Is there a preferred sleeping position for humans?

Is there a preferred sleeping position for humans?

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I remember hearing various sleep related advice as a child, like "sleep on your right side", or " have your head pointed in X direction".

Is there any biological reason why sleeping on one side versus another, or with a head pointed in some direction is beneficial for humans?

The enWikipedia article summarizes the best/only real research on positions that I am aware of. I read a book in high school (that is to say it was old and I have no idea what the title was) that claimed that the semi-fetal position was the best, as it supposedly maximized protection without compromising breathing too much. I can't say I've seen anything that would indicate your head's direction actually matters, except as it depends on the position of the rest of your body. Do you mean facing North or the door? That's some Feng Shui stuff or something similar, which is meaningless.

In terms of which side to sleep on, there is actually an answer! Well, maybe. Sleeping on your left side aggravates heartburn more than sleeping on the right side1, but sleeping on your left may be somewhat associated with heart problems.2 From what I can read from the studies, the heartburn one sounds more causative, but then again dying is worse than a little heartburn… In the end, though, about the only thing that matters is that sleeping on yours side can lower the amount of snoring (annoying) and sleep apnea (unhealthy).

Disclaimer: Not in any way my area of expertise. Maybe someone else can expand

In relation to pregnancy, there exist one australian study (Stacey et al. 2011) that reports an increased risk of still-birth for women that sleep on their back at the later stages of pregnancy. The purported mechanism is pressure from the uterus on the inferior vena cava and aorta, restricting blood flow. Lowest risk was found for women that sleep on their left side (less pressure on the liver). Another recent study from Ghana (Owusu et al. 2013) has found similar results, with associations between sleep position (supine position) and birth weight or risk of still birth. However, the studies are relatively small and the results must be further corroborated.

9 Sleeping Positions & Their Meanings

Everyone has certain sleeping positions that they favour, and sometimes these positions can reflect a lot on your personality. . .

Last Modified 15 April 2021 First Added 22 May 2017

Wondering what your sleeping position means? Here, we explore just that. We all favour certain sleeping positions to send us off to the land of nod each night, with most of us choosing one when young and sticking to it throughout our entire lives. In this post and infographic, we explore the multitude of ways to sleep comfortably, from curling up into a ball to lying spread-eagled across the entirety of the bed. We even go one step further to see what your exact sleeping position says about your character. So, to discover whether you’re a good friend, more likely to be an introvert, or prefer to be cuddled then read on and find your sleeping type.

Here’s a text friendly version of this infographic:

REM sleep, also known as rapid eye movement, is often called the dreaming stage of sleep. Typically the eye moves rapidly under the lid, moving from side to side. Brain waves are also the most active. According to the National Institute of Health REM starts about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and at this point your voluntary muscles become paralyzed to keep you from harming yourself if you try to act upon what’s happening to you in your dreams. Interestingly, awakenings and arousals happen more easily in REM. And if you are woken up in REM it makes you feel groggy or overly sleepy.

According to Diana Walcutt, Ph.D, our brain has different frequencies during each stage:

Those are the 4 stages of sleep…but what about sleep positions?

Researchers, psychologists and sleep scientists alike have been studying the most common sleep patterns to get an inside scoop about what they mean. It turns out, there are nine different sleeping positions, and each can tell a lot about the sleeper’s personality. Let’s take a look at each position, from most to least popular:

Research on Back Sleeping And SIDS

The single most effective action that parents and caregivers can take to lower a baby's risk of SIDS is to place the baby to sleep on his or her back for naps and at night.

Compared with back sleeping, stomach sleeping increases the risk of SIDS by 1.7 - 12.9. 1 The mechanisms by which stomach sleeping might lead to SIDS are not entirely known. Studies suggest that stomach sleeping may increase SIDS risk through a variety of mechanisms, including:

  • Increasing the probability that the baby re-breathes his or her own exhaled breath, leading to carbon dioxide buildup and low oxygen levels
  • Causing upper airway obstruction
  • Interfering with body heat dissipation, leading to overheating 2

Whatever the mechanism, evidence from numerous countries—including New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States—suggests that placing babies on their backs to sleep results in a substantial decline in the SIDS rate compared to placing babies on their stomachs to sleep. Researchers have established the link between stomach sleeping and SIDS by showing that babies who died from SIDS were more likely to be put to sleep on their stomachs compared to babies who lived.

