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5th March, 20205 min read

What is the best (and worst) sleeping position?

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What position do you sleep in at night? Do you lie flat on your back, on your side, on your tummy or curl up in the foetal position?

If you’ve never given much thought to the position you sleep in, it’s time to. How you sleep doesn’t just affect how good you feel when you wake up in the morning, it can increase or decrease your risk of certain conditions.

This article will help you to understand the risks and benefits associated with your favourite sleep position so you can figure out the best (and worst) sleeping position for you.

Does sleeping position matter?

With so much attention given to how long you sleep each night and how you feel when you wake up, it’s easy to forget that there’s another key player in the good sleep equation - sleeping position.

Does this matter? Yes. It matters a lot because your sleeping position can cause symptoms like back and neck pain, tiredness, sleep apnoea, muscle cramps, headaches and heartburn. It may even lead to premature wrinkling.

All sleeping positions have their downsides, but for some, these downsides carry serious health consequences.

So are you sleeping in the best position possible?

Risks and benefits of different sleeping positions

Sleeping on your back

It’s quite rare to sleep on your back - just 8% of people do. If you do, the good news is that sleeping face up is great for preventing neck and back pain. Lying flat on your back keeps your head, neck and spine in a neutral position, removing extra pressure on the joints in those areas.

Sleeping face up also helps to reduce the risk of acid reflux, as long as you use a pillow to keep your head higher than your chest and prevent the contents of your stomach from coming up your digestive tract.

The main drawback of sleeping on your back is that it increases your risk of snoring and/or sleep apnoea versus sleeping on your side. When you lie flat on your back your tongue can block your breathing tube, making it harder to breathe normally.

If you snore or have episodes of sleep apnoea, try sleeping on your side to help improve your symptoms.

Sleeping on your side

When it’s time for bed, do you lie on your side while keeping your back and legs straight? So do 15% of adults, and it’s a great position for sleep.

Unlike sleeping on your back, sleeping on your side reduces symptoms of sleep apnoea and can ease snoring. Sleeping on your side with a straight back keeps your spine aligned, which can help minimise your risk of spine and neck pain.

But there’s a catch. Sleeping on your side can put pressure on the hip you lie on. You can ease this by placing a soft pillow or folded blanket between your knees.

And if you’re keen to stay looking youthful for as long as possible, keep in mind that pushing half of your face against a pillow may lead to premature wrinkles.

Sleeping on your tummy

Just 7% of adults prefer this position. If you’re part of that 7%, it’s worth trying a new position because sleeping on your tummy carries several risks.

Firstly, it’s hard to keep your spine in a neutral position when lying on your tummy, and this can lead to neck and back pain. Secondly, this position puts pressure on your joints and muscles, which can trigger aches, numbness and tingling.

It’s best to avoid sleeping in this position altogether, but if it’s the only position you can sleep in, reduce the potential risks by:

  • sleeping face down instead of with your head turned to the side. This will help keep your airway open
  • propping a softer pillow slightly under your forehead

Sleeping in the foetal position

The foetal position is by far the most common sleeping position - around 40% of people curl up on their side at night. It’s good news if you fall into this group because the foetal position keeps the spine neutral, helping to prevent back pain.

Animal research suggests that curling up on your side may help to reduce your risk of brain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

But this sleeping position brings other advantages.

Pregnant women may benefit from lying in the foetal position at night because doing so:

  • improves circulation in your body
  • improves your baby’s circulation
  • prevents your uterus from pressing against your liver

While there are few downsides to sleeping in a foetal position, there is one worth noting: curling up too tightly for the whole night can restrict your breathing and make you feel sore.

If you find that you have aches and pains when you wake up, try straightening out your body the next time you go to sleep.

The best way to sleep

So which position is the winner?

Sleeping on your side carries fewer health risks than other positions, while sleeping on your tummy carries notable disadvantages. However, because everybody is different, it’s hard to say that a specific sleeping position is the best.

If you have, or think you have, a health condition that could be affected by your sleeping position, speak with a doctor.

And remember that although you go to sleep in a certain position, you’re unlikely to spend most of the night in that position. Most of us move around 10 to 12 times per hour while sleeping, which means you may change position many times a night.

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.