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Best Pillow Position for Each Sleeping Position: Expert Tips

The proper pillow position depends on which position you sleep in and whether you have any pain or health issues. Focus on getting enough sleep overall.
Published
2023-04-12
Updated
22 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
woman trying to figure out proper pillow position for sleeping on her side

Proper pillow position is one of those things you won’t think about when you’ve got it right. You’ll lay your head on your pillow and — hopefully — drift off easily and get a good night’s sleep. 

But when you get your pillow position wrong, you’ll know. You may get neck, shoulder, and back pain, struggle to fall asleep, or wake up in discomfort — either during the night or in the morning. 

Pain is never fun and sleep is essential for health, productivity, and energy. So, while the humble pillow may not seem like a big deal, getting the position right is important.

Below, we’ll dive into the proper pillow position (both for your head and body) for every sleep position, and which pillow you should sleep with to wake up refreshed and pain-free. Plus, we’ll cover how the RISE app can help you get a good night’s rest, no matter which pillow you’re using or how you’re using it.

What is the Proper Pillow Position for Side Sleepers?

If you’re a side sleeper, you’ll probably need a pillow for your head. Without one, your head can drop down and be out of alignment with your spine. This puts pressure on the neck and back, and you may wake up in pain. 

Even worse? You may find it hard to fall asleep in the first place or wake up during the night, causing sleep deprivation. 

Your pillow should fill the gap between your head and the mattress. You don’t want to place it too high that your neck isn’t supported, or too low that it lifts your shoulders up. If your head isn’t at the right height, you may get neck and shoulder pain

Expert tip: As well as having a pillow under your head, consider adding a pillow between your knees. This will keep your spine aligned and it can stop you from twisting forward, which creates an unnatural posture and puts pressure on your hips and back. 

You can use any pillow for this or invest in a body pillow. A 2021 study found body pillows can take pressure off your shoulder, hip, and overall body. Body pillows can also help people spend more time sleeping on their side (which can help to reduce sleep disorders like sleep apnea), and they can prevent the segmentation of deep sleep episodes. 

Tips for choosing the best pillow for side sleepers: 

  • Choose a pillow that’s thick and firm enough to keep your head in line with your spine.
  • Place a pillow under your head and neck, but not your shoulders. 
  • Grab another pillow to place in between your knees, or invest in a body pillow. 
  • If you have to sleep on your side for health issues (like sleep apnea or acid reflux) consider placing firm pillows either side of you to stop you from rolling onto your front or back. 

What is the Proper Pillow Position for Back Sleepers?

Back sleepers may also need a pillow for their heads. This will stop your head from tipping back too much, which puts a lot of pressure on the neck. You don’t want this pillow to be too thick, though, as this can push your head too far forward. 

One study stated 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) is the best height pillow for back sleepers with normal cervical lordosis, or the natural curve of your neck.

This may differ for you depending on body shape and preference. As with side sleeping, the goal is to keep your head, neck, and spine in alignment. 

Expert tip: You can also try placing a small pillow under your knees to support the natural curve of your spine and promote good sleep posture.

Sleeping on your back with your head elevated by an extra pillow or two can also be beneficial for: 

You can use any pillow for this, or you can buy a special wedge-shaped pillow to better elevate your head and upper body. An adjustable-base bed can also work to elevate your head without the need for an extra pillow. 

Tips for choosing the best pillow for back sleepers: 

  • Choose a pillow that’s thin enough that it doesn’t push your head and neck forward but thick enough that your head doesn’t tip back.  
  • Grab another pillow to tuck under your knees.
  • Grab another pillow or two if you want to elevate your head, or consider a special wedge-shaped pillow. 

What is the Proper Pillow Position for Front Sleepers?

Most experts agree you should try to avoid sleeping on your front. This position puts a lot of pressure on your spine and neck, and you may wake up with pain in these areas. If you sleep with your arms lifted, you might also get shoulder pain, and, if you sleep with one leg lifted, hip pain. 

Try to train yourself out of sleeping in this position. However, if you can’t fall asleep in any other way, don’t sacrifice sleep. There are a few ways you can make stomach sleeping better for your body. 

When it comes to where to position your pillow, try using a thin pillow under your head — or no pillow at all. This will stop your head and neck from being lifted into an unnatural position. 

Expert tip: You can also try placing a flat pillow under your hips to support the natural curve of your spine. 

If you’re trying to become a side sleeper and find yourself rolling onto your front in the night, try placing firm pillows in front of you when laying on your side. Hugging a body pillow can also help keep you in the sideways position. 

Tips for choosing the best pillow for stomach sleepers: 

  • Choose a thin pillow (or no pillow) so your head isn’t pushed back too much.
  • Try using a thin pillow under your hips.  

What is the Proper Pillow Position for Combination Sleepers?

