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Sleep better with the right sleeping position

We sleep, or try to sleep, for a third of our lives. CURA of Sweden finds out which are the best and most common sleeping positions, how to sleep when you're pregnant or have back problems and whether it's better to sleep with a pillow or not.

During sleep, the body recovers and the brain processes the day's impressions. Sleep is important for our well-being but lots of us suffer from regular sleep problems or poor sleep quality. Even if you've slept well, you may wake up not feeling properly rested.

It's also not uncommon to wake up in the morning and suddenly have pain or soreness in a new part of your body. It can depend on your position whilst you were sleeping. It's important to have a good sleeping position to get the best out of your sleep and give your body maximum support, rest and recovery.

Your sleeping position affects your sleep quality because the sleeping position provides natural support for your spine. If your sleep quality is not great, or if you're pregnant or suffering from various types of pain, it might be a good idea to check your sleeping position and adjust it if necessary. CURA of Sweden finds out which are the best and most common sleeping positions, how to sleep when you're pregnant or have back problems and whether it's better to sleep with a pillow or not.

Which sleeping positions are most common?

Side positions

Do you often fall asleep on your side with your legs higher up in the bed, but wake up on your back with your hands above your head? Then you have fallen asleep in the foetal position but woken up in the 'starfish'. Different sleeping positions suit different people, but the most common sleeping position is the foetal position where you lie curled up just like a baby in its mother's womb during pregnancy. 25% of the population sleeps in the foetal position, which is a very safe and natural position to sleep in. Sleeping on your side keeps your airways open and as a bonus your lower back likes this position too. However, there's a risk of waking up stiff with aching joints if you lie curled up and tense in the foetal position all night. It can also affect your deep breathing while you sleep. So stretch your legs a little, make sure that your back is straight and place a pillow between your knees to sleep really comfortably.

As we all know, to sleep like a log means to sleep deeply. Someone who actually sleeps like a log lies straight like a log on one side with their arms close to their sides. Just like the foetal position, the 'log' facilitates breathing and helps avoid sleep apnoea. It's an excellent position for keeping your back as straight and balanced as possible. If you suffer from acid reflux experts recommend sleeping on the left side, ideally with a large pillow under your head so that you are slightly elevated. This helps to relieve the discomfort.

'Stretch sleepers' sleep on their sides, with their arms outstretched as if they're searching for something. One leg can also be pulled up towards the stomach.

Positions on the back

The 'soldier' sleeps straight on their back as if on guard duty. Gravity helps balance the body and protect the spine. If you have pain in your neck, hips or knees, this is a good sleeping position for you. A pillow under the knees can provide extra support. However, this position is more problematic for snorers or those who suffer from breathing problems.

The 'starfish' is another way to sleep on your back. You have your hands outstretched over your head and your legs wide apart - like a starfish. As this is a back position, it's not suitable for snorers.  It does, however relieve pain in the shoulders and can also be comfortable if you have back pain.

Stomach positions

When you sleep in 'freefall' you lie on your stomach with your hands under the pillow or out to the sides as if falling from the sky. This sleeping position is not as common, and it increases the pressure on your neck and back. If this is your favourite position, you can relieve the pressure on your back by placing a soft pillow under your lower abdomen. Choose a very thin pillow, or no pillow at all, to help your neck. Be careful with how you position your head. If you sleep with your head turned to one side during the night, the risk of overloading the neck increases and there's a risk of your back becoming crooked.

Which sleeping position is best?