After that discovery, public health campaigns were launched to promote back sleep position and reduce the use of the stomach sleep position. Dramatic decreases in SIDS rates were observed in all countries with these public health campaigns these campaigns have been successful in reducing the prevalence of stomach sleep position among infants. In areas where stomach sleeping is rare (including Hong Kong), SIDS rates historically have been very low, which further strengthens the association. 3,4

Compared with infants who sleep on their backs, infants who sleep on their stomachs:

  • Are less reactive to noise
  • Experience sudden decreases in blood pressure and heart rate control
  • Experience less movement, higher arousal thresholds, and longer periods of deep sleep 5,6

These characteristics might put an infant at higher risk of SIDS. The simple act of placing infants on their backs to sleep significantly lowers SIDS risk.

As stomach sleeping has declined in response to back-sleeping campaigns worldwide, statistics show that the contribution of side sleeping to SIDS risk has increased. Research shows that side sleeping is just as risky as stomach sleep position and, therefore, should not be used. 7

Placing babies on their backs to sleep is not associated with risks for other problems. For example, there is no increase in aspiration or complaints of vomiting when babies are placed on their backs to sleep. 8

Moreover, babies may benefit in other ways from sleeping on their backs. A 2003 study found that infants who slept on their backs were less likely than infants who slept on their stomachs to develop ear infections, stuffy noses, or fevers. 9

Several studies found that back sleepers have delayed early motor skill milestones, although one recent Israeli study found no difference in gross motor developmental skills at 6 months among supine (back) and prone (stomach) sleepers. 10,11 Some studies have noted that even though supine sleepers experience these early delays, there is no significant age difference in terms of when the infants learn to walk. 12,13

Multiple studies have found a positive correlation between the amount of time supine sleepers spend prone during their awake hours and motor skills development. 14,15 This finding reinforces the need to educate parents about the importance of tummy time.

What is the Best Direction to Sleep?

Finding the best direction to sleep depends on if you follow Vastu Shastra or Feng Shui. If you follow the Hindu practice of Vastu Shastra, you avoid sleeping with your head pointing North. For people living in the Northern hemisphere, any direction except facing North is advisable. Conversely, if your country is in the Southern hemisphere, any direction except facing South is going to help you sleep better at night.

What happens to your body when you are sleeping with your head pointing to the North? Blood flow can be affected due to the amount of iron in your blood, especially if you are taking iron supplements. According to Vastu Shastra, the magnetic force of the planet can affect the iron in your blood, putting too much pressure on your brain, subsequently affecting your sleep. Also, as you age, your blood vessels may weaken which can lead to inadequate blood blow. It’s believed that sleeping while you face north for too long may have some consequences to your health due to the Earth’s magnetic pull.

Sleeping Positions After Open Heart Surgery

Difficulty in sleeping is a common complaint after open heart surgery. After open heart surgery, it is important to sleep in a way that enables the patient to breathe properly and also avoids any kind of pressure over the chest wall.

Sleeping Upright In Bed

This gives ample time for the breast bone to heal after surgery. A neck pillow should be placed to support the neck and spine.

Sleeping On Back

This allows head, neck, and spine to be aligned as compared to the upright position and also allows the back and chest to be in a relaxed position.

Sleep On Right Side

Sleeping upright and on the back for a long time can become uncomfortable. Therefore sleeping on the right side is generally recommended after open heart surgery.

Why Ancient People Engage in Biphasic Sleep

In the absence of artificial light, most people naturally revert to a biphasic routine. This was shown by a psychologist, Thomas Wehr, who restricted the light his human subjects received to a 10-hour period, followed by 14 hours of darkness.

After a brief, 4-week adjustment period, the study participants developed a sleep pattern that had two distinct segments that were broken up by a period of wakefulness that lasted from one to three hours.

It’s believed that in modern society the pros of this schedule allow for more flexibility. And, considering that people with maintenance insomnia may sleep like this naturally, it may be beneficial for them to stop trying to fight a regimented monophasic schedule.

Another type of biphasic sleep involves a more extended rest period at night but includes a nap during the day. Several modern cultures follow this schedule, including countries in Latin America and Europe. The biggest pro of this routine is that it allows people to nap during the afternoon when the after-lunch energy dip occurs.

Traditional biphasic sleeping may not be conducive to most people’s schedules because it requires going to bed soon after dusk. Many work-related and family obligations require that individuals stay up later and rise at an hour that allows them to get to work on time.

While some people have enough flexibility to adhere to a routine like this, they may find that biphasic sleeping leaves them feeling fatigued. In cases like this, a monophasic schedule is probably best for them.