A combination sleeper is someone who sleeps in different positions throughout the night. You may fall asleep on your back then roll onto your side or front, then back again. 

If this is you, you’ll most likely need a pillow under your head to support your head and neck when you’re on your side and back. 

You might benefit from a medium-thickness pillow, which can provide the best support. Or consider a specially designed pillow that has different heights for different sleeping positions. 

No matter what you choose, the aim should be to keep your head, neck, and spine in line. 

Expert tip: Consider keeping another pillow nearby you can grab to tuck between your legs if you wake up on your side, or under your knees if you wake up on your back during the night.

Tips for choosing the best pillow for combination sleepers: 

  • Try a medium-thick pillow under your head.
  • Consider a special pillow that’s thicker at the sides, for when you’re on your side, and thinner in the middle, for when you’re on your back. 
  • Aim to keep your head, spine, and hips aligned in any position you find yourself in. It might be worth paying extra attention to getting the right mattress. We’ve covered how to find the best mattress for you here.

What’s the Best Sleep Position?

The right sleep position can help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and get the shut-eye you need each night. The wrong position, on the other hand, can cause or worsen neck and back pain, sleep apnea, or other health conditions like acid reflux. Plus, you might find it harder to drift off. 

So which position should you sleep in? 

For healthy adults with no pain or health conditions, there is no one best sleep position. In fact, we say the best sleep position is the one you can get the most sleep in. 

Sleep is your first priority. But, beyond that, try to sleep in a position that keeps you in a good posture. The muscles in your neck and back relax as you sleep, so to protect these areas and keep them pain-free, you want to aim to keep everything aligned naturally. 

That could be done while sleeping on your side or back. Sleeping on your front makes this harder. But, again, don’t sacrifice sleep if you can’t fall asleep in any other position.

If you have pain, a different sleeping position to your preferred sleeping position may help. For example, front sleepers can experience neck pain as their head is twisted unnaturally when sleeping. Try training yourself to sleep on your side. Your neck will be in a more neutral position and you can get neck support from your pillow, which may help ease the pain.

If you have a health condition, certain sleep positions can help here, too. Sleeping on your side can help reduce acid reflux, snoring, sleep apnea, and it’s the best position for digestion, brain health, and when pregnant. Sleeping on your back may help reduce wrinkles and acne. 

We’ve covered more about the best side to sleep on here.

Why Does Proper Pillow Position Matter?

We all know we need to get enough sleep to feel and function our best. And where you place your pillow can help — or hurt — your attempts at getting a good night’s sleep. 

If you’re uncomfortable or in any pain, it’ll be much harder to drift off, and you may be woken up during the night, too. Plus, even if you can sleep perfectly fine, you don’t want to wake up with a stiff neck or sore back because of something as simple as your pillow position. 

Pillow positioning becomes more important when you have an illness, injury, or health condition. For example, if you have sleep apnea, you can use pillows to keep you sleeping on your side, or prop you up so you sleep with your head elevated. This can help to reduce the severity of the sleep disorder as it helps keep your airways open. 

Pillows can keep you sleeping on your left side, which can reduce heartburn and is thought to be best when pregnant. 

And if you’ve got back pain, the right sleep and pillow position may help ease pain. One study asked those with lower back pain to sleep on their sides with a pillow under their heads and one between their knees. Those with neck or upper back pain were asked to sleep on their backs with a pillow under their heads and one under their knees. After sleeping like this for four weeks, 90% of participants reported less pain.

Image showing different sleep positions
The recommended sleeping position for lower back pain is A, upper back is B, and people were encouraged to not sleep in position C. Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26835867/

As we grow older, it’s harder to get the sleep we need, and more aches, pains, and medical conditions may crop up. Proper pillow position, therefore, becomes even more important to help us maximize our time in bed. 

Finally, we asked our sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, what he thinks about pillow position. 

“There’s not a lot of research into the best pillow position. But my advice is to experiment and go for the pillow placement that you find the most comfortable. If possible, aim to have a straight line from your neck to your head to your spine. Your shoulders shouldn’t be on your pillow, but it may help to sleep with a pillow under your shoulders when you’re trying to elevate your head and upper body to help with snoring, sleep apnea, and acid reflux.” Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

Pillow Research Has its Problems 

Pillow position matters, but we don’t have the conclusive answers we’d like on the topic yet. 

There’s not a lot of research into proper pillow position for sleep. And the studies that have been done come with a few problems. They’re often small, use self-reported sleep quality data or subjective comfort measurements, or use different types of pillows, making it hard to compare results. They also often look at people with health problems or neck pain, for example, rather than the general population. 

To make matters more confusing, there are no set guidelines for features like “firm” or “soft” pillows, so it can be hard to replicate when buying a pillow for yourself. Plus, participants are often given new pillows and this is compared to their regular (probably well-worn) pillows. There may even be a change in pillow types in the same study. 

