Sleeping Positions: Choosing the Best Mattress for Your Sleep Position

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As a child, people were likely able to fall asleep in any position. Actually, if people have a baby or toddler, they may be so sleep deprived that they still catch themselves dosing off in random places. People know, they go into the pantry to grab something for lunch, and wake up using a roll of paper towels for a pillow. However, when people go to bed at night, they likely retreat to the same position to fall asleep. What people may not know is that every position desires something different from a mattress. People may think they want a specific mattress because it has outstanding reviews, but if it does not complement their sleeping position, they could find themselves full of regret over their purchase.

Although there are eight recognized sleeping positions, they are typically grouped into three categories:

  • Side
  • Stomach
  • Back

There was a time when it was argued that sleeping on one’s back was best for their health and posture, but that theory has been dismissed. In fact, many sleep specialists suggest that one’s sleeping position is linked to a specific personality type.

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Side Sleeping Pros & Cons | Side Sleeper Mattress Considerations | Back Sleeping Pros & Cons | Back Sleeper Mattress Considerations | Stomach Sleeping Pros & Cons | Stomach Sleeper Mattress Considerations | Combination Sleeper Mattress Considerations

Side Sleeping

Casper Element Mattress - Side Sleeping

Most side sleepers enjoy the fetal position with their arms and legs bent and curled in towards the body, and the spine is gently curved. This is the most common of all sleep positions, and it is often said to cause back pain or long-term back problems. This is partially true, but it is nothing a good mattress can’t prevent or help fix.

Side sleeping does not only include the popular fetal position though. There is also the “log” position, which is sleeping on one’s side with their arms and legs straight, so they look like a log. The “yearner” position is also included in this category The legs are straight, but there is usually a slight curve in the back, and arms are extended out in front.

The fetal position restricts deep breathing and can put a lot of strain on the back and neck. The log position is said to be easier on the back, but still contributes to skin aging because of gravity. The yearner position is also a little easier on one’s back, but it applies more pressure to nerves and restricts blood flow in the arms and shoulders. Also, if people sleep on their right side rather than the left, they add extra strain to the liver, stomach, and lungs.

Pros of Side Sleeping

  • Less likely to snore. Sleeping on your side is often used a tip or trick to lessen soring, according to the National Sleep Foundation.  “If you snore or have breathing problems, sleeping on your side is the best choice for opening your airways so you can breathe better at night,” said sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter, MD, to CNN earlier this year.
  • Ease lower back pain. If you suffer from back pain, like the kind from a herniated disk, experts recommend sleeping on your side in a curled fetal position. When you have a herniation, your disks, which act as cushioning between your vertebrate, come out of place and may cause pain. When you curl your torso into a fetal position, you open up your joints, according to a report from Medical News Today.
  • A good option during pregnancy. Sleeping on your side – in particular, your left side- may be the best option for pregnant women. The American Pregnancy Association says, “sleeping on your left side will increase the amount of blood and nutrients that reach the placenta and your baby.”

Cons of Side Sleeping

  • It can strain your organs. Sleeping on one side all night long can put pressure on your organs, like your stomach and lungs, said Sophia Breene in her post for Greatist. Alternating sides overnight may be able to help, but you’ll have to be awake enough to flip yourself over, which could be tricky.
  • It can aggravate your heartburn or acid reflux. A study from the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology found that people experienced worse symptoms of heartburn when they slept on their right side. The reasoning remains unclear. “One hypothesis holds that right-side sleeping relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, between the stomach and the esophagus, wrote Anhadad O’Connor for the New York Times.”Another holds that left-side sleeping keeps the junction between stomach and esophagus above the level of gastric acid.”
  • Your arm can go numb. Most side sleepers know that all too familiar arm tingling and numbness that can come from sleeping on one side too long. “This position places stress on the downward-facing shoulder. The body weight placed on this shoulder in many cases will cause a compression of the nerve bundle as it passes into the arm. The symptoms of this include waking up with numbness in the arm and hand, ” said Daniel Baumstark, CHT, a Daniel is a licensed physical therapist and the owner of PhysioDC in an article for Everyday Health.

