Sleeping Positions: What They Are and How They Affect Your Health

Learn what type of mattresses and pillows are best for you, whether you're a side, stomach, back or combination sleeper.

Hedy Phillips CNET Contributor
Hedy Phillips is a freelance lifestyle writer based in New York. While she's not writing on topics like living on a budget and tips for city dwelling, she can usually be found at a concert or sightseeing in a new city. Over the past 10 years, her bylines have appeared in a number of publications, including POPSUGAR, Hunker, and more.
Hedy Phillips
6 min read
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Sleep looks different for everyone. Maybe you sleep on your back (and snore), or perhaps you sleep on your stomach (and wake up with a stiff neck). Those results stem from how you sleep -- and potentially what you're sleeping on. A lot happens with your body while you're asleep, and much of it can be attributed to your sleeping position. Let's look at which sleeping position is the best for you and learn why some sleeping positions are not recommended.

What are the different sleeping positions?

While there are more detailed descriptions of every possible sleeping position, we'll keep it simple: The most common sleeping positions are back, stomach, side and combination. One study found that over half, or around 54% of adults, sleep on their sides, making it the most common sleeping position. The second most common sleeping position for adults is back sleeping (around 38%). Coming in around only 7% is stomach sleeping.

Combination sleeping is common as most people naturally move and shift positions throughout the night. Even if you're a combination sleeper, you'll probably notice a tendency to sleep in a particular position for most of the night.

What is the healthiest sleeping position?

There are pros and cons to each sleeping position. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, side sleeping is considered the best sleeping position for most people, as it's the best for your airways. Back sleeping can cause problems such as sleep apnea and snoring, and stomach sleeping can be hard on your back and neck. Side sleeping tends to prevent these potential issues and can be easier on your joints. 

Side sleeping is also best for pregnant people as it keeps the pressure off the organs and helps to maintain healthy blood flow. The Mayo Clinic states that side sleeping is especially important during the third trimester, and sleeping on the left side is recommended.

The effects of each sleeping position

Man sleeping on his stomach in a white bed.
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While side sleeping is considered the best, there are other sleeping positions that you might gravitate toward, whether it's because they're comfortable or because they suit your needs in some way. Learn more about the effects of each sleeping position here.

Side sleepers

Though it will vary based on your personal preferences and health issues, side sleeping is generally considered the best because it keeps the spine neutrally aligned. Putting a pillow between your knees can make it even more comfortable, especially if you have lower back or neck pain.

This position also keeps the airways open and can provide relief from sleep apnea or snoring. Side sleeping is also the best way to help those suffering from the effects of acid reflux. However, it's worth noting that sleeping on the side will be uncomfortable if you suffer from shoulder pain.

Stomach sleepers

It can be tough on your body to sleep on your stomach. This sleeping position can lead to neck and back pain because of the pressure it puts on your spine. Your body is typically not in neutral alignment when you're sleeping in this position, which means you may wake up with pain. Having your head kinked to one side for the majority of the night can also be hard on your neck.

Another downside to stomach sleeping is the effect it can have on your appearance -- with your face smushed into the pillow, you may notice increased wrinkles, puffiness or acne. If you're a stomach sleeper, be sure to wash your pillowcases regularly and maybe even opt for a gentle silk pillowcase to help protect your skin.

On the flip side, stomach sleeping, according to some studies, can help prevent sleep apnea (when you intermittently stop breathing during sleep) and snoring. The prone position can positively benefit your breathing by allowing your airways to be more open than sleeping on your back.

Back sleepers

The biggest downside to back sleeping is the increased risk of sleep apnea and snoring. This happens because your jaw tends to hang open more often in this position, which means your tongue can sink and rest against the back of your throat, blocking the airways and contributing to a higher likelihood of snoring. 

Back sleeping, however, can help alleviate acne concerns, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. When you sleep on your side or stomach, your face is making contact with a pillow, and if the pillowcase isn't clean, bacteria can lead to breakouts. Sleeping on your back means your face doesn't touch the pillowcase and lessens the chances of wrinkles

Back sleeping can help take pressure off your lower back and decrease the pain you may be experiencing there. It can also reduce hip and knee pain because you're putting less pressure on those areas in this position, as well.

Combination sleepers

Combination sleepers don't adhere to any one position through the night. A combination sleeper may start the night on their back, switch to the left side for a few hours and wake up on their stomach. The problem with this is that you're getting all the bad aspects of the sleep positions all in one go, and it's harder to tailor your mattress and pillow needs to just one sleeper type since it changes. For example, a side sleeper's pillow is different from a stomach sleeper's pillow, and stomach sleeping on a pillow designed for side sleeping will be painful for your neck.

Conversely, the upside of combination sleeping is that the constant moving can help alleviate pressure on your joints because you aren't keeping them in any one position for too long. If you don't spend an entire night on your back, you are less at risk of sleep apnea and snoring.

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What type of mattress and pillow should you use?

One of the most important parts of any sleeping position is ensuring that your mattress and pillows are appropriately suited for your sleeping preferences and needs.

Mattress and pillows for side sleepers

The best mattress for side sleepers provides support while also cushioning major pressure points like your shoulders and hips. If you're a side sleeper with a firm mattress, it can cause issues for your joints as they aren't getting the necessary pressure relief.

The best pillow for side sleepers is taller, firmer and elevated enough to keep your head aligned with your spine. You want your spine to be in a neutral position while you sleep, so keeping your head and neck from sagging with a supportive pillow is crucial.

Mattress and pillows for back sleepers

Back sleepers -- and especially those with chronic pain or back issues such as sciatica -- generally need a firmer mattress that will provide enough support to keep the back properly aligned. For back sleepers, we typically recommend a mattress that lands around a medium to medium-firm, or 6 to 7 out of 10 on the firmness scale.

The best pillows for back sleepers will provide ample support for your head and neck to keep your spine neutrally aligned and help prevent neck pain. It should be a nice medium height -- not too thick or too flat.

Mattress and pillows for stomach sleepers

Stomach sleepers need a mattress that's on the firmer side yet still provides comfortable cushioning for the hips and other pressure points. If your mattress is too soft, it can cause your hips and midsection to sink further into the bed than the rest of your body which will misalign your spine.

Softer, thinner pillows are typically recommended for strict stomach sleepers. This is to ensure that your head and neck stay in neutral alignment with your spine. If the pillow is too lofty, it can kink your neck in an upward position and cause pain.

Mattress and pillows for combination sleepers

The best mattress for combination sleepers will be neither too firm nor too soft -- it needs to be in the middle of the road in terms of firmness and neutral in feeling. Since each position requires different firmness levels and support areas, a bed landing around a medium on the firmness scale that accommodates all sleeper types is best.

Tossing and turning throughout the night as a combination sleeper means you need a supportive pillow that isn't too flat or too tall.

Woman lying under a blanket, trying to sleep
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Bottom line

It can be challenging to change your sleeping position because -- let's face it -- you like what you like. But if you're experiencing common issues like neck pain, sleep apnea, joint pain or acid reflux, it could be linked to your sleep position. In that case, it's time to consider training your body to sleep differently. It's also important to consider that your mattress and pillows may not align with your primary sleeping position, so ensuring you have the right one for you is extremely important.

Read more: How to Train Yourself to Sleep in a Different Position

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.