One final problem? When studies attempt to measure the impact pillows have on sleep, it’s hard to control for other factors that affect your shut-eye. Many studies don’t say whether they control for these factors or not, or clearly state they don’t. So, it’s hard to tell whether the new pillow is causing more sleep loss, or whether participants just got too much evening blue light, had an extra coffee that day, or how much their mattress is helping or hurting? 

All this is to say that, while there is some science-backed advice on pillows, we still don’t have a clear answer on the best placement, height, or filling. The best thing you can do is experiment to find the pillow you find the most comfortable and the placement that helps you get enough sleep each night. 

What’s the Best Pillow Height?

Beyond pillow position, you need to think about the height of the pillow you use. A thicker pillow may be better for side sleepers, whereas a thinner pillow may be better for back and front sleepers. But, there’s no set height that’s agreed upon as the best. 

A 2020 study compared 8-centimeter (about 3 inches), 10-centimeter (about 4 inches), and 12-centimeter pillows (4.7 inches) when people were laying on their backs. While most participants preferred the 8-centimeter pillow, the study concluded: “The three pillow heights could be suitable for sleeping in healthy people.”

Another study asked participants to lay on their backs with no pillow, a 10-centimeter pillow, and a 20-centimeter pillow (almost 8 inches). The positions of their necks and spines were analyzed. This study concluded: “From the data obtained in this study, we recommend that the most suitable pillow height is 10 cm considering the normal cervical lordosis.” (Normal neck curvature). 

For side sleepers, one study compared 5-centimeter (about 2 inches), 10-centimeter (about 4 inches), and 14-centimeter (5.5 inches) pillows when people lay on their sides. The 10-centimeter pillows were considered the most comfortable, whereas the 5-centimeter pillows were considered the least. The 10-centimeter pillow also resulted in less muscle activation in the neck and mid-upper back.

While 10 centimeters may look popular, research from 2021 stated there isn’t enough evidence to recommend an optimal pillow height. 

And for combination sleepers, a specially designed pillow with different heights may be best. One study found the heights of pillows on the market were too high for back sleepers and too low for side sleepers. The researchers designed a U-shaped pillow that was lower in the middle for back sleepers and higher at the sides for side sleepers. When participants slept with this pillow, the amount of uninterrupted sleep and their total sleep duration were both significantly longer. Participants also took an average of 9.5 minutes to fall asleep with the U-shaped pillow, compared to 25 minutes with a normal pillow.  

Our overall advice? As so much of sleep comfort comes down to your body shape and personal preference, it’s worth experimenting with different pillow heights to find the one that’s most comfortable for you. 

What’s the Best Pillow Filling?

What your pillow is made out of may be just as important as where you place it when sleeping. 

Research from 2020 found pillow fillings can make a difference to neck fatigue. It states: “Neck fatigue was rarer among users of pillows filled with plastic capsules, latex or memory foam than among those using pillows filled with feathers or cotton.” This may be because plastic capsules, latex, and memory foam are more elastic and less fluffy, so they keep their shape and support over time.

Another study found rubber pillows can help reduce neck pain and improve self-reported sleep quality. And support is key. Research shows those with neck pain can see a reduction in pain and headaches with a supportive pillow.

A 2023 study looked at sleepers without neck pain and found neck support foam pillows caused the most head and neck pressure. But standard microfiber foam pillows can push your head forward too much with prolonged use. 

Finally, another 2023 study looked at those with forward head posture, also known as text neck. It found that: 

  • In the side sleeping position, a fiber material pillow provided a higher level of head comfort while a cotton material pillow had better head support. 
  • In the back sleeping position, a wool material pillow, fiber pillow, and goose down pillow provided more head comfort. A cotton pillow and goose down pillow provided more head support and a goose feather pillow provided better upper back support. 
  • In the front sleeping position, a viscose material pillow and a wool pillow provided more upper back support. A fiber pillow and goose down pillow provided higher levels of head comfort, and the goose down pillow provided better back support. 

Is it Better to Sleep With or Without a Pillow?

There isn’t much research into whether sleeping with or without a pillow is better for you. It comes down to personal preference, the position you sleep in, and whether you have any health problems or areas of pain. 

In general, side sleepers and back sleepers will most likely benefit from sleeping with a pillow as it will help with spinal alignment. Front sleepers may be better off ditching the pillow, or using a thin one, to avoid pushing their head and neck back into unnatural angles. 

But we say, you should prioritize sleep. So, if you don’t have any pain or medical conditions and you find sleeping without a pillow helps you get more sleep, ditch it. If, however, you find it more comfortable to sleep with one, keep it. 

You can learn more about sleeping without a pillow here, including how to choose the right one for you. 

