The Different Sleep Positions and Their Effects on Your Health

Learn what sleeping on your back, side, stomach or a combination of two can do to your body.

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
4 min read
Woman sleeping on her side in her bed, the morning is coming.
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A night of sleep looks a little different for everyone. Maybe you sleep on your back (and snore), or maybe you sleep on your stomach (and wake up with a stiff neck). Those results are tied to how you're sleeping -- and potentially what you're sleeping on. There's a lot happening with your body during the night, and much of it can be attributed to your sleeping position. Ahead, we'll take a closer look at which sleeping position is actually the best for you, as well as learn more about why other sleeping positions are not recommended.

What is the healthiest sleeping position?

According to the Mayo Clinic, side sleeping is considered to be the best sleeping position for most people, as it's the best for your airways. Back sleeping can give you problems with sleep apnea and snoring, and stomach sleeping can be hard on your back and neck. Side sleeping, however, tends to alleviate all of these issues. It can also be easier on all of your joints. 

One of the most important parts of any healthy sleeping position, though, is ensuring that your pillow is properly suited for how you're sleeping. For side sleepers, it's important for your pillow to be elevated enough to keep your head in alignment with your spine. You want your spine to be neutral while you're sleeping so that there's no pressure on it. 

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.

Effects of other sleeping positions 

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 each of them here.

Stomach sleepers

It can be really hard 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 not in alignment when you're sleeping in this position, which means you may wake up with pain.

Stomach sleeping, however, according to some studies, can be really beneficial for sleep apnea (when you intermittently stop breathing during sleep) or snoring. The prone position can positively benefit your breathing by allowing your airways to be more open than if you're sleeping on your back.

Back sleepers

When you sleep on your back, you're increasing your risk of having problems with sleep apnea, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your jaw can hang open more easily in this position, and your tongue can sink down in your mouth, which can contribute to a higher likelihood of snoring and sleep apnea. 

Back sleeping, however, can be great to 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 pillow case isn't clean, bacteria can lead to breakouts. Sleeping on your back means you aren't making contact with your pillowcase, which can also lessen the chances of wrinkles

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

Combination sleepers

Combination sleepers are people who don't adhere to any one position through the night. These people may start the night on their backs, switch to their left sides for a few hours and wake up on their stomachs. The problem with this is that you're getting all the bad aspects of the sleep positions all in one go and you can't tailor your mattress and pillow to just one sleeper type because it changes throughout the night. A side sleeper's pillow is different from a stomach sleeper's pillow, and sleeping on your stomach on a pillow designed for sleeping on your side will be really painful for your neck. 

The only 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 also less at risk of sleep apnea and snoring.

Bottom line

Woman lying under a blanket, trying to sleep
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It's not always easy to change your sleeping position, because you tend to like what you like. However, if you're experiencing things like neck pain, sleep apnea or joint pain, it could be due to your sleep position. That means it's time to really consider training your body to sleep in a different way. These could also all be attributed to your pillow (or mattress) not aligning with your primary sleeping position, so make sure you have the right pillow for you.

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.