Skip Navigation

Does Sleep Position Matter?

By Joe Sugarman
Rachel Salas is a neurologist and the assistant medical director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep.
Stomach. Side. Back. Elevated feet or head. Some people sleep with their limbs akimbo, stretched out like a starfish. Others curl up in a ball like a fetus, which is the most popular sleep position, according to studies. But does the position you sleep in have an impact on the quality of your sleep?

Rachel Salas has watched the sleep habits of hundreds of people. As assistant medical director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, it’s her job to observe people while they rest and to recommend ways to help them catch better ZZZs. When we asked her whether sleep position matters, she responded with a qualified yes. The ideal position, she says, depends on what other issues you are dealing with.

If you snore or have sleep apnea, sleeping on your back can make those conditions worse. But if you’re somebody with chronic pain in your neck, shoulders, or lower back, sleeping on your back may be the best position because it puts the least strain on those areas.

Side or stomach sleepers should be aware that repeatedly smushing one’s face into a pillow isn’t a good idea if you have acne, as that practice can trap oils in the skin. If you’re concerned about looking older, you should also avoid sleeping with your face pressed against your pillow, since your skin loses elasticity with age and over time the pressure can cause wrinkles to form on the face, neck, or chest.

If you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease or chronic heartburn, Salas recommends sleeping with your head elevated, so stomach acids can’t travel up the esophagus. She also says it’s better to sleep on your left, not your right side as that orientation puts less pressure on the stomach.

Like most people, Salas says she unwittingly changes positions throughout the night but most often ends up on her side. Your preferred sleep position can also change as you age, as your body compensates for aches and pains and other conditions.

No matter what position you sleep in, Salas recommends keeping your bedroom slightly cool and dark. Your mattress, pillows, and sheets should be clean in order to avoid dust mites and other allergens, and you should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. “Everyone thinks they’re the golden child who needs only five hours of sleep a night, but they’re probably just better at compensating. Eventually, it’ll catch up with you.”

Phil Wrigglesworth

Other Featured Articles

  • Reading the Trees
    The giant sequoia and the California redwood live thousands of years and can reach the height of a skyscraper, but climate change threatens to topple these mighty trees.
  • Watch Me Go
    Wearable trackers are a billion dollar industry with devices capable of monitoring everything from sleep to heartbeats. Editor—and marathon runner—Greg Rienzi took one for a spin to see if a high-tech gadget really makes you more fit.
  • The Vagina Dialogues
    The women's health questions you were afraid—or never knew—to ask.
  • The Case Against Antibiotics
    Think you need that penicillin? Think again: Up to 50 percent of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, and decades of overuse have led to a spike in superbugs and a global public health crisis.