of each sleeping position so you can pat yourself on the back for choosing a healthy one, or start training yourself to sleep a better way.

Stomach Sleeping

About 16 percent of adults in the United States sleep on their stomachs. Most stomach sleepers rest with arms slightly above their head or at their sides, and with their necks twisted to the side for air.

Lying on your stomach reduces the risk of snoring or developing sleep apnea, but this position carries more health risks than side or back sleeping. Stomach sleeping places intense pressure on the spine, causing it to arch unnaturally and result in pain.

If you sleep on your stomach, train yourself to sleep on your side instead. Side sleeping comes with less risk of an obstructed airway and without intense spinal pressure.

However, if you’re a committed stomach sleeper, you can reduce spinal pressure by placing a thin pillow underneath your hips. The slight elevation levels your hips with your shoulders for healthy spine alignment. Stomach sleepers should also choose a medium-firm or firm bed that won’t allow their spines to misalign. We recommend memory foam, latex foam, or hybrids, but stomach sleepers should avoid innerspring mattresses because they sag quickly and don’t offer adequate support.

BenefitsDrawbacks
Less risk of snoringBack pain
Minimized sleep apnea symptomsSore neck
Hip pain

Back Sleeping

Lying on your back is a neutral position and evenly distributes weight for less pressure build-up.

If you have back pain, the back sleeping position is best for a good night’s sleep. Depending on the mattress type, the comfort layers in your mattress cushion your body and reduce pressure points along the spine. Memory foam mattresses are the best for back sleepers because memory foam enhances lower back support and cradles the hips.

Placing a pillow under your knees further alleviates pressure in the lower back. Less pressure means fewer sleep disruptions from pain.

Some health risks come with back sleeping, like developing sleep apnea and acid reflux. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where soft tissue collapses at the back of the throat, or the tongue falls back, blocking the airway due to gravity.

If you have acid reflux, lying on your back may worsen symptoms by leveling the stomach with the esophagus, making it easier for stomach acid to escape.

To reduce the health risks that come with back sleeping, try an adjustable base. You can elevate your upper and lower body with the click of a button, reducing sleep apnea and acid reflux symptoms.

BenefitsDrawbacks
Align the spineSnoring potential
Reduce sleep apnea symptomsSore neck
Reduce back painRisk of developing sleep apnea

Side Sleeping

Over 74 percent of Americans sleep on their sides. Side sleeping is also one of the healthiest sleeping positions, particularly the right side. Resting on your right side improves heart health and reduces acid reflux and sleep apnea symptoms. There are three side sleeping positions—fetal, log, and yearner.

The fetal position is the most popular. The arms are slightly curled inward, and knees are bent towards the chest. In the log position, the arms and legs are straight and pointed downwards. Yearners, on the other hand, sleep with legs pointed down, but arms are extended to the side.

When sleeping on your side, you get a steady flow of oxygen without disruptions from sleep apnea symptoms—less oxygen damages the body and negatively affects mood.

Side sleepers are less likely to experience acid reflux compared to back sleepers. Sleeping on your right side positions the stomach so it’s below the esophagus. This way, stomach acid is more likely to stay in the stomach.

Resting on your side places less pressure on vital organs, like the heart. Side sleeping also improves heart health and reduces heart disease symptoms. Also, side sleeping is best for pregnant women because it increases blood flow to the fetus and provides the baby with more nutrients.

A drawback to side sleeping is the risk of shoulder pain. Sleeping on your side places more pressure on the shoulder because most of your body weight is pressing your shoulder into the mattress. Without a soft enough bed to relieve pressure buildup, you’re more likely to experience shoulder pain. Side sleepers should look for a soft to medium mattress for extra cushioning.

One of the best mattress types for side sleepers is memory foam. Memory foam provides optimal pressure relief compared to innersprings, and holds its shape so you don’t have to worry about sinking too deep into the mattress.

BenefitsDrawbacks
Reduce acid reflux symptomsPotential shoulder pain
Less risk of snoringPotential for wrinkles
Better heart healthPotential neck pain if using wrong pillow
Increased blood flow to the fetus

How to Switch Sleep Positions

You may need to switch from your favorite sleep position if you start experiencing sleep problems. For instance, if you’re a back sleeper and have sleep apnea, changing to the side sleeping position may improve sleep quality.

