Recent results from the Great British Sleep Survey found 'bodily discomfort' to top the list of physical factors that negatively affected respondents' sleep. In fact, over 67% of those surveyed reported that their sleep frequently suffered due to discomfort. Further to this, the negative effects of discomfort were seen to increase with age.
This age-related increase in discomfort has been echoed in previous research into sleep positions. Studies have shown that preference for a given sleeping position may change with age, leading to Koninck et al. (1992) investigating prevalence of certain positions across different age groups. They found that all of the age groups studied showed a preference for the fetal position – lying on their side with arms and legs bent.
Some differences in comfortable sleeping positions at certain ages were observed however. Younger age groups changed their sleep positions and, in general, moved their bodies more often throughout the night than the older population. Additionally, older participants showed a preference for sleeping on their right side, with few sleeping on their stomachs, whilst children spent an almost equal amount of time sleeping on their side as they did sleeping on their backs. This preference for a side sleeping position peaked between the ages of 35 and 45.
Following research such as this, it has been suggested that the older population may prefer sleeping on their side due to reduced flexibility and the additional effort required to breathe in other positions.
Sleeping position and sleep quality
In the context of certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, the position one sleeps in can be highly important. That is, for certain patients, sleeping in the supine position can make apneas more likely to occur.
Healthy sleepers might only find weird or unusual sleeping positions problematic if they cause bodily discomfort. So it is best to experiment and find the sleeping position that works best for you!
Koninck, J.D., Lorrain, D., Gagnon, P. (1992). Sleep positions and position shifts in five age groups: an ontogenetic picture. Sleep, 15(2).