August 5, 2016

Sleep Positioning 101

Just as it is important to keep moving in order for our body to alleviate pain, it’s also important to pay attention to body mechanics while we are at rest.
  • Krissy Austin photo
    Krissy Austin

    Krissy is an experienced physical therapist that received her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011.

Woman sleeping in bed

If we pay attention to our posture and ergonomics throughout the day, but spend eight+ hours (if you're lucky) undoing everything, where does that get us? Have you ever awoken in pain with no explanation other than “I must have slept funny?” It’s time to pay attention to sleep positioning.

Before I get to the details of proper positioning, note some important, quick tips:

  • Use only one pillow under your head.
  • A softer pillow is better, as a firmer pillow will not allow the muscles in the head and neck to “relax.”
  • You’ll need hand towels and extra pillows.

Head and Neck

This is the first step regardless of whether you sleep on your side, stomach or back. If you are a side sleeper and you find comfort in placing your arm underneath the pillow, then that is an indication that more support is needed! Remove the arm. Instead…

  1. Fold a hand towel in quarters (fold in half, then fold in half again) and place it directly underneath base of skull.
  2. Add additional folded towels as needed until your head is supported enough that your neck does not feel like it is in a bent position.
Series of photos that shows folding a towel and putting it under a pillow
Fold the towel and then put it under the pillow.

Side Sleeping

  1. Place one pillow under your top arm to support your arm/shoulder.
  2. Fold hand towel(s) and place long ways directly underneath your torso (approximately the area between bottom rib & top of hip/pelvis).
  3. Place one pillow between legs, contacting all areas including feet. A body pillow is best.

Woman laying on her side on a physical therapy table

Stomach Sleeping

If you are a stomach sleeper, think of it as more of a “half stomach, half side” position.

  1. Bend a leg up (at knee and hip) and rest it on pillow.
  2. Rest your top arm on a pillow.

Woman laying on her side with pillow between her leg

Back Sleeping

If you are a back sleeper:

  1. Using one to two pillows, form a wedge shape underneath legs.

Woman laying on back with pillows under her legs