Sleeping to Support Your Body

I love my Sundays!  (And let’s be honest, every day of the weekend!)  While there are a lot of reasons for this, I think my favorite is not setting an alarm.  Yes, I know there are benefits of getting up at the same time regardless of the day and yes, I also do enjoy the peace and quiet and productivity that early mornings bring, but getting up at 5am against my internal clock’s will gets old.  Sleeping in even a little bit feels so refreshing after a long week.  Especially as the seasons are changing, the sun is a little slower to rise, and the temperatures are dropped, it is extra satisfying snuggling into my covers a little deeper for a little longer.

But what happens when sleep turns against you and you wake up feeling more stiff, sore, and uncomfortable than when you first tucked yourself in?  Many people underestimate the power of sleeping position in the health of our bodies.  It is easy to see how sitting slumped over at a computer for 8 hours a day can lead to pain and problems, but what is really different about sleeping?  Typically, you are relatively stationary for ~8 hours give or take as you sleep, and that position can be just as problematic as crummy posture while you are conscious.  When you consider that the time you spend sleeping is roughly 1/3 of your life, it may be worth giving your sleeping position a bit more attention.

Now, first and foremost, I fully appreciate how difficult changing your natural sleeping positions is.  It can be either hard to get comfortable enough to get to sleep in the first place or because you cannot be fully in charge of your actions during the night, those perfectly placed props can make their way across the room and your body position could end up looking like you are training for Cirque du Soleil.  I still encourage getting sleep however you can as the first priority.  Sleep is hugely important for your health more globally, so even if you assumed perfect sleep posture, if you can’t actually sleep, that is likely more detrimental to your wellbeing.  But, if you can slowly sneak some minor adjustments in without compromising shut-eye time, all the better, particularly if you are experiencing pain somewhere in your body.

In general, what we are looking for in a perfect sleeping position is taking what we know to be good upright posture and simply lying it down.  Easy enough in concept, but what does that look like in practical terms?  Let’s go over a few common areas of pain/dysfunction and discuss some options for setting yourself up more optimally to decrease the strain on your body through the night.  I usually suggest either a position on your back or side, but for the hard core stomach sleepers, I’ve thrown in some options for that too.



  • Back sleepers:
    • Find a pillow that doesn’t leave your head dropping backward but is also not pushing your head too far in front of your shoulders.
    • Use something to fill in the curve of your neck between your head and your upper back. You can either just adjust the pillow you are using to give a little extra cushion at your neck compared to your head, or take something like a towel to roll up and fill in that gap
  • Side sleepers:
    • Find a pillow that keeps your head lifted just enough so that it is lined up with the center of your body, not tilted either too low, or pushed too high.
    • Use something to fill in the curve between your head and shoulder. A rolled up towel works nicely so that you can adjust it to just the right height to fill in the gap but not press into your neck.
  • Stomach sleepers:
    • Not an ideal choice. Since you have to continue breathing, really the only choice is for your head to be rotated to the side, adding strain to your neck through the night.



  • Back sleepers:
    • First, make sure you are relatively lined up from top to bottom (ribs over pelvis, pelvis centered over legs), and try to avoid crossing your legs.
    • A pillow underneath your knees may help take some strain off the low back.

back pillow under knees

  • Side sleepers:
    • Try to keep your legs stacked on top of each other as putting one leg in front effectively adds rotation into your spine.
    • Use a pillow between your knees. This also helps to prevent sidebending and rotation at the spine and keeps your hips in more neutral alignment.
    • Especially if you have a much smaller waist than the width of your hips, a small pillow or rolled up towel underneath the bottom waist can help maintain a more neutral position of your low back.
  • Stomach sleepers:
    • Having a pillow under your low belly/pelvis can help keep you in slight lumbar flexion which for many people may be a more comfortable position for the low back.

stomach pillow under hips



  • Back sleepers:
    • With your arms down at your sides, place pillows underneath your arms (below your shoulders). People often have tight pec muscles (front of the chest) that pull their shoulders forward.  If this is the case and your arms drop all the way down to the bed while your shoulders stay forward, you are causing increased strain to the front of your shoulders.  Propping your elbows up to at least the height of your torso or even slightly higher can decrease this.
    • Avoid sleeping with your arms overhead.
  • Side sleepers:
    • First of all, it is usually better to NOT sleep on the side that you are having shoulder pain.
    • Put a stack of pillows or something similar in front of you and rest your top arm on it. This should be high enough to keep your arm in about the same plane as your top shoulder so that your arm isn’t crossing over your body and taking your shoulder out of a neutral position.
  • Stomach sleepers:
    • Avoid sleeping with your hands under your head.
    • Try putting towels/small pillows directly under your shoulders to prevent them from tipping forward.

Remember that every individual complaint is slightly different, so variations in the above recommendations may be necessary.  Also, be easy on yourself.  I usually recommend that people start in their optimal position, but if it all gets jumbled through the night, oh well.  You can try again the next night.  Finally, regardless of whether you get the perfect position down, our bodies still like to MOVE.  So, when you wake up, doing a few simple stretches before you get up or early in your day can be a great way to work out some of the stiffness and kinks.  And don’t forget about exercise and watching your other postures throughout the day too 😊

Sleep well!

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