How Am I Supposed to Sleep?

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Although we are all quite familiar with sleep (we participate in it most nights) we may sometimes wonder whether we are doing it correctly. This is mostly because, oh, we are still so tired. But what are the best sleeping positions? I’m embarrassed to admit I wasn’t sure if there was an optimal position for sleeping, so I reached out to Dr. Mayank Shukla, a pulmonologist and sleep-disorder specialist in New York City, to find out.

“If someone is healthy,” he said, “then all positions could be equally effective, in terms of the quality of sleep.” Okay. All sleeping positions are good sleeping positions! So, there you have it.

Just kidding, there’s more.

Try Sleeping on Your Back

Although one position is not drastically superior to another, Shukla said sleeping on your back is “a much more natural way to sleep.” When you’re on your back, your head, neck, spine, and hips are in alignment, plus it’s better for circulation, and you aren’t putting unnecessary pressure on any one part of your body. This is, of course, unless you have a medical condition that makes sleeping on your back undesirable — sleep apnea, for example. If you have sleep apnea, sleeping on your back could cause your tongue to further obstruct your airway, and in this case you would be better off sleeping on your side.

But It’s More About Quantity and Quality

“But as I say that,” Shukla said, “I know people don’t prefer sleeping on their back. Most people prefer sleeping on their left or right sides, and many of them sleep in the fetal position.” He said you shouldn’t worry about this too much, though, because the most important thing is not sleep position but, instead, the quality and quantity of sleep acquired. (Plus, once you fall asleep your body tends to move into the position it’s most used to anyway.) I hate to tell you this, but you should be sleeping for 7 to 8 hours a night.

Pay Attention to Your Specific Needs

There are some other adjustments to be made for different health-related things, too. If you have back pain, for example, you can sleep on your back with a pillow under your knees; this works with the curvature of your spine to help relieve pain. If you have acid reflux, you should sleep on your left side; this is thought to position the stomach in such a way that calms the release of stomach acid. The left side is better, too, during pregnancy, as it helps blood circulation to the fetus.

And the Needs of Your Partner

And what if you’re co-sleeping with someone? Is there a preferred position then? There is not, Shukla said. There is only learning about your partner, and mutually adjusting to each other’s needs. And isn’t that, uh, nice? “Sometimes there are people who are very particular about the way they sleep,” he said, “in terms of position, clothing, whether they want a comforter.” Usually if there is someone whose sleep is more affected by their peccadilloes, the other can capitulate. “So it’s more like learning about each other, and making an adjustment. That’s what it usually comes down to.”

But in general, if you’re healthy and nonpregnant, and if you’re not involved with someone whose crazy sleeping makes your life hellish, Shukla recommends sleeping for as long as you can in whatever position feels the best. And here is some parting advice: “Make sure that your ears, shoulders, and hips are aligned. And if you find a pressure point you can always use your pillow between your legs, or pillows at your sides.”

The Best Sleeping Positions for Better Sleep and Health