A good sleeping position relieves the pressure on the spine and contributes to good sleep quality. This position varies from person to person. In general, it's better to sleep on your side or back because that doesn't strain your back and neck in the same way as sleeping on your stomach does. Over fifty percent of all adults sleep in a position that helps to reduce problems sleeping. If you're relaxed with your knees slightly raised, you stress the spine and shoulders as little as possible while keeping the airways fully open. Sleeping on the left side is especially beneficial, as it helps digestion and reduces heartburn. The disadvantage of sleeping on your side is that you can get stiff shoulders, and if your bed is too hard it can cause hip pain.Lie down in bed and roll over onto one side, preferably the left one

Use a pillow to support your neck and head

Pull your knees up slightly and place a pillow between them

Place additional pillows in any spaces between your body and the mattress, especially at the waist. This way your body gets the maximum support

Here's how to sleep comfortably on your side:

  • Lie down in bed and roll over onto one side, preferably the left one
  • Use a pillow to support your neck and head
  • Pull your knees up slightly and place a pillow between them
  • Place additional pillows in any spaces between your body and the mattress, especially at the waist. This way your body gets the maximum support

Sleeping on the back – good for the body but worse for snorers

To relieve the body and avoid pain in the neck, it's good to sleep on your back. However, if you are a snorer - or your partner snores - you have probably already noticed that this is not the best sleeping position for you.

Also, if you suffer from breathing problems, or sleep apnoea, it's better to sleep on your side to keep your airways as open as possible. Sleep apnoea causes the airways to collapse during sleep, so if you sleep on your back, your tongue relaxes and ends up further back in the palate making the airways even more blocked. An extra pillow under your head, or sleeping in a half-sitting position, helps you breathe better if you have a blocked nose.

How to relieve back pain:

  • Lie flat on your back with your face facing the ceiling
  • Place a pillow for support under your head and neck
  • Place a small pillow under your knees
  • If necessary, place another pillow under your lower back or in other places where there are gaps between your back and the mattress

With or without a pillow?

Sleeping with a pillow can affect back and neck pain, and if you have a pillow that doesn't work for you, it can affect your sleep. The pillow should give your shoulders enough support and balance your back. It's important that your head rests in a neutral position in relation to the rest of your body, not too far forward or back.  If you sleep on your stomach, a pillow can strain your back, so some people sleep with a very thin pillow or none at all.

If you sleep on your back or side, however, a pillow is preferable because otherwise your neck and throat will be under too much pressure. Choose a soft and adjustable pillow that can be used in different sleeping positions.

Sleep positions for pregnancy

Sleep can be adversely affected in pregnancy due to a number of reasons. It becomes physically uncomfortable to sleep, as hormones change and lots of women are worrying about their new life as a mum. Half of all pregnant women suffer from sleep problems connected with pregnancy, according to research.

If you are pregnant, it's a good idea to sleep on your left side. This increases blood circulation to the heart, kidneys and uterus so the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the foetus increases. Also, the uterus doesn't press against your liver if you're on your left side. Lie in a loose and relaxed position so that your lungs and diaphragm aren't restricted. For extra comfort, you can place a pillow between your stomach and the mattress, and/or a thin pillow between your knees.

It's not dangerous to sleep on your stomach in the beginning of pregnancy. The foetus is protected by the walls of the uterus and the amniotic fluid. However, the longer the pregnancy progresses, the harder and more uncomfortable it becomes to sleep on your stomach. If you have back pain during pregnancy, this can also be aggravated by sleeping on your stomach. If you really like sleeping on your stomach, you can use a pillow shaped like a ring, with a hole in the middle, so the mattress doesn't press against your stomach.

Medical studies show that it's not good to sleep on your back at the end of pregnancy, as it increases the risk of a stillbirth. This is because the large blood vessel that carries the blood to the mother's heart can get squeezed between the spine and the uterus. This increases the risk that the foetus won't get enough oxygen.

It's recommended that you sleep on your left side from week twenty eight.  If you wake up on your back at night, just turn onto your left side again.

Sleeping positions for newborns

Let newborns sleep on their backs to minimise the risk of cot death. This makes sure their airways stay open. Make sure it's not too hot and that baby's face is clear from bedding and pillows. Babies under three months old are safest sleeping in their own bed in the parent's room. When the baby is big enough to roll over onto their side or stomach, the risk of cot death is lower.

You can vary the baby's head position to avoid their head shape becoming a bit flat or slanted if their head is always resting in the same direction.

It's not clear what causes cot death. It's common for newborns and children under one year of age to have pauses in their breathing, but these don't affect their well-being. However, one cause of cot death could be that more frequent interruptions in breathing can lead to a lack of oxygen. It's not possible to see any signs before this occurs and it usually happens when the child is asleep.