What type of sleeper are you?

Using a Pillow While Sleeping on the Side

When lying on one's side, a pillow should support the head and neck so the spine maintains a straight and natural horizontal line. A thicker pillow is needed for sleeping on the side than sleeping on the back.

Bending the knees and placing another pillow between the knees keeps the spine in the neutral position. When there is no support between the legs, the upper leg rotates downward, pulling the pelvis and distorting the natural line of the spine. A firm pillow between the knees usually prevents this downward rotation better than a softer pillow.

Adding support between the knees can prevent back pain and allow the back to heal and rest better while sleeping.

There is limited research on pillows for side sleepers. One small study found the latex pillow the most helpful of five types considered (foam contour-shaped, regular foam, polyester, feather, and standard latex. Study participants reported the most cervical stiffness upon waking after using feather pillows, with the symptoms continuing well into the day. 1

The Best Sleeping Positions: How to Avoid Losing While You’re Snoozing

The best sleeping position is what’s comfortable for you. However, the shape your body makes when you’re asleep can affect different parts of your body. For something so simple even babies do it, sleep isn’t such an easy thing to master. In fairness, they do have a lot more time to work on it.

Both too little and too much time dozing has been linked to a host of health problems, from obesity and heart disease to dementia and diabetes. It also turns out that it’s not just the length of sleep that matters — it’s also the position you’re in.

(It’s not the length of the longboat, it’s the position of the splishin’.)

The way you sleep can play a big role in snoring, heartburn, and even wrinkles. Read on to see if you should switch it up in bed (remember, we’re talking sleep here). We looked at the research on sleeping positions and how they affect your back and general health.

Unfortunately, high-quality studies on this field are rare due to tiny sample sizes. Sleep positions have, quite literally, been slept on. We have, however, been able to develop a general picture of the pros and cons of each.

Sleeping on your back, or “supine position,” is great for your back itself, but can screw with your breathing.

Pros of back sleeping

Snoozing in Savasana pose is a boon for spine and neck health. The back stays straight and untwisted, which is just swell. Plus, back sleeping helps the mattress do its job of supporting the spine.

In a perfect (and slightly uncomfy) world, everyone would sleep on their backs without a pillow. This position leaves the neck in a neutral position. Using too many pillows, however, can make breathing more difficult.

Back sleeping is also a winner for the more cosmetically inclined. Spending all night with your face out in the air and not smooshed up against a pillow can lead to fewer facial wrinkles. Poljsak B, et al. (2012). The influence of the sleeping on the formation of facial wrinkles.

If you’re looking to reduce wrinkles without spending money on products, look no further.

Snoring and sleep apnea become much more frequent when a person is sleeping in the supine position. In fact, back sleeping is so closely linked to sleep apnea that doctors prescribe side sleeping as a treatment for the condition. InformedHealth. (2011). Treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

When you sleep on your back, gravity forces the base of the tongue to sink into the airway. This obstructs breathing and creates those oh-so-pleasant snoring noises that keep the neighbors up at night.

It’s also worth noting that a supported spine doesn’t always necessarily mean a good night’s sleep.

An earlier study compared the sleep habits of good sleepers and poor sleepers. The authors noted the people with worse-quality sleep spent more time on their backs than the good sleepers. De Koninck J, et al. (1983). Sleep positions in the young adult and their relationship with the subjective quality of sleep.

However, as hair has moved on (a great deal) since the 80s, so too has science. So take this with a pinch of salt — ultimately, if you’re comfortable, you’ll sleep well.

A 2017 study found that most people prefer sleeping on their side. Schjelderup Skarpsno E, et al. Sleep positions and nocturnal body movements based on free-living accelerometer recordings: association with demographics, lifestyle, and insomnia symptoms.

Whether they’re curling up in the cozy fetal position or lying straight on one side, the vast majority of people report sleeping on their sides. Gordon SJ, et al. (2007). Sleep position, age, gender, sleep quality and waking cervico-thoracic symptoms.

(Although, since everyone is unconscious during sleep, this information can never be entirely accurate. Gordon SJ, et al. (2004). Self-reported versus recorded sleep position: an observational study. You could well be sleep-singing Since U Been Gone at full pelt. We’ll never know.)

Sleeping on the left side can put pressure on the stomach and lungs (alternating sides often can help prevent organ strain). And as almost all side-sleepers know well, this position can result in the dreaded squished-arm-numbness.