Check out the best pillows for side sleepers!

Side Sleeper Mattress Considerations

Although there are people who sleep in the log and yearner position most folks sleeping on their side are in the fetal position. In fact, statistics show that about 41 percent of all sleepers prefer this safe-feeling position.

Since this position is significantly curvier than others, pressure relief is vitally important. People do not want their shoulders and hips to take the strain every day for an extended amount of time. When people sleep on their side, recessed areas between their body and the mattress are formed. These gaps need a mattress that will form a cradle to fill them in. This spreads weight more evenly so these pressure points don’t become pained.

To allow one’s body to sink into the mattress, a softer and thicker comfort layer is needed. In most cases the average side sleeper needs a comfort layer that is about 3 inches thick, give or take an inch.

Side sleepers who are not cradled by their mattress at night are prone to soreness, numbness, and localized redness due to aggravated pressure points. Additionally, people will be more likely to toss and turn all night, and poor sleep quality affects their health and mood. So, although they may have been told in the past that they should think about trying to sleep on their back instead, people really don’t need to. People just need a better mattress design.

RELATED: Best Mattresses for Side Sleepers

Back Sleeping

Mattress Sleep On Back

It should come as no surprise that sleeping on your back with your arms at your sides is said to be the best position. Doctors have been saying this for a long time. In fact, there is a good chance your parents tried to get you to sleep like this and now you may constantly recommend it to your own children. The problem with this position is that few people actually find it comfortable. Of course, they are likely not using a bed designed for this position. It should also be noted that this particular position is strongly associated with snoring and sleep apnea.

There is also another back sleeping position called the “starfish” position. It is also ideal for a healthy back, but this position involves the arms being up and around your pillow, a significant amount of pressure to your shoulders that results in pain.

Pros of Back Sleeping

  • It’s good for neutral alignment. Sleeping on one’s back allows for the head, neck, and spine to stay in a neutral position, which is ideal for relieving unwanted pressure. It also means people are less likely to experience pain when they sleep, according to the folks at the National Sleep Foundation.
  • It helps keep acne and wrinkles at bay. When you’re asleep on your back your face isn’t touching the pillow – this means there’s less of a chance for the drool, facial oils, and dead skin cells that can live on your pillow to clog pores. It may lessen the number of facial wrinkles you have, as well.
  • It’s pretty good for acid reflux.  Lying on your back (with a pillow or at an incline) means the head is elevated, and the stomach is able to sit below the esophagus, making it less likely for digested substances to come back up, according to a post from online health and science news site, MedicalDaily.

Cons of Back Sleeping

  • It’s not great for snoring. According to the folks at The Snoring Center, with your head propped up on a pillow, you are restricting the flow of air through your passageway, leading to snoring. “Snoring is usually most frequent and severe when sleeping on the back,” said Eric Olson, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. to Health.com.
  • It’s linked to sleep apnea. People who suffer from sleep apnea may be better off on their side at night. In a study from the National Institute of Health, researchers looked at 30 male patients with sleep apnea and found that the incidence of sleep apnea was twice as high when patients slept on their backs (versus sleeping on their sides).
  • It should be avoided if you’re pregnant. The American Pregnancy Association explains why sleeping on your stomach is bad for pregnancy. “[Back sleeping] can cause problems with backaches, breathing, the digestive system, hemorrhoids, low blood pressure and cause a decrease in circulation to your heart and your baby,” they said in a post on their website. “This is a result of your abdomen resting on your intestines and major blood vessels (the aorta and vena cava).”

Back Sleeper Mattress Considerations

The recessed space in the lumbar area is really the only major gap created when you sleep on your back. That being said, it is a pretty important part of the body that needs to be supported, but it does not require a comfort layer quite as thick as what’s needed by side sleepers. A thinner top layer actually works best. Most back sleepers are more than satisfied by a 2-inch comfort layer.

