Your bedtime position is crucial to getting a restful night, as sleep behaviour expert James Wilson reveals…
Why can you fall asleep tucked up like a dormouse yet wake in the night to find you are lying face-down with creases indelibly folded into your skin?
There has been conjecture on the secrets sleeping positions may reveal about personality, or the psychological implications of favouring your right side. But the truth is we have little control over our bodies while we rest.
‘At intervals throughout the night – between three and six times – we naturally lift out of deep sleep, partly so the brain can check we are safe and body temperature is optimal, and partly to trigger a shift in position if the brain is receiving messages signalling pain or discomfort,’ explains sleep behaviour and environment expert James Wilson (aka the Sleep Geek). He works with big brands and athletes, advising on optimal sleeping arrangements to maximise performance. He is also a regular on morning TV and the resident sleep expert for More 4’s documentary series The Secrets of Sleep, which tackled the issues faced by Britain’s worst sleepers.
‘If you’re putting pressure on your joints, this can be enough to spoil sleep quality and lead to tossing and turning,’ he says.
Wilson believes sleeping positions are more to do with learned behaviour and what you find comforting. ‘You might sleep on your front if that’s how you were placed as a baby, or because you snore when lying on your back,’ he says. ‘You might favour your left side because you subconsciously like to face the door or your partner. If you had a narrow bed as a child you might have a propensity to sleep in a rigid straight line.’
Some positions can do more harm than good, however. ‘Sleep is a time of recovery, when the body needs to be relaxed,’ Wilson says, ‘but certain positions put strain on the back and joints, meaning the body spends seven or eight hours in an active state, which can lead to discomfort and ultimately pain and injury.’
Despite potential risks, he says, drastic action to avoid these positions (such as the old wives’ tale of sewing a cotton reel into a pyjama top to stop you lying on your back and snoring) can raise stress levels and ruin sleep. Instead, he recommends putting yourself to bed in the ideal position (below) and if you wake to find yourself spread-eagled or face-planting, return to the foetal position. ‘Forty-five minutes on your front won’t cause damage,’ he says, ‘but eight hours might.’
So what does the way you sleep reveal about you, and is it doing more harm than good? James Wilson talks us through the six most common positions, opposite.
The perfect position
Lying on your side hugging a pillow with a cushion or pillow between your knees.
‘The best position to put yourself in for sleep – and the one you should aim to stay in for as long as possible – is lying on your side in a foetal position with your knees slightly bent and your hands as if in prayer,’ says Wilson. ‘This ensures minimal pressure on your joints and keeps your spine in perfect alignment. You can maximise the comfort (and increase the chance that you stay in this position) with a supportive pillow thick enough to keep your head in line with the rest of your spine.
‘I also recommend putting a pillow between your knees to relieve pressure on the hips and to keep the spine straight. Ideally, hug a body pillow (or an ordinary pillow if sharing the bed with a full-length pillow seems a little odd). Hugging something is comforting and makes us feel emotionally secure. Being propped up and comfortable like this increases the probability that you will stay on your side and not slip around to lying on your front.’
Lying on your back, hands by your side.
‘I have clients who swear they fall asleep like this and wake up in exactly the same position in the morning without moving,’ says Wilson. ‘The truth is they probably do move without realising. This position can be comfortable if you have the correct pillow support under your neck, and, ideally, another pillow under your knees to soften the curve in your spine and take the pressure off your back. But this position does mean you are more likely to snore if the tissues in your throat relax when you are asleep and fall back, restricting your airway.’
In a foetal position on your left or right side.
‘This is the best position to sleep in as long as you have a good supportive mattress and pillow,’ says Wilson. ‘Most of us feel more comfortable and comforted in the foetal position, and as long as you keep a bend in your legs and stack one leg on top of the other, you put minimal strain on your back and joints. Problems can occur if your pillow is too slim or easily crushed (I don’t recommend a feather pillow) as this can put a strain on your neck as it tips backwards and can cause your top shoulder to flop forwards, putting stress on that joint.’
Lying on your back, arms and legs spread wide.
‘I don’t believe sleeping like this has any connection to extrovert personalities, which has been suggested in the past,’ says Wilson. ‘It is likely to be a position adopted by those who enjoyed a big bed from a young age, and they’ve got used to stretching out. Similarly, tall people can sleep diagonally across the bed, and the habit is hard to shift. Both positions can put strain on the lower back if your mattress isn’t supportive enough, and they can trigger disputes if you take up a considerable proportion of a shared bed.’
Face down, head to side, arms up above your head.
‘This is common, particularly in people who snore or have sleep apnoea as they find it easier to breathe, and also with those who were put on their front as babies,’ says Wilson. ‘However, you could get shoulder and neck problems from holding your arms above your head and twisting your face to one side, and soreness in your lower back, hamstrings and knees as your body works to hold you in line. You’re also more likely to wake up repeatedly as the body shifts to a more comfy position because it requires more effort to turn you over.’
High kick with folded arms
Lying on your side with top leg in a kicking motion.
‘Although side sleeping is the healthiest, problems can arise if you find yourself with poker straight legs, or the top leg pulled up as if taking a huge stride,’ says Wilson. ‘Straight legs put pressure on the hamstrings and knees, and a high kick is hard on the hips. Waking with folded arms could be a sign of stress and your body trying to “self-soothe”. This can happen if you unconsciously feel guilty about falling asleep with your back to your partner. This arm position puts pressure on the shoulders, elbows and wrists.’
Lying on your back, arms above or under your head.
‘This can run in families – I find myself doing it and my youngest daughter does it, too,’ explains Wilson. ‘It could be a response to having insufficient space to “starfish”. Lying like this is OK for short periods – it is usually a position adopted to drop off to sleep and just before you wake. But holding your arms above your head for long periods puts your shoulders under strain, which may cause sufficient discomfort to wake you when you change position. It could also increase your risk of protracted shoulder problems.’
Interview: Louise Atkinson
Clothes and pillowcase, all The White Company. Make-up: Charlie Duffy at Carol Hayes Management using Trinny London. Hair: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes Management using Kiehl’s.