Is there a right way to sleep?

Is it healthier to sleep on your back, stomach or side?
Does a dark room facilitate better sleep, or should you wake up gradually to natural light?
Are mattress firmness and support the same?

Here are 3 key things you need to know to get better sleep

1. Side matters

There’s no one right way to sleep, but experts agree on the general ranking of positions.

Back is best

By and large, sleeping on your back is recommended, despite the fact that only 8% of us do it. Sleeping on your back puts your head, neck and spine “in neutral,” which decreases pressure and pain in those areas.

Some people find that sleeping on their back helps with acid reflux. Don’t sleep on your back if you have sleep apnea (a condition marked by breathlessness), or if it makes snoring worse.

  • Find a pillow that elevates and supports your head without being too firm.
  • Make sure your stomach is below your esophagus to prevent anything from coming up your digestive tract.
  • If you experience back pain when on your back, try placing a pillow under your knees.

Side is second

Sleeping stretched out on your side, as 15% of us do, is good for people who:

  • Have sleep apnea
  • Snore
  • Are prone to acid reflux
  • Have frequent neck pain

Similarly, sleeping in the fetal position — the most popular at 41% — is good if you snore or are pregnant because it improves circulation. If you do sleep in the fetal position:

  • Don’t curl up too tightly. (It can restrict breathing and cause soreness, especially if you have arthritis.)
  • Don’t tuck your chin into your chest or pull your knees up too high.
  • Put a pillow between your knees if you experience hip pain.

Stomach is last

Sadly for the 7% of us who sleep on our stomachs, it’s the position most likely to lead to problems. Stomach sleeping:

  • Keeps your head turned in one direction for hours, which can cause neck or back pain.
  • Puts pressure on muscles and joints, which can cause numbness, tingling or aching.
  • Can also cause soreness in your hips and low back if you have a tendency to bring one leg up high.

If you feel you must sleep on your stomach, experts suggest you try it facedown with your forehead propped up on a pillow, which is challenging.

But remember: You really only need to change your sleep habits if they’re causing discomfort, pain or undue risk. And don’t get discouraged if you do try to change them. It takes practice and time to build new habits.

2. You can use light and darkness to your advantage

Darkness and light help your body figure out when it’s time to be alert and when it’s time to wind down. If you’ve ever slept in a room with blackout curtains, you know how powerful darkness can be; The same is true if you’ve slept in a room full of windows that let in natural light.

The healthiest way to sleep is to find the combination of both that’s right for you, taking the following into account:


For some people, complete darkness is essential to quality sleep. If you find yourself waking up at first light, try blackout curtains or shades to keep your body in sleep mode longer. Or, for an easier and more portable solution, invest in a sleep mask.

Artificial light

Relying on a lot of artificial light in the bedroom can suppress melatonin and make it harder to fall or stay asleep. That includes bright lamps as well as phones, screens and TVs. Some people are so sensitive to artificial light that even alarm clocks have to be turned toward the wall.

  • Use low-wattage, incandescent lamps at your bedside to help you wind down in the hours before sleep.
  • Take safety into consideration in case you need a nightlight, for example, to get to the restroom during the night.
  • Try smart light bulbs, which mirror circadian rhythms, turning from a warm, reddish light during the day to a blue-hued one at night.

Natural light

When you’re ready to start your day, sunlight is the best way to set your body and brain in motion. If possible, spend some time in natural light before you start any intensive tasks.

  • Look for curtains or blinds that you can easily pull back to start exposing yourself to light as soon as you wake up.
  • If you need a softer entry into the day, try a light-therapy alarm clock. It will wake you slowly over the course of 30 minutes or so with increasingly brightening light, which can create a more natural feel.

3. Mattress firmness is not the same as support

Firmness and support sound like the same thing, but they’re actually quite different when it comes to sleep hygiene.

For mattresses:

  • Firmness refers to comfort— whether a mattress is hard or soft. Firmness is subjective, meaning every person will experience a mattress differently, and it’s a good idea to test out a variety in a store to see which is most comfortable for you.
  • Support refers to how well a mattress promotes the alignment of your spine. Support is objective, which means it can be measured and ranked. Support is particularly important if you struggle with back problems. If you do, look for a mattress that provides pressure point relief and keeps the spine in its proper place.

If you are especially concerned about finding the right firmness and support levels, consider an adjustable or smart bed, which senses your movements and automatically adjusts firmness, comfort and support.

To learn more about healthy sleep, check out these WellTuned articles.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Filed under: Mind & Body


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).