Sleep positions – how to improve health and posture overnight

If you have locked down a great mattress, dreamy bedding and first-rate sleep routine but are still struggling to sleep, it could be time to change up your sleep position. We explain the benefits…

Sleep positions
(Image credit: Future)

We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, or at least trying to sleep. Light levels, caffeine and screen time are all recognised sleep hinderances, but did you know your preferred sleeping position can also have a surprisingly big impact on both the amount and quality of sleep you can achieve? 

The way we sleep could also be to blame for a variety of health issues, from snoring and sleep apnoea to starting every day feeling tired, sore and cranky. For some, the wrong sleep position can even result in serious joint misalignment and pain that requires professional medical attention.

See: Best mattress – the best foam, innerspring and hybrid mattresses

While it’s not always a conscious choice, being more mindful of how you lay in bed and which positions are most suitable for specific needs, can revolutionise sleep success. In time, just a few adjustments can result in significant improvements, not just to your own health and wellbeing, but also that of your bed partner.   

Once you’ve settled on your ideal sleeping position, take a look at other ways to improve your sleep, starting with your mattress and pillow. 'Your mattress and pillow should adapt to you, keep your spine in a neutral position, and absorb pressure to provide relief, allowing you to enjoy restful sleep and wake feeling refreshed,' says Tempur’s sleep expert and chartered psychologist Suzy Reading.

  • See: Best pillows – top options to sleep better, from feather pillows to memory foam pillows

What is the healthiest way to sleep?

Bed and bedside table - Sleep positions

(Image credit: Future / Polly Wreford)

You might think the best sleeping position is the one that feels most comfortable for you and most of us have established a natural preference by adulthood. But when it comes to your health, experts firmly believe that some positions are better than others. 

There isn’t one universal position that suits all, but if you can, sleeping on your back is widely considered the best sleeping position for overall health. 

'Lying on your back offers your body optimal support, whilst maintaining the natural alignment of your head, neck, and spine throughout the entire night,' explains Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of Sleep School

According to Steve Brougham of Harrison Spinks, sleeping on your back can also prevent wrinkles. 'It’s all down to the constant flow of air against the face without obstruction from a pillow or duvet,' he says, 'so if it’s beauty sleep you’re after, this could be the position for you!'

The downside of sleeping on your back is that it can increase the chance of snoring, as the tongue may fall back into your throat. If you’re a known snorer or suffer from acid reflux, this probably isn’t the position for you.

The next best option for overall health is to sleep on your side, with both legs straight down. 'This is known as the log position and comes with various health benefits, including decreased risk of acid reflux and snoring, reduced heartburn and it’s even great for your digestion,' enthuses Oliver Elliott, sleep expert at Nectar Sleep. Make sure your head is well supported, keeping your shoulder off the pillow so that the neck is aligned. 

While a little bend in the knee won’t hurt and can help with stability when sleeping on your side, try to avoid pulling both knees towards your stomach (aka the foetal position). 

'Sleeping in the foetal position is reported to be the most popular of all sleeping positions. However, whilst it comes with many of the same benefits as sleeping on your side, it takes your spine out of neutral alignment, increasing the chance of pain-related sleep disturbance,' says Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of Sleep School.

Best sleeping positions for back pain

elegant bedroom - sleep positions

(Image credit: Future / Jake Curtis)

There are many different kinds of back pain, including the excruciating agony that is sciatica, so finding the perfect sleeping position will vary from person to person. 

Osteopath Melinda Cotton, from Fulham Osteopaths, recommends using your pain as a guide. 'Pain is usually telling you to try another position. Experiment to see what works for you. If you sleep on your side, sometimes one side is more comfortable than the other. Try different positions out, and if one doesn’t work for you, then it is not right for your body at this moment in time,' she says.

Alongside a really supportive mattress – memory foam can be a game-changer for relieving many kinds of back pain – the strategic positioning of pillows can really help maximise comfort in your chosen sleep position. One of the most widely recommended positions to try for back pain is sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees. 

'If there’s a gap between your waist and the mattress, a smaller pillow could be beneficial here too,' says Silentnight’s sleep expert, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. 'Although sleeping on your side won’t eradicate the pain entirely, the pillow between the knees will support alignment of the spine and other muscles and joints in the body.'

