Guide to Side Sleeping and the Best Pillows for This Position

best side sleeping pillows

Side sleeping (aka lateral sleeping) is the predominant position in adults. According to a national sleep survey conducted by a leading American retailer, 74% of the nation’s population comprises side sleepers

Interestingly, more males prefer this position than females. Also, side sleepers usually sleep on their right side more than on their left side. This sleeping position is increasingly found in people who are older or have a higher body mass index (BMI). 

Who Is a Side Sleeper?

A side sleeper is someone who sleeps on either side of their body – left or right. You can consider yourself a side sleeper if your hip and shoulder touch the bed on one side.

What Are Their Sleeping Preferences?

The natural instinct of most side sleepers is to prefer…

  • Placing a pillow between their shoulders and head
  • Hugging a pillow while tucking their arm underneath and sleeping on it
  • Placing a pillow between their knees or legs.
  • Using mattresses and pillows that contour to the body and relieve pressure points
  • Avoiding pillows that let the head sink in too much
  • Sleeping on the right side to avoid putting strain on the heart

How Do You Identify Them?

Observe them when they wake up from sleep. A side sleeper is most likely to have flattened hair on one side and creases on their faces on the same side. There’s another way, which could seem a tad gross: look for drool on the pillow of a side sleeper; it’s usually on one side.

What Are the Advantages of Sleeping on the Side?

Relief During Pregnancy

Sleep experts believe sleeping on your side with your knees bent is the best position if you are pregnant. It not only eases the pressure on the growing belly, but also aids the heart in pumping blood adequately.

Pregnant women are advised to sleep on their left side to relieve pressure on the liver and promote the health of the fetus. Check out the cheapest pregnancy pillows here.

Reduced Chronic Pain

Side sleeping is likely to have a positive effect on people suffering from joint and low back pain as well as chronic pain associated with the muscles and bones.

Minimized Breathing Difficulties

People who sleep on their sides are more likely to breathe better and less likely to snore as there is no compression on the airways. This, in turn, could prevent medical conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea, which is associated with complications such as hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, cognitive behavior, and irregular heartbeat.

Improved Overall Brain Health

Side sleeping helps in improving the brain’s glymphatic system, which actively works as a waste drainage pathway, removing everything unwanted from the brain. The good health of this cleansing system is helpful in the prevention of various neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Enhanced Gut Health

The side sleeping position also improves the functioning of the digestive system, which helps in preventing and alleviating gastrointestinal issues such as constipation, acid reflux, heartburn, and bloating.

What Are the Disadvantages of Sleeping on the Side?

Frequent Acne Breakouts

An average side sleeper tends to press half their face on the pillow, which, as we know, collects dead skin cells, facial oils, sweat, and other allergens. This is why side sleepers are likely to experience localized acne breakouts on one side of their faces. Of course, regularly changing pillowcases could prevent such issues.

You may also want to read: Best Pillowcases for Acne Recommended by Skin Experts

Appearance of Early Wrinkles

This effect becomes more visible as a side sleeper ages. Because the face is usually pressed down on one side, this could lead to the early formation of facial wrinkles and expansion of the skin.

Increased Chances of Pillow Ear

“Pillow ear” is a condition in which the outer part of the ear (pinna) tends to swell, throb, and pain because of being constantly pressed against a pillow for a long time. The side sleeping position can aggravate it because one ear of the sleeper is always rested on the pillow.

Breast Sagging

Women who sleep on their side are more likely to experience sagging breasts because of the constant tension put on their breast ligament (the Coopers Ligament). This, in turn, stretches it over time and can worsen in women with large breasts. Wearing a supportive bra could be a preventative solution.

Development of Pain and Numbness in the Arms

This is a common problem for side sleepers who tuck their arms under their pillows. Because they are in the same position for an extended period of time, pain and numbness are likely to affect the shoulders and arms.

Heightened Risk of Shoulder Pain

Regardless of whether you sleep on your right or left side, this sleeping position could lead to the corresponding shoulder sinking too deep into the mattress and the other side moving towards your neck. This, in turn, misaligns the head and neck and causes pain.

Increased Pressure on the Heart

This issue often crops up in side sleepers who sleep on their left side. In this position, the chest cavity presses against the heart, which leads to improper cardiac function. Although the symptoms would not be noticeable initially, this position could cause or be an indication of congestive heart failure.

