Can Changing Your Sleep Position Alter Your Dreams?

Research has found that changing your sleep position can influence your dreams, but sleeping in a position that’s unnatural for you may not be a good idea.

Do you sleep on your side, your back, or your stomach? There’s new evidence that changing your sleep position could influence your dreams, but this kind of change might not be the best idea for your health.

Experts say there is no perfect sleep position. The first rule for sweet dreams and a restful night of sleep is to be comfortable. For many people, that means starting off on one side. More than half of the 2,000 Americans surveyed for mattress maker Tempur-Pedic reported that they slept on their sides, 17 percent slept on their backs, and 11 percent on their stomachs.

Though stomach sleepers are in the minority, they seem to be having the most erotic dreams. In fact, a study published in the journal Dreaming found that switching to your stomach might be better than reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Dream experts at Hong Kong Shue Yan University studied surveys from 670 students, two-thirds of them female, and found that students who slept on their stomachs described their dreams as more intense, vivid, and sexual. Students who slept face down also reported dreams of being “tied,” “locked up,” or “unable to move.”

Lead researcher Calvin Kai-Ching Yu, PhD, says that physical pressure on the body when sleeping facedown could be the reason for the erotic dreams. “Different sleep positions may create pressure to different parts of the body, and body feelings may be the sources of dream elements,” says Yu.

The findings make sense to New York clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael J. Breus, PhD, because people sleeping on their bellies may be more restricted in their movement than those on their sides or backs.

How Sleep Positions Influence Dreams (and Nightmares)

Yu believes that if you change your sleep position, your dreams will change too, but he doesn’t recommend it. Sleeping in an unfamiliar or unnatural sleep position interferes with the quality of your sleep. You may pay a high price in the morning for sexier dreams at night.

Each sleep position can influence your dreams — for better or worse — and your overall sleep.

On your side. Sleeping laterally is the most common sleep position. Studies have found that right-side sleepers experienced more positive dreams and fewer nightmares than left-side sleepers.

For people with heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), doctors say the left side is best. “GERD is a frequent cause of sleeplessness and could affect dream content,” explains Breus. “Sleeping on the left side keeps your stomach below your esophagus, and gravity may help with reflux. Sleeping on your right side may cause you to dream of swallowing or burning.”

On your back. Sleeping supine, or on your back, may lead to lower back pain, and it could cause other problems that may alter your dreams. The face-up position may lead to snoring, encourage sleep apnea, and interfere with restful sleep.

“Studies have shown that people who sleep on their backs experience more nightmares and find it harder to remember their dreams,” says Yu. “Breathing-related sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, have been found to have significant impacts on the intensity of dreaming.”

On your stomach. Despite the reports of erotic dreams, “you should avoid sleeping face down with your face against the pillow,” says Yu. People who sleep on their stomachs report increased restlessness caused by frequent tossing and turning to get comfortable. Sleeping prone, on your stomach, may also put strain on your lower back and cause neck pain.

Multiple positions. Many people sleep in more than one position, changing positions during the night. Of the 670 Shue Yan University students surveyed, 194 reported sleeping in two or more positions with a similar frequency. The sleep position you find yourself in when you wake up could be the one that’s influencing your dreams. Dreams usually happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the brain is very active. REM sleep occurs three to four times a night, and the final stint of REM sleep, when dreams are most vivid, takes place late in the sleep cycle, usually in the morning before you wake up.

Yu says more research on sleep position and dreams needs to be done. The students in his study weren’t monitored as they slept; they filled out surveys about their dreams after they woke up, and he says that “the accuracy of self-reported sleep positions is uncertain.” Outside influences also can have a major effect on dreams, he adds. So, before you flip over, keep in mind it could just be that scary movie, spicy Chinese food, or rattling window that’s causing your unusual dreams.

By Alice Martin