As a child, you were likely able to fall asleep in any position. Actually, if you have a baby or toddler, you may be so sleep deprived that you still catch yourself dosing off in random places. You know, you go into the pantry to grab something for lunch, and wake up using a roll of paper towels for a pillow. However, when you go to bed at night, you likely retreat to the same position to fall asleep. What you may not know is that every position desires something different from a mattress. You may think you want a specific mattress because it has outstanding reviews, but if it does not complement your sleeping position, you could find yourself full of regret over your purchase.
Although there are eight recognized sleeping positions, they are typically grouped into three categories: side, stomach, and back. There was a time when it was argued that sleeping on your back was best for your health and posture, but that theory has been dismissed. In fact, many sleep specialists suggest that your sleeping position is linked to a specific personality type.
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 your side with your arms and legs straight, so you 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 your back, but it applies more pressure to nerves and restricts blood flow in the arms and shoulders. Also, if you sleep on your right side rather than the left, you add extra strain to the liver, stomach, and lungs.
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. You do not want your shoulders and hips to take the strain every day for an extended amount of time. When you sleep on your side, recessed areas between your 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 your 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, you will be more likely to toss and turn all night, and poor sleep quality affects your health and mood. So, although you may have been told in the past that you should think about trying to sleep on your back instead, you really don’t need to. You just need a better mattress design.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sleeping position should play a leading role in deciding which mattress you want to buy. 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.
Joe is the editor of Mattress Clarity. When he isn't testing sleep products, he enjoys working out, reading, and playing classical piano.