Increased Risks of Bad Posture

Always sleeping on your side could slowly degrade your posture without you realizing it. Side sleepers sometimes tend to twist their bodies in a way that the neutral spinal alignment is disturbed.

Ideally, the head should be at the center of the shoulders without the body feeling stressed. The chin should not be tucked against the chest, lest you want a nasty neck pain.

The best way to maintain your posture in the side sleeping position is to use extra pillows. Place them between the knees or hug them to keep the body aligned.

What Are the Types of Side Sleeping Positions?

The side sleeping position has been further categorized into the following types:

Fetal Position

A side sleeper curled up with the knees bent towards the chest is essentially sleeping in a Fetal position. This position is common in cold sleepers who tend to sleep on their side. The Fetal position helps the body stay warm.

fetal position

Prayer Position

For side sleepers who suffer from neck pain, the Prayer position is a natural instinct. They sleep on their sides by tucking their hands beneath their heads or pillows. It appears as if they are praying in their sleep.

prayer position

Straight Log Position

The Straight Log position has side sleepers sleeping entirely on one side without bending their knees and with one arm stretched along the torso and the other either tucked underneath the head or stretched parallel to the body.

straight log position

Sprawled Out Position

Some side sleepers sprawl out in a way that their arms and legs are stretched for maximum comfort. This is known as the Sprawled Out position.

sprawled out position

Which Pillows Are Ideal for Side Sleepers?

The right pillow for side sleepers should be able to provide optimal neck support for proper spinal alignment. Take a look at the image below to understand how a pillow determines the quality of sleep for a side sleeper.

correct pillow for side sleepers

To find a pillow that can make a side sleeper happy, we must consider the following aspects:


Regular sleeping pillows are almost always designed exclusively for back sleepers. This is why, when shopping for pillows for a side sleeper, you must consider their specific needs.

Specialty pillows designed to support the shoulders, neck, head, back, and hips are one way to improve a side sleeper’s sleep.

Although there hasn’t been a lot of academic research to back it up, these pillow types have been thought to be effective, particularly for combating chronic pain and relieving body stress.

We recommend two such specialty pillows:

  • Body pillows
  • Knee pillows
  • Pillows with an ear hole

A side sleeper can hug a body pillow lengthwise to get the necessary support. Knee pillows, on the other hand, can be placed between the knees to align the spine and hips.

Furthermore, as discussed earlier, side sleepers are more likely to get a “Pillow ear.” The best way to avoid this is to get a pillow with an ear hole.


A side sleeper needs a pillow of medium firmness.

A pillow that is too firm will cause the head to rest on top of the pillow rather than sink into it. As a result, the neck will bend at an awkward angle to keep the head tilted upward, resulting in pain later.

A pillow that is too soft, on the other hand, will allow the head to sink deeper into it. The neck will bend at an awkward angle once more, this time to keep the head tilted downward. It will hurt later as a result of the tension.

However, a medium-firmness pillow will support the head in such a way that the neck does not bend and spinal alignment is optimal.


A pillow’s loft is its thickness, which should be medium to high for a side sleeper. Side sleepers should choose pillows that are at least 4 inches thick.

The reason is the same: to facilitate optimal spinal alignment. Pillows with low loft cannot support the head and neck adequately in the side sleeping position.

Fill Material

Because side sleepers need pillows of medium firmness, the following fill materials are considered the best for them.

  • Memory Foam – thick and capable of contouring to a side sleeper’s head
  • Buckwheat – molds to the shape of the head and offers strong reinforcement to the neck
  • Latex – offers cushioned support as well as contours to the head to keep the spine aligned

Side sleepers can also try out pillows stuffed with wool, kapok, cotton, and millet hulls. However, they must avoid sleeping on pillows filled with Down feathers and quilled feathers. This piece of advice has also been mentioned in a report titled “Pillow use: The behaviour of cervical pain, sleep quality and pillow comfort in side sleepers.”

When to Consider Switching to Other Sleeping Positions?

Consider switching from side-sleeping to another position when you notice the following:

  • Acne and wrinkles
  • Sagging breasts
  • Constant pain and numbness in the arms
  • Constant pain and numbness in the shoulders
  • Pain in the hips and lower back
  • Heightened palpitation of the heart
  • Pain in the chest cavity

Need more information about the other common sleeping positions? Check out our detailed article right away.