Is your sleep position a nightmare? The posture you adopt can result in sweet dreams or tears on your pillow, says Anna van Praagh .
Last Updated: 11:48AM GMT 10 Nov 2008
Most of us give little thought to the position in which we sleep. But we should: it matters. Sleep experts believe that drifting off in the wrong position can be as damaging as walking around with a permanent slouch.
Modern man finds it hard to get a good night’s sleep. A recent poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that nearly two thirds of adults have trouble at least a few nights a week. Seven or eight hours is considered by experts to be the optimum amount for adults, but a third of Britons regularly sleep five hours or less a night, with 18 per cent claiming they never get a good night’s sleep.
But the secret of a peaceful night may be as straightforward as a simple adjustment to the position in which you sleep. Here, we’ve consulted sleep experts, physiotherapists and osteopaths to assess the most common ones. So what is your position doing to your body – and is it having a negative effect on how much shut-eye you get?
1 The foetus
On your side, legs bent
“Some 60 per cent of Britons go to sleep turned on one side, with their arms out and their legs slightly bent,” says Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre and an expert in sleep disorders. “It is also one of the healthiest positions.”
Not only does it allow air to pass freely through the body’s passages, Idzikowski says it also deters stomach reflux, where digestive acid travels back from the stomach causing a burning pain – a common problem for those who sleep on their back.
However, do not put weight on your arms, as this will cause pins and needles; instead try crossing them in a brace position. Osteopaths also advise that foetal sleepers maintain a straight back. A supportive, “memory foam” mattress will help keep the spine in the best position, while a pillow between bent knees will support the hips.
Some doctors caution that sleeping on your left side can compress the heart. But Idzikowski says: “I have never heard of anyone damaging themselves in this way.”
2 The soldier
On your back, legs straight, arms by your side
While this is a seemingly neutral position in which to drift off, it’s hardly conducive to a good night’s sleep, as it is the one most likely to lead to snoring. If your rattling nasal passages don’t wake you up, they will almost certainly disturb your bleary-eyed partner.
“Lying on the back will increase the tendency of the tongue to fall on to the back of the throat,” says Dr Dev Banerjee, consultant sleep physician at Birmingham Heartlands hospital. “Snoring is caused by the vibration of the palate or fluttering of the tongue base on the throat. For this reason, I advise patients not to sleep in this position.”
3 The starfish
On your back, arms and legs outstretched
Those who prefer to sleep in this position are better off with a big bed – or without their partner. The starfish, or corpse pose, is similar to the yoga posture called savasana, which is believed by yogis to be the ultimate in relaxation.
According to Idzikowski, if you’re going to sleep on your back, it’s best to take up as much space as you can. “Drifting off with your arms outstretched and legs slightly parted allows the body to relax.”
However, this position also encourages snoring: “Personally, I don’t recommend sleeping on the back, and advise those who find it difficult not to do so to put a bolster behind their back or a pillow between their legs. You can even try sewing tennis balls into the backs of your pyjamas.”
4 The log
On your side, arms straight down
“As long as the mattress and pillows are supportive,” explains osteopath and sleep expert Danny Williams, “this position maintains a neutral spine, allowing it to lengthen. Also, breathing is not compromised and all of the body functions work well.” An all-round excellent position that should suit everyone.
5 The freefaller
On your front, head turned, arms up on the pillow
This “skydiving” position has the potential to cause a lot of problems. Resting with the neck at a 90° angle can cause stiffness and “cricks”. Sleeping with your hands up at face level can generate pins and needles, often the result of compression in the bundle of nerves in the neck. If you sleep in a bed that is too soft, this position may also put an asymmetrical strain on your spine. The good news is that it’s beneficial to the digestive system.
“Don’t have the neck too far forward or backward on the pillow, or twist it too sharply to one side,” says Sammy Margo, chartered physiotherapist and author of The Good Sleep Guide. “Take the strain off your twisted neck by slightly raising one side of your body with a pillow for support.”
6 The yearner
Sleeping on one side, arms reaching out
“This is an excellent position to sleep in, and the one I recommend,” says Sammy Margo. “Lying on either side can help the structures of the back discs, muscles and ligaments adopt an optimal position.”
Having your arms in front of you will prevent them going to sleep. You may wish to position yourself at a quarter turn so that you are not squashing your shoulders together.
“To achieve the midline position, which helps maintain the natural curves of the spine, a pillow placed between bent knees can be helpful to support the hips,” says Margo. “If you have a soft bed, or an hourglass figure, pillows can be placed under the waist to support midriff and back.”