Sleep Positions Explained
How to Find the Right Mattress for Your Sleep Position
If you’re in the market for a new mattress, you’ve likely thought about the size you want, the feel you prefer, and maybe even how you’ll style the bed with new bedding and a bed frame. But have you considered how your sleep position should influence the mattress you pick?
Your sleep position affects the way you experience your mattress and how easily you get comfortable and drift off to sleep. Especially if you struggle with specific sleep struggles or pain, we recommend getting to know the advantages and disadvantages of your preferred sleep position before buying your next mattress.
Mattress Shopping Cheat Sheet
Soft to Medium-Firm
Medium to Firm
Keep in mind that your weight should also inform the mattress features and firmness level you choose. The table above serves as a general guide for adults weighing up to 350 pounds. Mattress shoppers outside of this range should read our detailed Mattress Firmness Guide for help finding their perfect fit.
Why Does Sleep Position Matter When Buying a New Mattress?
The purpose of a mattress is to provide a comfortable sleep surface that supports and stabilizes the body while keeping the spine aligned in a neutral position. Because people sleep in different positions and have unique physiques, mattresses aren’t a one-size-fits-all product.
Your sleep position determines the orientation of your spine and your weight’s distribution across the mattress surface. It dictates which parts of the body make contact with the mattress surface, which areas bear the most weight, and where these peak pressure points fall on the mattress.
To find a mattress that keeps your spine in line and relieves pressure around critical stress points, you need to understand which mattress characteristics and features best fit your sleep position. This guide analyzes the four sleep positions—side, back, stomach, and combination—and identifies the comfort and support needs associated with each sleeper profile.
A Complete Guide to Each Sleep Position
For many people, a specific sleep position comes to them naturally. In any other position, they just can’t get comfortable enough to drift off to sleep. Others don’t feel limited to a single sleeping position and can fall asleep curled into a ball on their side just as well as lying flat on their back. In the mattress world, we call these individuals combination sleepers. Then, there are the restless sleepers who can never seem to find the sweet spot on their mattress and spend their nights tossing and turning.
Whichever sleeper profile sounds the most like you, there’s a mattress model that accommodates your unique needs and will help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling fresh and pain-free. You’ll find it; you just have to do your due diligence during the mattress shopping process.
To make that journey easier, we’ve put together a list of the most common sleep positions and identified the benefits, pain points, and mattress specifications associated with each.
Whichever sleeper profile sounds the most like you, there’s a mattress model that accommodates your unique needs.
Almost 75 percent of adults sleep on their side, making it by far the most popular sleep position. That’s why Nolah started out with the Nolah Original, our AirFoam™ mattress specifically designed to comfort and support side sleepers.
Some side sleepers only sleep on their left or right, while others can comfortably switch between both. Either way, the position rests one arm against the bed while the opposite arm faces the ceiling. Side sleepers tend to lie totally straight with their arms at their sides (log position), curl their arms and legs into their chest (fetal position), or sleep with their legs straight but their arms outstretched (yearner position).
Benefits of Side Sleeping
Great for People with Back Pain– The majority of your back doesn’t contact the mattress in the side sleeping position, meaning it doesn’t bear your weight. By sleeping on your side, you avoid putting pressure on the sensitive regions of your back. For example, if you sit in an office chair with poor lumbar support for most of the day, side sleeping won’t aggravate your lower back pain.
Reduces Snoring– If your tongue falls to the back of your throat while you sleep, it rests on the airway, creating the rumbling sound of snoring. For back sleepers, gravity pulls the tongue downward, making snoring a common problem. On the other hand, side sleeping naturally helps keep your airways open. Doctors often recommend side sleeping to patients with sleep apnea.
Digestive Health– Sleeping on your left side may aid digestion and make your bowel movements more regular. In this position, gravity works in your favor, helping waste move along its natural path through your intestines.
The Best Position for Acid Reflux and GERD– Sleeping on your left side may also help reduce symptoms of acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology suggests that sleeping left-side down limits the esophagus’s exposure to stomach acids, preventing acid reflux episodes.
Potential Brain Benefits– While there isn’t enough evidence to definitely say that side sleeping helps the brain, early research shows a possible connection. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the lateral (side) sleep position may make brain waste removal more efficient, which could reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease.
The Safest Sleep Position During Pregnancy– Doctors typically recommend sleeping on your side during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester. This position supports healthy blood flow to the uterus. ough evidence to definitely say that side sleeping helps the brain, early research shows a possible connection. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the lateral (side) sleep position may make brain waste removal more efficient, which could reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Concerns for Side Sleepers
- Side sleeping puts all of your body weight on one side, concentrating pressure around the shoulder, hip, and knee of the side against the mattress. You need extra support and pressure relief in these areas.
