There is no totally perfect sleep position or posture for everyone. Your best position allows you to fall asleep easily and wake rested.
So there is nothing like purchasing a new mattress or new pillow to make you realise how much better you could have been sleeping. Quality sleep is vital for good health and we sometimes only realise how poorly we are sleeping (or how bad our previous pillow/mattress was) when we get that really good night of sleep.
I experienced this recently when I purchased a new pillow. It was my first feather pillow. And it allowed me to squash and tease its shape so that it supported my neck just so. As a tummy sleeper I generally chose a pillow that was quite flat. This means my head was not raised too high, allowing my neck to stay aligned with my spine.
My new pillow took a moment to adjust, but after a particularly restful night, I realised something. This is probably the pillow I should’ve been sleeping on for some time. It wasn’t that I had been uncomfortable as I fell asleep before. I had just never really put much thought into how I could make myself feel even better. (I had actually first discovered this pillow on a holiday and had quickly pulled off the pillowcase the next morning to discover its name and brand).
Ultimately, unlike the way you lift weights or sit at your desk, as I stated before, there is no totally perfect, scientifically approved sleep position or posture for everyone. It’s not so much a matter of correcting what you do naturally as it is one of experimenting with what you find comfortable. Some positions will always be better for alleviating pain and improving medical conditions such as sleep apnea and heartburn. Otherwise the main goal is to make yourself as comfortable as possible so that you fall asleep more easily. (Once unsupervised by consciousness, your body will likely move around a lot).
Here are some suggestions for maximising your sleep quality based on your preferred sleeping orientation.
Particularly as you age, (as I have found) you will need a little more neck support. Pillows that are relatively soft and flat that don’t raise the head too much are what you are after. Without going into a full discussion of pillow types (my next blog…..) a feather and down pillow, wool or synthetic filled pillow will suit a tummy sleeper best. This is because it provides support but with a lower profile. That is, keeping the head and neck relatively neutral and not pushing the head into an elevated position, relative to the body. (see figures below).
Tummy sleepers can sometimes suffer from back or thoracic (mid-back) pain or stiffness. This is because the lower back ends up in an extended position when you lay on your tummy. Gravity and the weight of your abdominal contents adds to this extended position. Similarly, your spine will move into more extension if you have a mattress that is soft.
To improve sleep quality and comfort (and how you feel in the morning) try adding/ experimenting with a pillow or 2 (or 3!)
From a prone sleep position, bend the hip and knee and add a pillow along the length of the shin and/or under the knee. See the first photo below. This turns the front facing position into a quarter turned position. This is often kinder to lower backs as it takes the lumbar spine out of extension and into a more neutral position. Another pillow placed under the arm (second photo below) helps to balance the upper body and mid back. Another option (to save using 3 pillows!) is to simply turn the pillow that is under your head so that it supports both your arm and your neck (photo 3).
When you sleep on your back, your neck and back are relatively well aligned. No body part is getting particularly “crunched” and it is relatively easy to adjust for neck or back pain. Look for a thinner pillow that has extra loft (filling) in the bottom third. This will help to cradle your neck but won’t elevate the head too much. Memory foam works well as it moulds to the shape of your head and neck.
Relieve any pressure points on your lower back by placing either a pillow or small rolled up towel underneath your knees so they are a little flexed.
Unfortunately those that suffer from sleep apnoea or even snoring will find that being supine encourages gravity to work against your airway, causing it to close more. It is interesting to note that around 80 percent of people who meet the diagnostic criteria for sleep apnea are not diagnosed (according to Stanford University sleep centre). Many people have positional sleep apnea, which mostly occurs when they end up on their backs.
Staying off of your back while you are unconscious can be tricky to manage. Many people with sleep apnea may not realise that they are experiencing minor sleep disruptions (sometimes as often as sixty times an hour!). These sleep disturbances fragment their sleep without fully waking them. Now you could sew a tennis ball into your pyjamas to stop you rolling onto your back or you could go for a more nuanced sleep device such as sleeping vest or positional device . Both of these devices will sense your body position, and lightly vibrate to encourage you to shift off of it—without waking you up.
Back-sleeping may aggravate heartburn so you could consider sleeping at an incline. One option is to put blocks beneath your front bed posts. This is sometimes a better option than a wedge pillow, since the latter can scrunch your stomach a little.
Now we have one back and one front but two sides. Because of the way our insides are arranged experts recommend lying on your left hand side. Particularly if you suffer from heartburn or reflux. As described above, if you do suffer from heartburn consider elevating your head a little as well.
If you experience back or neck pain or stiffness you will want to use your pillow and mattress to ensure that your spine is aligned. That is, aim for your spine to be parallel to the floor, in a straight line from your head to your pelvis so that your spinal column experiences the least tension possible.
Side sleepers will benefit from a pillow that is higher at the neck and la little lower at the head. There should be no gap between the pillow and the neck. So aim for a firm type of pillow that will conform to the shape of your neck. Think memory foam or even latex.
Placing a pillow between your knees can help to even out your body shape. It will alleviate pressure on your lower back and help hip and knee joints. Especially relevant if you suffer from hip bursitis.
If you want to stay on your side through the night, put a full-body pillow beside your back.
If you are going shopping for a new mattress (again, a topic for another blog post!) you need to spend as much time as you can, with your partner, lying on beds. Simply try as many different mattresses as possible, together, to find something that suits. Listen to the sales dude and his pitch, he does know (hopefully) about his mattresses. You generally get what you pay for. But ultimately think about how you both lie at night.
I cannot stress enough that all of the above suggestions are not strict prescriptions. The aim is to seek out new ways, with a little experimentation, for comfort to win out over discomfort.
Now, if you have tried some of these suggestions and have read my previous blog “sleep the best meditation” and you are still waking up multiple times a night. Or are struggling to fall back asleep. Or waking up the next morning feeling poorly rested. Then it might be time to stop self-experimenting and seek out some professional help.
Everyone is different and has different sleep needs. It’s just a matter of figuring out exactly what yours are.