The best way to change sleeping positions is by restricting your movements, so you don’t turn back to your favorite position during the night. Hugging a body pillow mimics the feel of a mattress pressing against your body and is a great way stomach sleepers can train themselves to sleep on their sides.

Back sleepers looking to switch to the side position can use a U-shaped body pillow, which encompasses the whole body. One side presses against the back, and the other end presses against your front—it’s hard to roll onto your back when there’s a pillow in the way. Another alternative is to surround your body with regular pillows so you’re less likely to move.

Rest on the Best Mattress

Your favorite sleeping position affects what mattress firmness best aligns the spine for comfortable sleep. Some sleep positions, like stomach sleeping, need more support, while others, including side sleeping, require more pressure relief.

The best mattresses for side sleepers are medium to soft. Softer beds have a deeper cushion for the shoulders and hips, reducing pressure buildup which would otherwise cause pain.

Stomach sleepers are most comfortable on a medium-firm to firm surface. A firm mattress with thin comfort layers prevents the body from sinking too deep and reduces pressure points. On the other hand, mattresses for back sleepers should have a medium to firm feel and support the back and cradle the hips—a too-soft bed will cause the hips to sink too deep and lead to lower back pain.

Sleeping on the Right Pillow

The best pillow for your body is based on your preferred sleeping position because it affects how big the gap is between your neck and the mattress. The wrong pillow doesn’t support the natural curve of your neck and causes neck pain.

A flat pillow less than 3 inches tall is best for stomach sleepers because it won’t raise your head and strain neck muscles. Some stomach sleepers sleep better without a pillow.

Back sleepers should look for a mid-loft pillow to slightly elevate and cradle the neck. Mid-loft pillows are about 3-5 inches thick.

Side sleepers need a high-loft pillow about 5 inches thick to fill in the gap between the neck and mattress. A lower loft pillow causes the neck to bend at an unnatural angle and leads to pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it bad for your back to sleep on your stomach?

If you suffer from back pain, the stomach position is not ideal. When you lie on your stomach, gravity pulls body weight down, straining your back and spine and worsening back pain. The back sleeping position is better because the spine is lying directly on the mattress, and there’s less spinal pressure. The bed’s comfort layers cushion the body and reduce pressure points, relieving pain from inflamed muscles.

Is six hours enough sleep?

Six hours of sleep is not enough—the average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep to function at their best. Sleep allows the body to recover from the day’s activities, but if you’re not getting enough sleep, that recovery process is disrupted. You’re less likely to remember details from a business meeting, or you may wake up feeling sore.

Is it better to sleep without a pillow?

It’s a good idea to sleep without a pillow if you’re a stomach sleeper. A pillow could strain neck muscles and cause pain, but sleeping without a pillow keeps your head level with your shoulders and hips. Placing a small pillow under your hips further reduces spinal pressure and prevents hips from sinking too deep.

How should I sleep to relieve neck pain?

Side and back sleeping are the best sleeping positions to relieve neck pain. Lying on your side with a high-loft pillow aligns the neck with the shoulders and hips while cushioning the head and neck. Back sleeping places the body in a neutral position, so there’s less pressure along the spine.

Stomach sleeping is the worst position for neck pain. Stomach sleepers turn their head to the side to breathe, twisting the neck at an unnatural angle and holding this position for hours. You have a high risk of experiencing neck pain lying on your stomach, but this position will worsen existing neck pain.

Why does my back hurt after waking up?

If you have back pain that gradually fades away during the day, the problem could be your mattress. Take a good look at your bed. If you notice a visible sag, or if the surface is lumpy, then it’s time for a new mattress. A lumpy or saggy bed lacks support and could be the reason why you’re waking up with back pain.

Conclusion

Side sleeping is one of the best positions due to its health benefits, like reduced acid reflux symptoms and improved heart health. However, back sleeping is another excellent sleeping position because it alleviates back pain. Stomach sleeping is the least healthy position and should be avoided if possible.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Michelle Zhang, Wellness Writer Michelle Zhang

Michelle Zhang is a regular contributor to our Zoma blog and is our go-to sleep researcher. In her time with Zoma, Michelle has researched and published many articles on widespread sleeping habits and troubles. In her time outside of Zoma, Michelle is an occupational therapist and long-distance runner. She believes leading a healthy lifestyle is the key to getting better sleep at night.

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