You may have heard that some ways of sleeping are better for you than others, with sleeping on your back considered the best way to sleep by many. The National Sleep Foundation considers sleeping on your back one of the best sleep positions; that's because it keeps you in a neutral position and prevents unwanted pressure on your neck and back. If sleeping on your back comes naturally to you, no work is needed, but what to do if it doesn't? To learn more about the benefits, drawbacks, and how to start sleeping on your back, we reached out to top sleep experts.
Meet the Expert
Kaliq Chang is a physician and interventional pain management specialist at the Atlantic Spine Center.
Terry Cralle is a registered nurse and sleep expert with the Better Sleep Council.
Erin Rossi is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and contributor to the Simply Rest blog.
Carolyn Burke is a certified sleep coach and editor for The Sleep Advisor.
James Rowley is the chief of pulmonary and critical care and sleep medicine at DMC Harper University Hospital.
The Benefits of Sleeping on Your Back
Kaliq Chang, a physician and interventional pain management specialist at the Atlantic Spine Center, says sleeping on your back can be an optimal position as long as your spine is aligned in a neutral position. Since alignment is important here, you'll need to keep your neck in a neutral position rather than allowing it to tilt to one side or the other. "The key to restful sleep is keeping the spine in natural alignment," Chang says.
Who Shouldn't Sleep on Their Back?
This sleep position isn't recommended for those with sleep apnea. If you haven't heard of sleep apnea, this is a condition where a person's breathing is interrupted, often repeatedly, while sleeping.
"Back sleeping may worsen snoring or sleep apnea, says Terry Cralle, a registered nurse and sleep expert with the Better Sleep Council. "In people with mild obstructive sleep apnea, symptomatic improvement may be achieved simply by avoiding back sleeping." She adds that people with positional apnea experience the majority of their breathing abnormalities while sleeping on their backs. So if you suffer from positional sleep apnea, back sleeping most likely isn't for you.
Comfort plays a role in deciding which sleep position is best for you, too. Our experts agree that sleeping on your side can be just as healthy as sleeping on your back. Put simply, sleep experts recommend sleep in whatever position is comfortable for you. Though they do advise against sleeping on your stomach, which can lead to neck and back pain. "Stomach sleeping is generally not recommended, as the low back is hyperextended without an easy way to correct it, and the neck is forced to the side," Chang said.
If you're pregnant, sleeping on your side is actually your best option. Sleeping on one's back can potentially reduce blood flow to the fetus, which is turn can cause issues with fetal growth, and is therefore better to avoid.
If you're looking to start sleeping on your back, here are some tips and guidance that may help:
Focus on Making Your Body a Straight Line
The most important thing to remember when training yourself to sleep on your back is to focus on alignment. If you find sleep props like pillows and blankets distracting, just make sure your "head, neck and spinal column stay in one straight line," says Robbins. For extra motivation, back sleeping may reduce fine lines, as your face isn't pressing into your pillow. It may also allow for greater absorption of your night cream.
Use a Firm Mattress
Erin Rossi, a Certified Sleep Science Coach and contributor to the Simply Rest blog underscores the importance of finding a fab mattress with the proper amount of density. "If you want to train yourself to sleep on your back, you first have to find the right mattress. If you try to lay flat on a mattress that is too soft, your hips will sink too far down, making it difficult to get comfortable without rolling to your side."
You may find it much easier to sleep on your back if you have a firm mattress rather than a soft one. "On a soft bed, the lower spine can sink unsupported into the bed and cause hyperextension of the lumbar spine," Chang says. The unfortunate result? Lower back pain. Soft mattresses may feel dreamy at first, but you might be surprised to find out how much better you feel after sleeping on a more firm mattress.
Choose the Right Pillow
When it comes to pillows, you want to make sure you're keeping your body in proper alignment while adding the right amount of support. "A back sleeper would do well with a pillow that has a concave area for the head to rest," says Robbins. "Also look for a vertical thicker compartment on both lengths of the pillow to support the cervical spine."
On that note, Cralle urges you to think beyond the sleep surface alone. "Pillows and toppers factor in and can augment and enhance comfort and help support your preferred sleep position," she says.
Sleep With a Pillow Under Your Knees
Ever wake up with a sore lower back after sleeping on your back? This isn't uncommon—some people experience lower back pain after sleeping on their back. To reduce pressure and stress on your spine, Chang recommends sleeping with a pillow beneath your knees. The University of Rochester Medical Center explains that this can also help support the natural curve in your lower back.
Use an Adjustable Bed Frame
Using an adjustable bed frame may help keep you on your back, by helping to keep your head or feet elevated throughout the night. "Beds now come with zoned support and lumbar support, which can be very helpful when people are trying to stay on their backs all night," says Carolyn Burke, a certified sleep coach and editor for The Sleep Advisor.
Build a PIllow Fort, Seriously
"My position is: the more pillows the better," says Robbins. "Make a pillow fort around you, placing a pillow under your legs." Finally if you’re trying to switch to back sleeping, she advises you look for a pillow with support for the nape of your neck, or your cervical spine.
If you're short a few pillows for making a fort, you can try this crescent-shaped pillow by Moon Pod.
Try a Weighted Blanket
Burke says that it's more difficult to toss and turn with a weighted blanket, preventing you from turning onto your side or stomach. This style from Bearaby features a chic, modern knit design with the option to choose 15, 20, or 25 lbs of comforting weight.
Don't Force It
If you can't seem to make a habit of sleeping on your back and naturally tend to sleep on your side, that's perfectly fine. The sleep experts we spoke to all agree that side-sleeping is just as optimal as sleeping on your back.
According to James Rowley, chief of pulmonary and critical care and sleep medicine at DMC Harper University Hospital, there is no "best" position for sleeping. "Individuals should sleep in the position that is most comfortable for them and allows them the best night of sleep," he says. "For some that might be on their back, for others on their side."
If you choose to sleep on your side, Chang recommends taking extra care to keep your neck in a neutral position. As with back sleeping, a firm mattress is great for side-sleepers, as is placing a pillow between your legs and making sure the pillow behind your head is at an appropriate height to keep your neck in alignment.
If you're concerned about your sleep position or any other aspect of sleep, remember to always consult with your doctor before making any big changes. This is especially important if you suffer from sleep apnea or another condition that affects your breathing—doctors always know best!
National Sleep Foundation. Best Sleeping Positions. Updated April 29, 2021.
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University of Rochester Medical Center. Good sleeping posture helps your back.