- Side sleepers need to pay special attention to head and neck support. Without the right pillow, the downward pull of your head will strain your neck, causing muscle strain and soreness. Adjustable pillows are among the best pillows for side sleepers. For example, the Nolah Squishy Pillow features removable shredded foam filling, letting you customize the pillow’s loft.
- For some side sleepers, stacking one leg on top of the other causes pain where the knees contact one another. However, you can relieve this pressure by placing a pillow between your knees. This also helps keep your spine aligned by preventing your hips from rotating.
- Depending on how you position them, side sleeping can cut off circulation in your arms.
- Sleeping with your face flush against your pillow can cause skin wrinkles. However, you can remedy this issue with low-friction silk or bamboo pillowcases.
The Ideal Side Sleeper Mattress
What should side sleepers look for in a mattress? To heighten the benefits and address the concerns associated with side sleeping, we recommend the following mattress features.
Firmness Level: Soft to Medium-Firm– Side sleepers tend to prefer medium to medium-firm mattresses, depending on their weight. A bed ranging from about 4 to 7 on the mattress firmness scale will strike the right balance between cushioning and support for most side sleepers.
Cushioning and Contouring– When you sleep on your side, your lower knee, hip, and shoulder all push into your mattress. To comfort these joints, you’ll want a flexible surface that contours around your curves and provides plenty of cushioning. Foam, latex, and micro-coil mattresses make excellent material choices.
Superior Pressure Relief– Side sleeping distributes your body weight across less surface area than back and stomach sleeping. That means you feel more pressure on the parts of your body that contact the mattress, especially in the shoulders and hips. To alleviate stress at these pressure points, look for a mattress material that spreads out the load. For example, Nolah AirFoam™ contains billions of microscopic air bubbles that redistribute your weight, offering four times better pressure relief than traditional memory foam. Natural latex also provides this relief.
People who strictly sleep on their back make up 10 percent of the adult population, making it the least common of the three primary sleep positions (side, stomach, and back). If this statistic surprises you, don’t stress; while less common, sleeping on your back is perfectly healthy if you have the right mattress.
Also known as the supine position, the back sleeping position has a few common variations. Back sleepers often sleep totally straight with their arms at their sides (soldier position), with their legs spread and arms open above their head (starfish), or somewhere in between. For example, you may like to lie flat with your hands clasped together over your stomach.
Benefits of Back Sleeping
Alignment– With the right support from your mattress and pillow, sleeping on your back naturally aligns your neck and spine. Proper neck alignment prevents muscle strain and headaches, while spinal alignment promotes good posture and helps avoid a host of health issues.
The Best Sleep Position for Hip Pain– Similarly, sleeping on your back distributes your weight across your hips and lower back, minimizing the peak pressure on either side of your hips. Lying straight on your back also keeps your hips aligned, preventing strain.
Weight Distribution– Compared to side sleeping, back sleeping distributes your weight across a larger surface area. That means you feel less peak pressure.
The Best Sleep Position for Shoulder Pain– Side sleeping concentrates your weight on one shoulder, and stomach sleeping lets your shoulder caps dig into your mattress, creating a high-stress pressure point. On the other hand, your mattress supports both of your shoulders and evenly distributes their weight in the back sleeping position.
Concerns for Back Sleepers
- Back sleeping may exacerbate snoring and symptoms of sleep apnea. In this position, gravity pulls your tongue to the back of your throat, which obstructs your airways. However, back sleepers can address this issue with a wedge pillow or adjustable pillow that elevates their head above their chest without disturbing neck and spine alignment. Back sleepers can also accomplish this with the anti-snore settings on an adjustable base.
- If you sleep on your back, you may experience lower back pain. To alleviate lower back pain and soreness, you’ll need a mattress with extra support in the lumbar region.
The Ideal Back Sleeper Mattress
Firmness Level: Medium-Firm– Back sleepers typically prefer medium-firm mattresses, around a 6 to 7 on the mattress firmness scale. A medium-firm model will provide enough resistance to keep your spine in line but enough contouring and cushioning to keep you comfortable.
Zoned Support– As previously mentioned, back sleepers often need extra support in the lumbar region. A mattress with zoned support will provide targeted relief where you need it most. All of Nolah’s hybrid mattresses feature our TriZone™ technology.
Pressure Relief– Compared to side sleeping, back sleeping distributes your weight across more surface area. To boost this benefit of the supine position, look for a mattress that excels in pressure relief, minimizing peak pressure.