(That immortal dilemma of how to tactfully stop spooning your partner and roll onto your back to sleep comes into play here. If you do enjoy cuddling and have a penis, here’s how to do it without getting a boner.)

Resting the head (or the whole body) on a single arm can restrict blood flow and press down on the nerves, which results in “rubber arm” or painful pins and needles. You don’t want to wake up like a wacky waving arms inflatable tube man.

In this position, the shoulder supports a lot of the body’s weight, which can constrict the neck and shoulder muscles. Zenian J, et al. (2010). Sleep position and shoulder pain.

Then you’re looking at ouchies in the shoulders when you wake up. If they do hurt, try these 16 stretches for shoulder pain.

If you sleep with your belly down, things might go a bit belly-up.

As sleeping on your back can lead to increased snoring in some people, some sleep specialists recommend switching up your position to either side or front sleeping.

So, yes, stomach sleeping might ease snoring, but there’s no solid evidence that supports stomach sleeping over side sleeping. Breathe easy, bellies of the world. You shall remain unsquished, for now.

And, to be honest, even if those claims were backed by our science pals, they’re still pretty much the only good thing about going belly-down at night.

Resting on the tummy is pretty much the Limp Bizkit of sleep positions — a guilty pleasure when you can’t be bothered to find anything better, but ultimately not great for you in the long run.

So if you wind up dozing off while you’re face down, keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ until you’re on your side.

Stomach sleeping flattens the natural curve of the spine and pushes your body weight into your core, which can lead to lower back pain. Sleeping all night with your head turned to one side also strains the neck. Imagine watching an 8-hour tennis rally.

If you genuinely prefer this position, try gradually tilting your pillows to get your body comfortable with side-sleeping.

Worse still, putting your baby to sleep on their stomach can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

If you’re feeling lower back twinges from changing your position, try sticking a pillow under the hips and lower abdomen to give the bottom of the spine a boost.

Pillow getting tired too? Here’s how to work out when it’s time for a new one.

Arguably the OG sleeping position, curling up in fetal position may not be a natural first port of call for many people in the quest for catching Zzz’s. Pulling your knees up to your chest isn’t really the go-to decision before sleeping (outside of the womb).

However, this position causes less bending at the bottom of your spine while you sleep. As a result, it can provide relief for people with a herniated disk.

Roll onto your left or right side, carefully place your pillow under your head and neck, and bring your knees into your chest until your back is straight. It’s no cure-all for a very painful back condition, but it can help you get your 40 winks with less disruption.

Sleeping positions aren’t only important for your own health — if you’ve got a tiny human inside you, you’ll also have to bear theirs in mind.

Naturally, the belly is a sensitive spot, and sleeping on both your right side or your back may increase the risk of a stillbirth (although, according to a 2019 study, it doesn’t increase the risk of complications as much as researchers originally thought.) Farine D, et al. (2007). When it comes to pregnant women sleeping, is left right?

It’s better to be safe than sorry, though. If you’re not naturally a left side sleeper, don’t worry — pregnancy pillows and sleep aids can help you and your little trooper be more comfortable.

Side sleeping is also a winner during pregnancy as it relieves pressure on the lower back (which can lead to fainting). For obvious reasons, stomach-sleeping is also impossible while a person is pregnant.

People who side sleep can keep their spine aligned by placing a pillow between the knees.

For those expecting heartburn and acid reflux rather than a bouncing bundle of joy, sleeping on the left side may also ease heartburn and acid reflux, making it easier for people with these conditions to doze off.

While testing a new sleep reposition device, for example, researchers found that people sleeping on their left side experienced less exposure to acid in their esophagus — a sign that acid reflux posed less of a problem. Person E, et al. (2015). A novel sleep positioning device reduces gastroesophageal reflux: A randomized controlled trial.

For a bit more relief during pregnancy, why not give yoga a try?

Regardless of health benefits, people sleep in the position they find the most comfortable.

Even if you start out in the ideal position, you’ll likely transition to a different one via the air guitar pose you striking during your dream solo in front of a packed-out Super Bowl.

But experimenting with different sleep positions won’t do any harm, so feel free to try each position for a few nights and see which is the best fit. Whether it’s back, side, or stomach, people tend to wake up in the position that their bodies naturally snooze in.

Unless a doctor specifically recommends switching, it’s probably best to keep doing what feels right. Sleep tight!

If you’re one of the many people who find it difficult to do so, we’ve got 31 ideas to help you sleep better.


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