RELATED: Best Mattresses for Back Sleepers

Stomach Sleeping

Stomach Sleeping Mattress

The only real benefit to sleeping on your stomach is that it may help stop snoring. Other than that there is a list of disadvantages to sleeping in this position. However, if this is what makes you comfortable and the only way you can fall asleep then buying the right mattress can help minimize the negative effects.

Since you can’t breathe through a pillow, you likely have your head turned one way or the other, which strains your neck. If you are using a pillow then your neck is not only turned harshly all night; your back is also bent slightly backwards. Also, since the curve is not supported like this, stomach sleepers often suffer with back pain.

Pros of Stomach Sleeping

    • It eases snoring. “If you’re a back sleeper who snores and you can’t switch to sleeping on your side, laying on your stomach could be a good compromise that can open your airways a bit, says Winter.

Cons of Stomach Sleeping

  • It’s hard on your back. “Stomach-sleeping makes it difficult to maintain a neutral position with your spine,” said Ken Shannon, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to Health.com. “It puts pressure on joints and muscles, which can irritate nerves and lead to pain, numbness, and tingling.”
  • And it’s also rough on your neck. It’s pretty impossible to sleep on your stomach without twisting your head and neck so you can breathe. “Imagine standing and looking one way for two or three hours at a time. Stretching your neck muscle for that long creates soreness,” said Dr. Andrew Bang, DC, at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in a post on the clinic’s website.

Stomach Sleeper Mattress Considerations

The last thing a stomach sleeper needs is a soft and/or thick comfort layer because there are little to no recessed areas to support. Plus, if you sleep on a softer surface on your stomach you are likely to hyperextend the lumbar area. Firm, thin comfort layers are ideal. There can be an inch of softness to provide cushioning to bony areas, but the firmness should be met by the body quite quickly to avoid creating an unnatural backwards curve of the back.

RELATED: Best Mattresses for Stomach Sleepers

Combination Sleeping

If you are saying, “Hey, I don’t fall into only one category” then you are actually part of the majority. Most people are combination sleepers. Of course, as far as a mattress is concerned combination sleepers are also the hardest to please. If you slept on your side, back, or stomach all the time you would know exactly what to look for in a mattress. So, how do you find a mattress that is comfortable for all sleeping positions? Well, it can be a challenge, but it is certainly not impossible.

Combination Sleeper Mattress Considerations

When shopping for a mattress, consider your deepest sleeping position, but do not cater to it. So, if you usually sleep on your side and back, your side would be your deepest sleeping position. Side sleepers usually need a 3-inch comfort layer, but back sleepers only need about 1 inch of soft material and then firmer support underneath. So, go with something in between. If you purchased a mattress with a 3-inch comfort layer, you will likely end up with a very sore back and neck when you do sleep on your stomach.

A transition (middle) layer is a good quality to look for between the top layer and support layer. This will allow you to sink a little more, when you need it to relieve pressure, yet it will stop you from sinking so far that you end up with backaches.

High quality foams, especially latex, works great for combination sleepers. They are softer near the top, but once comprised provide a surprising amount of firm support. Innersprings, such as offset coils and pocket coils work great, too.

RELATED: Best Mattresses for Combination Sleepers

Final Thoughts

Sleeping position should play a leading role in deciding which mattress you want to buy. Whether you’re deciding between a firm vs soft mattress, memory foam vs hybrid, or between other important factors, your sleeping position is a great place to start.

Every sleeping position demands a unique cradle based on the number of recessed areas created between your body and the mattress. The right mattress will cater to these gaps, but also provide the right amount of support in deeper layers to keep your spine aligned properly.

Gravatar for Joe Auer

Joe Auer

Joe Auer is the editor of Mattress Clarity. He mainly focuses on mattress reviews and oversees the content across the site.

He likes things simple and take a straightforward, objective approach to his reviews. Joe has personally tested nearly 250 mattresses and always recommends people do their research before buying a new bed. He has been testing mattresses for over 5 years now, so he knows a thing or two when it comes to mattress selection. He has been cited as an authority in the industry by a number of large publications.

Joe has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and an MBA from Columbia University.