Side Sleepers: A How-to Guide +
A good night of sleep starts with getting comfortable. Everyone has different mattresses, pillows, sheets, preferred temperature — the list goes on.
What stays consistent, though, is a person’s sleep position.
There are back sleepers, stomach sleepers, and side sleepers. Side sleepers make up 74 percent of the population — by far the most archetypal sleeper.
While there are pros and cons to each position, side sleeping is particularly interesting. Human anatomy plays a large role in which position is healthiest. With side sleepers, it all depends on which side you sleep on.
We dive into specifics below on what the benefits and drawbacks are of sleeping on your side.
What Is a Side Sleeper?
A side sleeper is someone who sleeps on either the left or right side of their body. These sleepers will often tuck a pillow in between their shoulders and head. A lot of side sleepers will hug a pillow as well.
An easy way to tell if you’re a side sleeper is to look at your bedhead when you wake up. Flattened hair on one side means there’s a good chance you’re part of these ranks.
You can also check to see if there’s any drool on your pillow. Gross? Maybe, but many people drool slightly while asleep, so if it’s going sideways, you’re sleeping on your side.
It’s important to note that excessive drool while sleeping can be linked to sleep disorders, so it’s important to monitor this closely. Consult a doctor should excessive saliva be present night after night.
Pros and Cons of Side Sleeping
As mentioned, there are pros and cons to side sleeping. These nuances are classified even further depending on if you sleep on your right or left side. Certain organs are located on each side of the body and can be affected by hours of compression (i.e. when you lay on them for a night’s sleep).
We’ve separated the benefits and drawbacks below. However, a good night’s sleep will usually trump all of these minor issues associated with sleeping positions. As long as you aren’t snoring or experiencing day-altering side-effects from your sleeping position — like chronic back pain or neck aches — there’s no need to panic. If you’re concerned with any issues, contact a doctor.
Sleeping on your right side can make you more susceptible to acid reflux and other gastrointestinal distress. Heartburn can also be a side effect of sleeping on your right side. This is because if there is any backup, inflammation or general discomfort in the area, sleeping on your right side inhibits the natural flow of your right intestine.
This adds to the discomfort and can eventually cause heartburn. Both occur because your stomach is going against gravity, which aggravates stomach acid.
Generally, there are no pros to sleeping on your right side over your left. But, again, don’t worry if you’re getting a good night’s sleep on your right side without any noticeable side effects — it’s safe to keep snoozing this way.
Sleeping on your left side is recommended for side sleepers. This helps digestion and reduces heartburn. This happens because gastric fluids stay below the esophagus, which makes it more comfortable to sleep.
Pregnant women, in general, are encouraged to sleep on their left side. This helps ensure that the uterus stays off of the liver.
Types of Side Sleepers
Within the subsect of side sleepers, there are even more types. All types are generally considered relatively healthy, as long as you’re getting a full night of sleep.
Just as the name suggests, this type of side sleeper will curl up into a fetal position for sleep. When you wrap your hands around your legs and crunch your legs to your chest, you’re in the fetal position. This can be done to stay warm, so if you wake up in this position frequently, it may be worth investing in more blankets.
The Prayer Position
The prayer position is common for those who tend to have neck pain. This position involves sleeping on your side and placing your hands together, as if in prayer. Then, someone in the prayer position will place their hands under their head or under the pillow.
This position helps elevate the head which could indicate your pillows are old and need to be switched out with firmer choices.
The Eternal Snuggler
You’re an eternal snuggler if you tend to grab pillows and blankets and hug them close to your stomach every night. While you may start out in this position, it’s also common to wake up like this. Generally, this is due to a lack of warmth or a need for extra support.
Log sleepers sleep almost completely on their side. With their arms along their torso and laying horizontal, it’s no wonder how they get their name. Going to bed in this position and then waking up in the same one can indicate that you were in a deep sleep and got a good night’s rest.
Reacher side sleepers are the most sprawled out of the group. In this position, sleepers will have their arms stretched out in front of them, and naturally, this can make it so their legs sprawl out as well.
Tips for Good Sleep as a Side Sleeper
The best way to improve your sleep as a side sleeper is to ensure your pillow gives your neck proper support. Many traditional pillows are meant solely for back sleepers. The extra space created between your pillow and your neck when you turn on your side can cause issues.
Another way to sleep well on your side is to invest in a body pillow. These pillows are body-length and typically firmer than a traditional pillow.
Body pillows can help ensure you don’t constantly roll from side to side. They’re also great for pregnant women and those with digestive problems, as they stop you from rolling onto your right side.
Side sleepers should also remember to keep a neutral spine while sleeping. Regardless of pillows or mattresses, a neutral spine will help mitigate back pain in the morning.