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep?

Pillow position is important, but for healthy adults without pain or any medical conditions, it’s probably not going to make or break your sleep or health. In fact, worrying about pillow positioning may even cause anxiety, which can make it harder to fall asleep. Plus, there’s simply not enough evidence to say what the best pillow position is. 

One thing that is backed by plenty of scientific studies? Sleep hygiene. 

Sleep Hygiene 

RISE app screenshot showing when to get and avoid bright light
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

 Good sleep hygiene can help you get the best night’s sleep possible, wherever you choose to place your pillow. On the flip side, bad sleep hygiene can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, even if you’re using perfect pillow placement.

Here’s what to do.

  • Get bright light first thing: Light in the morning resets your circadian rhythm, or body clock, for the day. This will keep your sleep-wake cycle in check. Aim for at least 10 minutes of light as soon as possible after waking up, or 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Light can keep you up in the evening. Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed (we recommend these).
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night. Check RISE for when to avoid each one daily.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: There’s no point worrying about your pillow only for something else in your bedroom to keep or wake you up. Set your thermostat to 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, use blackout curtains, and wear earplugs and an eye mask

To stay on top of your sleep hygiene, the RISE app can guide you through 20+ habits each day and tell you the ideal time to do each one to make them more effective.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.

Sleep Debt and Circadian Rhythm 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

Two more things to keep in mind? Sleep debt and circadian rhythm.

Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body, it’s compared against your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night. 

If you’re looking to maximize your energy levels and health, keeping your sleep debt low is one of the most important things to focus on. Low sleep debt can also keep pain as low as possible, too. You can learn more about how sleep loss affects pain, and vice versa, here.

If you’re experimenting with different pillow positions, be sure to keep an eye on your sleep debt to make sure you’re not losing out on sleep with any changes you make. 

RISE can work out your unique sleep need and whether you have any sleep debt. 

The other key thing to focus on for maximum health and energy is your circadian rhythm. This is your body’s roughly 24-hour biological clock. When you’re in sync with it, you can enjoy more energy, fall asleep easier, and reduce your risk of many health problems. 

RISE can predict your circadian rhythm and show you when your body naturally wants to wake up, wind down for bed, and go to sleep. You can then work to sync up your daily life with it.  

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.

Sleep Easy Wherever Your Pillow is   

After a long night’s sleep, you want to wake up feeling rested. But it’s all too easy to wake up with a stiff neck, sore back, and feeling more tired than before you went to bed. 

Even worse than waking up in the morning feeling sore? Pain and discomfort keeping you up or waking you up in the middle of the night, cutting into your sleep time. All this could be down to your pillow. 

No matter what position you sleep in, aim to keep your neck, spine, and hips all in line with each other. And experiment with different pillow heights and fillings to find the one that helps you drift off. 

While there’s not much conclusive research on pillows, there’s plenty behind sleep hygiene. The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits to help you fall and stay asleep, no matter where your pillows are. 

And RISE can track your sleep debt, so you can keep it low, and predict your circadian rhythm, so you can sync up with it. This will help you maximize your energy, health, and wellness far beyond the bedroom. 

FAQs

What is the correct position to sleep on a pillow?

The correct position to sleep on a pillow depends on which position you sleep in. Aim to keep your neck, spine, and hips aligned. For side sleepers, use a thick pillow under your head and neck, and try one between your knees. For back sleepers, use a pillow under your head and neck, and try one under your knees. And for front sleepers, use a thin pillow under your head, or no pillow, and try one under your hips.

Should your shoulders be on your pillow?

Most of the time, your shoulders shouldn’t be on your pillow. You should aim to have a straight line from your head to your neck to your spine, and having a pillow under your shoulders can stop this alignment. However, it may help to sleep with a pillow under your shoulders when you’re trying to elevate your head and upper body. This can help to reduce conditions like snoring, sleep apnea, and acid reflux.

What angle should your head be when sleeping?

When sleeping, your head should be at a 90-degree angle from your shoulders. Ideally, you’d have a straight line from your head to your neck to your spine.

Should your pillow be under your neck?

Yes, your pillow should be under your neck to support it if you sleep on your side or on your back. You should aim to have a straight line from your head to your neck to your spine. If you sleep on your front, using a pillow under your neck may push your head back too much. Try using a thin pillow or no pillow at all.

Where to put pillows when sleeping on your side?

When sleeping on your side, place a pillow under your head and neck and another between your knees. This should keep your head, neck, spine, and hips in natural alignment.

Best way to sleep on pillow for neck

The best way to sleep on a pillow for your neck is on your side with a pillow thick enough to keep your head and spine in a straight line, or on your back with a thinner pillow that creates spine alignment. If you sleep on your front, try using a thin pillow or no pillow at all to reduce pressure on your neck.

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