Sleeping positions for babies

Babies and young children sleep in all the different sleeping positions equally. It's only when we become adults that the majority of us choose to sleep on our sides. At five months of age, a baby can usually turn over in its sleep on it's own and the risk of cot death is reduced. When older babies change their sleeping positions in their sleep, you don't need to move them back to sleeping on their backs.

Around the age of one, children are developing a lot and their sleep at night can become disturbed. Children can move around in their sleep, have dreams and nightmares and often change their sleeping positions. Be there for your child and give them as much closeness as they need.

Sleeping positions if you have a slipped disc

Slipped discs can be extremely painful, especially when it's time to sleep. Slipped discs can occur in the lower back or in the neck and the pain radiates to the arms or legs. Experts recommend sleeping on your side and trying a pillow between the knees. If you have a slipped disc in your lower back, it might be a good idea to put a pillow under your legs when you're lying on your back, so that you lie with slightly bent legs.

The best sleeping position for sciatica

If you suffer from sciatica, it's usually most comfortable to sleep on your side. Pain in the sciatic nerve is unpleasant and it can be uncomfortable when sleeping. It can help to sleep with a pillow between your knees, or below your knees. Avoid sleeping on your stomach.

Is it a good idea to sleep on your stomach?

The problem with sleeping on your stomach is that you can put too much strain on your shoulders, neck and back, and you may wake up in the morning in pain. If your pillow is high or you pull one knee up towards your chest, your spine gets twisted. Over time, this can cause even more pain.

However, sleeping on your stomach can be an advantage if you snore.

Can spooning affect your sleep?

Sleeping in the spoon position is when one person lies with their back against the other person's stomach. Touch is important for us humans and spooning gives us warmth and a feeling of security. This type of hug can make us feel better and less stressed, as secretion of the feel-good hormone oxytocin is increased. However, sleeping in the spooning position can disrupt your sleep if you feel too hot and don't have enough room in bed. You might have difficulty falling asleep or wake up during the night because you're sweaty.

Is complete darkness in the bedroom important?

In general, you sleep better if it's really dark in your bedroom. The sleep hormone melatonin is secreted when it gets dark outside, and that makes us sleepy. However, our inner clock can be disturbed by bright light, like the blue light that illuminates the screens on our phones and tablets. That's why you should keep electronic devices out of the bedroom, invest in blackout curtains and turn off your devices when you go to sleep.

Warm or cool?

Body temperature drops when we're sleeping, and is at its lowest around three to four in the morning. The body relaxes, heart rate decreases and blood pressure drops. That's why most people sleep better in a cool bedroom. The optimal temperature is between sixteen and eighteen degrees Celsius.

What's your sleep personality?

Most of us don't think about our sleeping position until we need to adjust it due to, for example, pregnancy or back pain. However, different sleeping positions can actually reveal something about our personality. British sleep expert Chris Idzikowski carried out a study on over one thousand British adults and was able to draw certain conclusions about our personalities based on how we sleep. Do you agree?

Sleeping in the foetal position is the most common choice, and means that you are tough on the outside but sensitive on the inside. You're often shy when you first meet someone but then relax.

If you sleep like a log, stretched out and on your side, with your arms by your sides, you are sociable and easy to get on with. You trust people but can often be a little gullible.

The 'stretch sleeper' sleeps on their side with both arms outstretched and has an open personality but can also be suspicious and cynical. They take a long time to decide, but once they have made a decision, they don't back down.

The 'soldier', lying on their back with arms by their sides, is generally reserved and silent. They don't make a lot of fuss, but are very demanding, both of themselves and others.

The person who sleeps on their stomach with their hands under the pillow, in the position called 'freefall', is sociable and cheeky but can be a little nervous. They don't handle criticism or extreme situations well either.

The 'starfish' who sleeps on their back with their hands above their head is often a good friend because they're helpful and good at listening to others. They rarely like to be the centre of attention.


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