Back sleepers can take advantage of one of sleep science’s most comfortable innovations: the zero-gravity position. Zero-G creates the feeling of weightlessness by situating you in the neutral body position, which boasts wide-ranging health benefits. With an adjustable base and compatible mattress, back sleepers can enjoy this NASA-discovered phenomenon from home. All of Nolah’s mattresses work well with adjustable bed frames.
While we don’t recommend the stomach sleep position, many people—about 16 percent of sleepers—do find it comfortable. Sleeping in the prone position certainly has its drawbacks, but the right mattress can relieve some of the strain it puts on your body. If you’re an avid stomach sleeper, finding a mattress with heightened support should be a top priority.
Benefits of Stomach Sleeping
Sleep Apnea Relief– Some people who struggle with snoring or have sleep apnea find relief in the prone position. Like side sleeping, stomach sleeping avoids the gravitational pull of the tongue towards the back of your throat, which worsens snoring symptoms among back sleepers.
Concerns for Stomach Sleepers
- When you sleep on your stomach, your torso naturally sinks into the mattress. The pull of your weight puts strain on your spine, causing misalignment. Of all the sleep positions, stomach sleeping is the worst for back pain.
- Many stomach sleepers turn their neck to one side to avoid sleeping face-down on their pillow. Sustaining a neck twist for the entire night can cause soreness, stiffness, and prolonged pain.
- For the same reason, the prone position puts extra pressure on your shoulders, which can cause joint pain.
- People who sleep on their stomachs often experience numbness or a tingling sensation due to blood flow restriction.
- Like side sleeping, stomach sleeping rests your face against your pillow, which can cause skin wrinkles.
The Ideal Stomach Sleeper Mattress
Firmness Level: Firm– Stomach sleepers need as much support as they can get. They typically find comfort in firm mattresses (around a 7-8 on the mattress firmness scale), avoiding deep contouring that can misalign the spine for sleepers in the prone position. Many firm latex mattresses provide the perfect amount of support and responsiveness for stomach sleepers.
Hybrid Construction– Featuring support coils and layers of high-resilience foam or latex, hybrid mattresses offer the heavy-duty support that stomach sleepers need. Hybrid models often use the latest mattress technology, including targeted support zones. Nolah offers both a latex hybrid option (the Nolah Natural) and an AirFoam hybrid (the Nolah Evolution).
We advise stomach sleepers to steer clear of memory foam mattresses. Memory foam tends to conform rather than contour, allowing the heavier parts of your body to sink into the mattress. Too much sinkage misaligns the spine, causing stiffness and pain. On the other hand, Nolah AirFoam™ and natural latex gently contour, cushioning your curves without sinking too deep.
Combination or Restless Sleepers
Combination sleepers don’t favor a single sleep position over the others. Instead, they mix it up from time to time or switch between positions throughout the night. If you’re a combination sleeper or tend to toss and turn in your sleep, you’ll need a versatile mattress that provides comfort and support for all the sleep positions you frequent.
The Ideal Combination Sleeper Mattress
Firmness Level: Medium, Medium-Firm, or Firm– Combination sleepers should choose a mattress firmness level based on how much time they typically spend in each position. If you spend the time on your side or back, opt for medium or medium-firm. For those who frequently sleep on their stomach and their back or side, we recommend medium firm to firm.
Motion Isolation– Restless sleepers and combination sleepers who sleep with a partner also need a mattress that contains the effects of their movements. A mattress with superior motion isolation will ensure your partner doesn’t wake when you readjust and shift positions.
Responsiveness– Responsiveness refers to how quickly a mattress responds to pressure and pressure removal. If you tend to readjust frequently throughout the night, you’ll want a mattress that gently contours to your body as soon as you reposition yourself. Restless or combination sleepers should avoid memory foam, which takes time to adjust when you switch positions. Latex, on the other hand, has a bouncy quality, perfect for sleepers who move around a lot in their sleep.
Position Yourself for the Best Possible Sleep
Now that you know the strengths and weaknesses of your sleep position and which mattress features will help you sleep comfortably, you’re ready to start shopping! With your sleep position in mind, you’ll have no trouble finding a mattress that comforts you perfectly and provides support in all the right places. If you have further questions about the mattress shopping process, head over to our Mattress Buying Guide for step-by-step instructions on how to find the right mattress for you.
Disclaimer: Nolah does not provide medical advice. All resources on the Nolah blog, including this article, are informational only and do not replace professional medical counsel. Talk to your doctor about any health, mental health, or sleep-related issues.