Are you a back sleeper, or a stomach sleeper? Or do you sleep on your side? Believe it or not, your sleep position is a very important part of getting a good night’s sleep. Your sleep position can have a significant effect on your sleep posture—and both can impact your overall sleep quality.
Good posture doesn’t just make a difference during the day. We spend a third of our lives in bed, but most of us never learned how to achieve the optimal posture for sleep. Improper sleep posture can create a lot of problems for your body, and you may not even realize that your sleep is the cause. Thankfully, you can improve your sleep posture by sleeping in the correct position.
What Is Sleep Posture?
Sleep posture is not the same as sleep position. The right sleep position is an essential part of healthy sleep posture—but it isn’t the whole story.
Think of it this way: How you carry yourself while you are awake is a key factor for how you get through the day, and how you feel at the end of the day. If your daytime posture is good—back straight, shoulders back, sitting comfortably in a supportive chair, etc., then you will likely feel good throughout the day. However, if your posture is bad, you will likely feel stiff, sore, or even in pain as the day ends.
Sleep posture requires the same components: the right sleep position, great sleep equipment, and mindful attention to your body’s natural alignment from head to toe. Poor sleep posture also exacerbates those waking aches and pains in the hips, back, shoulders and neck, and can create new problems with pain and stiffness throughout the body, particularly at the joints and at certain pressure points.
How Does Healthy Sleep Posture Look and Feel?
Good sleep posture has your body relaxed and in alignment, and alignment starts with the position of your spine. When lying down for sleep, your spine should follow its natural curves.
There are 3 different curves in the spine: at the neck, the middle back, and the lower back. For these curves to fall naturally during sleep, the whole body must be supported. A strong sleep posture allows these natural curves to be maintained throughout the night. That means no crunching at your neck, no sagging of your lower back, and no rotation of your middle back. In addition to your spine in its natural position, good sleep posture has your hips, shoulders, and head lining up.
Is Your Body in Alignment?
Think for a moment about good posture. Your head is held above your shoulders—not pushed back or craned forward—and your shoulders sit over your hips—not dipped forward or pushed behind. With the muscles of your core engaged, your spine follows its 3 natural curves.
The same basic posture applies to sleep. But there are some key differences:
- When we are awake, the muscles and ligaments of our body are working actively to hold our posture, whether we’re still or in motion. During sleep, the muscles and the ligaments relax. That relaxation is essential for the healing and rejuvenation of those tissues.
- Our posture is more static—or stationary—during sleep than during most waking activities. We maintain static posture during the waking day, too—sitting in a chair, standing at a kitchen counter, etc. But at no point during the 24-hour day does our posture remain static for longer than it does during sleep.
This is why support is so important for holding the body in relaxed alignment throughout the night. Let’s take a look at what this should look like. First, put yourself in a healthy upright posture as a way to get in touch with the feeling of your body in alignment. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, then follow these steps:
- Distribute your weight between the balls and heels of your feet. For most people, that means shifting some weight forward to the balls of the feet—a lot of people sit back on their heels. Relax your toes, and center your hips over your knees.
- Relax your shoulders. Let them drop away from your neck. Center the tops of your shoulders over your hips, and let your arms fall naturally to the sides.
- Level your head and look straight ahead. It can be helpful to think about a string pulling up from the back of your head at the base.
Feel relaxed, strong, and centered? No clenching, craning, compression or tightness? That’s a body in alignment. No matter the sleep position you choose, this basic alignment—and the feeling that comes with it—is what you’re shooting for in your sleep posture.
One of the best ways to maintain this relaxed alignment and help support a healthy sleep posture is to sleep on the right mattress.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor