What happens to your body when you sleep on your stomach?

Man asleep in bed, lying on his stomach
(Image credit: Getty)

We all naturally have a favorite way of sleeping, but some positions are better than others. So what happens to your body when you sleep on your stomach? Is it good for your body to sleep on your front or should you consider changing how you sleep.

Sleeping is essential for us – in order to recharge our bodies, mentally and physically. Without a good night's sleep, which is said to be around 7-9 hours of sleep, depending on your requirements, you could weaken your immune system and be more prone to anxiety or depression. And while many of us don’t even think about our sleep position, it could be affecting our health during the daytime too.

Some of us find it more comfortable sleeping on our sides or sleeping on our backs, but can there be any health benefits if we favor sleeping on our front? And if we find ourselves waking up on our stomachs, even if we didn’t fall asleep in this position – can it affect our sleep or benefit our bodies?

We talk to the experts and look at the latest research on what happens to your body when you sleep on your stomach.

Is sleeping on your front common?

No – only around 10 per cent of Americans sleep on their stomachs, with the majority of us choosing to sleep on our backs or sides.

Is sleeping on your front bad for you?

In short, yes, there are plenty of down-sides to sleeping on your tummy. Aimee Brame, Consultant Physician at Sleep Centre at London Bridge Hospital, says there aren’t many health benefits to sleeping on your stomach: “Sleeping on your front is good for snoring and sleep apnoea, but that’s where the benefits end. It puts strain on your neck and pressure on your spine as your face is turned to the side for an extended amount of time – so sleeping on your tummy can result in waking up with a sore neck or back.”

The kind of mattress you have makes a difference too – while it won't make lying on your front good for you, choosing a firmer mattress rather than a softer one will help provide more support for your spine in this position (consult our best mattress guide for more information).

Man asleep in bed, lying on his stomach

(Image credit: Getty)

Can you sleep on your stomach if you're pregnant?

Contrary to what you might assume, you can sleep on your stomach when you’re pregnant, especially if you already sleep in this position – there is no proof that it can harm the baby. However, it will get more uncomfortable as your baby starts to grow, plus it can put a strain on other parts of your body.

“It won’t necessarily harm the baby,” explains Brame, “but the weight of your stomach on your spine could increase back pain. Many people who are pregnant may already experience this symptom – therefore any additional strain on the back will be unwelcome.”

What happens to your body when you lie on your stomach?

There are some benefits to lying on your stomach – if you’re a snorer, or you’re partner is, then you’re in luck; as this sleeping position can reduce the risk of snoring, while it can also help sleep apnea – as it allows more air to flow through your nose and mouth.

However, there is a lot of reasons why stomach sleeping is bad for you. If you’ve always slept on your stomach, the bad news is that, over time it can influence the curve of your spine, say Brame: “Most of your body weight is found in your stomach, so when you sleep on your stomach it is pulled down into the mattress. This flattens the natural curve in your spine which can lead to back pain.”

If you suffer from a stiff neck every morning it could be down to your sleep position too – like when you’re having a massage on your front it strains your neck upwards and backwards, which compresses your spine. Brame says that when you’re sleeping you want your body to be completely relaxed, and this position isn’t very relaxing for the back as it compresses your spine.

Is there anything you can do to make sleeping on your front better for you?

If sleeping on your stomach is a habit you just can’t break, but want to make it less taxing on your spine and joints there are ways around it. “If you can’t stop sleeping on your front, you should use either no pillow or a very thin pillow,” reveals Brame (our best pillow guide covers a range of options).

She explains that this “lessens the angle that your head and neck lie at, making it more comfortable and leading to less strain on your neck. You can also put a pillow under your pelvis, as this creates a better angle for your spine, reducing back pain.”

Choosing the right mattress is also important, as we'll get into next...

What kind of mattress is best for stomach sleepers?

If you want to know how to choose a mattress for your sleep position, the first thing to consider is firmness level. Stomach sleepers should steer clear of soft mattresses, as they won't provide enough support to keep the spine properly aligned. Our best firm mattress ranking has plenty of sturdy options, but if that sounds unappealing, a medium-firm mattress should be sufficient for most people.

While it varies from model to model, a hybrid mattress or good quality innerspring mattress can be great for evenly distributing the whole weight of your body, meaning your spine won’t curve as you sleep. In fact, our best mattress for back pain guide is a good place to look, as all of those models balance strong support with comfortable cushioning.

How can you train yourself not to lie on your stomach?

If you’d prefer to change your sleep position but find yourself wanting the comfort of the mattress next to your stomach, Brame advises you to invest in a body pillow, or just place a normal pillow next to you on both sides, so you physically can’t roll on to your stomach.  

Alternatively, use pillows to prop your body in place. A pillow under the knees or lower back and one on either side can help you learn how to sleep on your back, and prevent rolling over in the night.

Other, more drastic measures, are sewing something into the front of your t-shirt, like a tennis ball, which would make it uncomfortable when you roll onto your stomach. However, it could also affect your sleep in general, waking you up and distracting you from a healthy sleep pattern.

Woman asleep on her side, hugging a pillow

(Image credit: Getty)

What's the best position to sleep in?

If you sleep on your stomach it may, over time, have an effect on your spine so it could be time to find a healthier sleeping position. But, which positions could help you get a better night's sleep, and benefit your health in the long run?

“Sleeping on your back or side is the most beneficial,” says Brame, “Both positions support and take pressure off your spine, which allows your muscles and joints to completely relax. Sleep lets your body recover, so it is important that you are sleeping in the correct position for this to happen.”

Aimée Brame
Dr Aimée Brame

Dr Aimée Brame is a Consultant Physician who has completed specialist training in Respiratory, General Medicine and Intensive Care Medicine. She specialises in pulmonary vascular disease and pulmonary hypertension. She is currently involved in a number of clinical studies investigating changes in haemodynamics in a range of clinical conditions. She has authored several book chapters and has been published in a number of peer reviewed journals. Her special interests include breathlessness and long COVID.

Sarah Finley

Sarah is a freelance writer who has been published across titles including Woman & Home, The Independent, and the BBC. Sarah covers a variety of subjects, including health and wellness. For Tom's Guide Sarah often writes about sleep health and hygiene, and interviews leading sleep experts about common issues such as insomnia and sleep deprivation.