If you’ve ever tried to sleep on a deflated camping pad or in a cramped economy seat on a red-eye flight, you know how important it is to sleep in a comfortable environment. We spend countless hours choosing the best mattress, optimizing our sleep space, and trying to stick to a good bedtime routine. While all of these play major roles in how well we sleep and how rested we feel when we wake up, we often overlook a pivotal piece of this equation: The humble pillow.
Stroll the aisles of almost any store and you’ll find a selection of pillows. Head online and the options can become overwhelming with a wide range of prices. But does the price of a pillow indicate quality? And how do you know if you’re picking the right pillow for your sleep style?
Why your pillow really does matter
When it comes to pillows, one-size-fits-all can be a recipe for a sore neck in the morning or tossing and turning through the night. Because we all have different body structures and favored sleeping positions, the right pillow truly does change from person to person. That’s even more true if you have trouble sleeping because of back, neck, or shoulder pain. This means your friends’ favorite pillows may not work for you — your best friend’s pillow could be your worst sleep nemesis. This makes most online reviews unreliable, too. Is all this enough to make you want to bury your head beneath a pillow? Read on for tips on the best setup for your sleep style.
To help decipher the ins and outs of pillows, we turned to the professionals and checked in with Texas-based Mattress Firm Sleep Expert™ Raul Davila. Not only does Davila specialize in in-store pillow fittings to help you find the best match for you, he also has the know-how to walk us through a few important considerations when shopping for a new pillow.
Essential pillow terminology, explained
- Loft – The height or thickness of the pillow
- Fill – The material fluffing up the pillow
When picking a new pillow, you’ll come across the terms “loft” and “fill,'' which can be confusing to differentiate. Davila explains it simply as the difference between how tall a pillow is and what material the pillow is filled with. The loft refers to the height of the pillow, or the thickness. The fill is what the internal part of the pillow is made from. It can be easier to think of the fill as the filling, instead.
Loft is probably the most important factor when choosing the best pillow for your sleep style because it directly impacts whether your neck is strained or comfortably supported. Your body’s build and frame and your sleep position will determine the ideal loft for you.
Common pillow fill material includes memory foam, down, cotton, polyfill, and latex. All come with their own set of benefits and feel while sleeping on them, so the right fill material is heavily dependent on your own personal preferences. “Obviously we can guide you to make the right decision,” Davila says, “but ultimately, it has to be comfortable. You have to like it because you're gonna sleep with it.”
When choosing the right fill for your pillow, check on how its performance matches your sleeping needs. Memory foam pillows can include cooling gel materials, for example, which could be great for sleeping cool on hot nights. Other cooling materials like Tencel could be found in a pillow’s cover. It could also be beneficial to check out how to clean the pillow you’re interested in. Finally, investing in a pillow protector is a great way to keep your new pillow hygienic and prevent it from collecting dust or absorbing sweat.
The best pillow for stomach, back, and side sleepers
Davila explains that when we’re standing up, our necks are straight. If we stand in front of a mirror, our head and neck sit over the center of our body without leaning left or right. But come time for sleep, it’s not uncommon for a pillow to cause our necks to tilt. Spread this consistent tilt out over an entire night’s sleep and it’s no surprise we wake up feeling stiff and sore. To get some relief, Davila breaks down how to find the best pillow that matches your sleep style and keeps the head and neck properly aligned.
Out of all the sleeping positions, stomach sleepers require the thinnest pillow, Davila explains. Stomach sleepers should be looking for a pillow with a low level of loft that prevents the head from tilting too far toward the ceiling. Since the head and neck are already turned in one direction it’s important to keep the neck from turning further toward the spine. A low-loft pillow could be the most comfortable choice for side sleepers while keeping the head supported, cushioned, and comfortable
“Back sleepers can almost get away with any kind of pillow,” Davila says “Of course, you don't want it too big so that your head is elevated too high or your neck is getting strained.” This is when it’s important to take into account your body frame and your own preferences to find what feels best. Above all else, the right pillow will keep your neck and head aligned with the spine without causing it to tilt upward to your headboard or down toward your feet.
Side sleepers tend to do well with a medium- to high-loft pillow, Davila says. The exact loft that’s perfect for side sleepers will depend on each person’s individual frame, mainly how much space the shoulder creates between the mattress and the head. Ideally, the pillow will fill all of this space perfectly. A pillow too low in loft could allow the head to tilt toward the mattress while a pillow that’s too fluffy could lead the head and neck to tilt upward, potentially causing muscle strain throughout the night.
Still not quite sure? An expert could have the solution
The perfect pillow for you depends on your personal preferences and sleeping style. It’s also important to take into account what type of mattress you’re sleeping on. A softer mattress could mean that a slightly higher loft will work best since it’s likely the pillow will sink into the bed a bit.
A pillow fitting from a Mattress Firm Sleep Expert™ will cover all the components to consider when shopping for the right pillow. From loft and fill to your body type and current mattress, the Sleep Experts™ can help you find the easiest path to a great night’s sleep.