To neutralize your spine, relax while on your side, but make sure that your body isn’t twisted in any way. Your head should be between your shoulders (similar to how it would be when you’re walking). You’ll probably move during the night, but starting in this position can help kick the night off right.
When in doubt, use more pillows! If you’re set on side sleeping, use pillows to minimize strain on parts of your body that aren’t getting enough support. Depending on body type, this tends to be your neck and shoulders.
Positioning pillows in a way that takes the strain off these areas can dramatically increase your quality of sleep. Remember, you’re asleep for hours at a time, which can cause constant pressure to strained areas.
How to Switch Your Sleeping Position
You should only feel like you need to switch your sleeping position if you’re unable to sleep at night or wake up with pain in the morning. While objectively back sleeping is the healthiest option, as long as you feel well-rested and don’t snore, you should be fine.
That being said, if you do experience any problems, it could be a good idea to switch your sleeping position. The process is different depending on what you're trying to achieve.
Switch to a Back Sleeper
The best way to switch to being a back sleeper is to use pillows — lots of pillows. Before you go to bed, set pillows around you to keep you from rolling over. Sometimes it can be helpful to stick a pillow in between your legs, as this can help you prevent from rolling even more.
You may have to ease into back sleeping. If this is the case, place pillows wherever your body “caves in” (e.g. lower back, neck, behind the knees, etc.). By doing this you alleviate unneeded stress on your untrained back-sleeping body.
Switch from a Right Side Sleeper to a Left
If you wake up with a stomach ache or heartburn, you could be sleeping on your right side. If you don’t want to become a back sleeper, there are simple steps that can help you switch to your left side.
To switch sleeping sides, simply sleep on the couch for a few nights. Sleep on your left side with your back against the back of the couch. This will make it harder to flip to your right side during sleep.
It shouldn’t take much time to switch your sleep position while training your body like this. Within a week, try moving back onto your bed. Use pillows to keep you in place and gradually remove them as time goes on.
This process is particularly useful for pregnant women. Back sleeping can be painful for pregnant women and right side sleeping can put pressure on internal organs.
Best Mattresses For Side Sleepers
Side sleepers should find a medium-firm memory foam mattress. Again, a side sleeper’s main concern is that there can be a major strain on the neck, hips, and shoulders.
In addition, a main function of any mattress is to support the spine.
A medium-firm mattress helps support these areas because it provides a good ratio between sink and support. To make sure your back and neck are supported, a medium-firm mattress morphs to the curvature of the back — creating minimal blank space between the back and bed.
Too firm of a mattress will put pressure on parts of your body and can exacerbate the pain of side sleeping. The shoulders and neck are particularly susceptible to pain and pressure on a firm mattress as a side sleeper.
On the other hand, an exceedingly soft mattress will compress the body. Sinking into a mattress can crush pain points, provide little support in empty areas and curve the spine.
To figure out the right combination, try a mattress out before purchasing one. You need to understand how your body will mold to the firmness and make up of the pad because each person has a different body type and sleep position.
Best Pillows for Side Sleepers
A good mattress and a quality pillow go hand in hand. Like yin and yang, pillows and mattresses balance each other out to create a wonderful night’s sleep — if paired right.
Side sleepers should look for pillows that are supportive, yet can mold to their body type. Proper support should make your neck feel like it’s “floating.” Another way to view it is your body should be in a walking position. This typically means it’s at a constant 180-degree angle. Your neck will be subject to immense pressure if it’s crooked.
Whether you’re a side, back or even stomach sleeper, getting a good night's sleep is essential to everyday life. If you wake up feeling rested, there isn’t much to be concerned about when it comes to sleeping position.
It’s when you wake up in pain and unrested that you should be concerned.
However, don’t fret. Switching your sleep position is a simple process that doesn’t take much time. Quality pillows and a pristine mattress are your first steps to a good night’s sleep — you use them every day, they should be top quality.
FAQs for Side Sleepers
The best side sleeping pillows are those that provide support and morph to one’s unique body. They will provide plush comfort and can be moved around during the night to support different areas in need. These pillows should be firm but able to contour to your body to ensure there are no dead spots when it comes to support. Your body should be at a constant 180-degree angle while sleeping, so adjust pillow position accordingly to achieve this.
To help avoid digestive hiccups, sleep on your left side. Sleeping this way mitigates acid reflux because it helps the stomach sit naturally in your body. Heartburn can also be mitigated by sleeping on your left side.
Side sleepers should look for a medium-firm memory foam mattress. The ideal side sleeper mattress supports the hips, neck, and shoulders, but is not so firm that pressure points are created in critical areas like the hips. A good mattress for a side sleeper will support the spine as well. Make sure to try a mattress out before committing to a purchase.