If you feel more comfortable sleeping on your back, a little extra support can go a long way here, too. 'Make sure the legs are supported with a pillow, keeping knees bent and thereby reducing pressure on the lower back. A small, rolled towel under the small of your back can also provide additional support,' says Tempur’s sleep expert and chartered psychologist Suzy Reading.

Best sleeping positions for sciatica

As anyone suffering with sciatica knows, finding the perfect sleep position can prove almost impossible. Trial and error is the answer, says osteopath Melinda Cotton, who has suffered with sciatica following a disc injury. 

'You need to listen to your body to find that best position for you and try various positions, with and without pillows,' she explains. 'When we don’t move, inflammation builds up and pain increases, so having to move around during the night is common until the cause of the sciatica begins to resolve and inflammation decreases.' 

So, don’t worry if you have to move around. Find the best position for you, until your body becomes uncomfortable, and you need to change position.

Best sleeping positions for healthy breathing

Breathing issues caused by asthma, heart or lung disease, snoring, or maybe just a bad cold, can seriously disrupt your sleep, not to mention anyone trying to sleep nearby. The key take-home here is to find a sleeping position that allows you to breathe clearly and easily. 

Again, sleeping on your side should be your first choice. 'Side sleeping reduces compression of the airways and keeps the throat muscles and body relaxed,' explains Silentnight’s Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. 

Sleeping on your stomach can help reduce snoring and sleep apnoea but it does put a lot of pressure on your neck and back. Sleeping on your front is also not recommended if you struggle with breathing, due to the extra weight on your lungs. 

If sleeping on your back is the only way you can get comfortable, try elevating your body from the shoulders up, using pillows, at least until the situation improves. This is a particularly effective sleeping position if you have a cough. For young children, propping up the head end of the bed with planks of wood or a couple of books can prove safer than overdoing the pillows. 

Best sleeping positions for neck pain

Neck pain sufferers should focus on aligning the spine and head, paying particular attention to the pillow area. 

'If you are a back sleeper, you need a medium firm pillow that keeps your head in line with your spine and does not tip your head forward too much or back too much,” advises Rebecca Leonard, sleep consultant for Soak & Sleep

Sleeping on your back, with good supportive pillows at the correct height for your shoulders, is ideal for keeping the body in neutral from head-to-toe.

'Side sleepers, particularly those with neck pain, need a medium firm pillow which supports the head to the depth of the shoulder. A knee pillow is a brilliant additional support for side sleepers to help align the pelvis correctly.'

Side sleepers should avoid a twisted torso, which can occur if one leg is raised at a right angle over the other. Straight legs are best, try using a pillow as a ballast if you find it hard to maintain.

The least healthy way to sleep if you suffer from neck pain is generally considered to be sleeping on your stomach. This position puts strain on your neck and can result in numbness and tingling due to trapped nerves. 

'If you must sleep in this position, aim to sleep with no or a very flat pillow and place a pillow under your pelvis, to keep your spine aligned,' suggests Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of Sleep School.

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Best sleeping positions during pregnancy

Pregnancy comes with a whole raft of sleep-disrupting issues, which is good preparation for life with a newborn but not much fun. Getting comfortable in any position will be challenging, especially in the later stages, but most experts agree that sleeping on your left side provides optimal circulation and nourishment for your growing baby. 

'Sleeping on your back is not ideal, especially as your bump grows and the pressure increases on your liver and major blood vessels,' adds Lucy Shrimpton, sleep expert and founder of The Sleep Nanny

Shrimpton highly recommends using a pregnancy pillow or body pillow to help separate the knees and support the bump, which in turn helps keep the spine aligned. 

'Being comfortable is the most important thing because you need your sleep so try not to worry too much about adopting the perfect position. If you are comfortable, you're most likely to be in a perfectly suitable sleeping position. If the position is not good for you or your baby, your body will let you know,' she reassures.

Linda Clayton

Linda graduated from university with a First in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting. Her career began on a trade title for the kitchen and bathroom industry, and she has worked for Homes & Gardens, and sister-brands Livingetc, Country Homes & Interiors and Ideal Home, since 2006, covering interiors topics, though kitchens and bathrooms are her specialism.