Since you spend about one-third of your life asleep or trying to sleep, your typical sleep position can significantly impact your overall health and wellbeing. Moreover, your sleep position can have a growing effect on your body as you age and become more susceptible to aches, pains, sleep disorders, digestive complications, osteoporosis, and other conditions.

Many people have slept in the same position for years, if not their entire adult life. A specific sleep position may come naturally to you, but this preference can develop from factors including body type, weight, pain points, and even personality.

While there’s no “right” way to do it, research suggests there might be a “wrong” one: sleeping on your stomach.

Adverse Effects of Stomach Sleeping

Most people sleep on their back or side, but about seven to ten percent of the population prefers the prone position, meaning stomach sleeping.

While sleeping on your stomach can have a few benefits—mainly reducing snoring and reducing acid reflux—the prone position also carries some risks. If you’re a stomach sleeper, it’s important to understand the potential adverse effects so you can decide if it’s in your best interest to switch positions.

Neck Strain

Sleeping on your stomach requires you to turn your head to the side to breathe. This twists the neck, misaligning the head and cervical spine and locking the upper cervical vertebrae.

Over time, this can accelerate vertebral wear and tear and lead to issues such as headaches and neck stiffness, and pain.

You may even experience a herniated disk (or ruptured) disk. The condition occurs when the vertebrae shift significantly, causing the disk to rupture and the gelatinous fluid inside to leak and pressure nearby nerves. The condition can be extremely painful and requires professional medical care and quite a bit of time to heal.

The wearing down of the cartilage between the spinal joints can also contribute to osteoarthritis, a permanent and painful condition.

Spinal Stress

People who sleep on their stomachs may also be more susceptible to back pain, stiffness, and injury, as the position can strain the spine.

The prone position puts pressure on the middle back (thoracic spine) and the upper spine (cervical spine). This occurs because the body’s center holds the most weight, and sleeping on the stomach makes it difficult to maintain spinal neutrality.

The spine is the primary nervous system highway, and misaligned or otherwise adversely affected, it can impact various other parts of the body. It may even result in tingling and numbness in the limbs and extremities.

As anyone who has experienced it knows all too well, back pain can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.

Shoulder Pain

Sleeping on the stomach provides next-to-no support for the shoulders unless you sleep with your arms around your pillow. This leaves your body in a hunched position, causing strain and pain.

Likewise, in the same way spinal misalignment can affect the neck and spine, it can affect the shoulders, resulting in discomfort.

It Isn’t Ideal During Pregnancy

It likely won’t be physically possible to sleep on your stomach in your third trimester, but it’s not advisable in the first or second either. For one, the extra weight on the body puts even more strain and pressure on the thoracic spine, increasing your risk of back pain.

While it isn’t necessarily dangerous to sleep in the prone position while pregnant, research indicates babies benefit most when the mother sleeps on the left side. This can increase healthy blood flow and provide you both with ample oxygen.

Woman sleeping on stomach under white comforter

Advice for Stomach Sleepers

If you’re a stomach-sleeper concerned about the effects mentioned above, it’s not too late to make a change. Here are some tips on how to sleep on your stomach safely:

Train Yourself to Sleep Differently

The idea of training yourself to sleep differently after a lifetime as a stomach-sleeper may seem laughable. But it is possible.

One way is to lie on your back and place pillows on either side of your body and one under your knees. This setup can prevent you from flipping over to one side or onto your stomach.

If that doesn’t work, consider strapping a tennis ball to your midsection with a band. This way, if you flip onto your front in the night, the discomfort will prompt you to switch position again.

Use Pillows in the Right Places

If you just can’t (or don’t want to) break the habit, strategic pillow placement can make stomach sleeping safer.

The Mayo Clinic advises placing a pillow beneath your pelvis to support the hips and promote spinal neutrality. The top of the pillow should hit your lower abdomen with the bottom at your mid-thigh.

Alternatively, you may want to skip pillows altogether or use a relatively flat one. Doing so can reduce the degree to which your neck is angled away from the spine, improving alignment.

Find The Best Mattress for Stomach Sleepers

Stomach sleepers can benefit from a firmer-than-average mattress, providing more support for the midsection and shoulders and promoting spinal alignment. In general, this means choosing a hybrid or innerspring product.

Hybrid mattresses with memory foam or latex materials may be best for stomach sleepers as these respond well to movement.

Mattresses with supportive comfort layers or pillow tops can help reduce some of the strain off the shoulders and chest, assuaging neck and shoulder discomfort. You can also add a mattress topper if your bed feels too firm, but you aren’t ready to replace the mattress just yet.

You’ll also want to look for breathable material and cooling features to avoid overheating, as stomach sleeping tends to trap heat.

Healthier Sleep for a Healthier You

Getting a good night’s rest is the foundation for a great day. After all, it’s hard to be your most productive, creative, and energized self when you’re battling fatigue, grogginess, stiffness, pain, and other effects of insufficient shuteye.

That’s not to mention the long-term effects of poor sleep practices. Adopting a healthy sleep hygiene regimen can significantly influence your overall wellbeing in the short and long term. And that may include adapting your sleep position.

Fortunately for all the hard-and-fast stomach-sleepers, there are plenty of ways to make the prone position safer and more comfortable.