Just days into my role as an editor at Sleep.com, a Mattress Firm Sleep Expert™ told me, “If your head isn’t comfortable, the rest of your body won’t be comfortable, either.”
And it makes sense: Think about the number of times you’ve sat up to fluff your pillow or flip it to the cool side. Your pillow holds a great deal of responsibility. The Sleep Expert™ likened it to running a marathon without the right shoes — every night, your pillow supports your head for ideally eight-ish hours; it should fit you as well as your running shoes do.
Before joining the team, I didn’t put much thought into my pillows. Thanks to social media, I mostly spent time thinking about how pillows should look — stylishly rumpled, puffed and perky, or crisply knife-chopped like those at luxury hotels. But apart from “soft,” I wasn’t sure how they should feel.
Come bedtime, I’d knock my pillow from the sides to reapportion the filling or flip it to find that cool spot, but expectations were otherwise nonexistent, even as my neck and shoulders knotted up, taking the brunt of my not-exactly-ergonomic work-from-home setup, and the hoisting and wrangling that comes with parenting a toddler.
After talking to the Sleep Expert™, though, it clicked. My head wasn’t comfortable because my pillow just wasn’t the right fit. That pillow was much older than I will publicly admit. And it had long since stopped supporting me. I tried to solve the problem on my own, quickly upgrading to a well-reviewed pillow and anticipating the promise of better sleep. But the neck soreness didn’t go away — and I’d occasionally wake up having completely rolled off my pillow. So when my husband tried that new pillow and fell in love, I let him take it, and decided to call in the pros or, more accurately, the Sleep Experts™. It was time to find my perfect fit.
Why you need a great pillow
Since a pillow is small enough to toss into a shopping cart at the store, it can sometimes be an impulse buy, especially if it’s on sale. But this small item actually takes up about 25% of the length of your bed — arguably the most critical 25%, as it supports your head and keeps your neck and spine aligned. “I would say a pillow is just as important as a mattress,” says John McCarty, a Texas-based Sleep Expert™. “You can have a great bed that gives you everything you need, but if your neck and spine aren’t in the right position, you won’t sleep well.”
And a great pillow isn’t a matter of cost: There is a range of pillows at every price point. More important is to factor in your sleep position, your sleep disruptors, and any injuries, aches, or pains so you can narrow down the options and make an informed decision. Some of the factors include loft — the height of the pillow — as well as filling — down, hypoallergenic down alternative, memory foam, latex, or a hybrid — and the need for airflow or other temperature regulation.
Why is it helpful to get a pillow fitted at a store?
Knowing the basics that go into a pillow is a great start, but the same way you want to try on your shoes to know how they feel, it’s helpful to try a pillow. No amount of scrunching and puffing with your hands in a store or reading about fillings online is going to match the value of lying down on a bed — ideally a bed like your own at home — with your pillow under your head. With the range of mattress options in-store at Mattress Firm, you can test pillows on a mattress that ideally feels similar to what you have at home. Even better, at Mattress Firm, a Sleep Expert™ can observe you as you lie there and help confirm that your neck and spine are aligned.
Before heading off to my local Mattress Firm, I spoke to McCarty to get a sense of what to expect and to troubleshoot my old problems. Right away, he had a hunch. “Loft is very important because that's a major part of the way that your spine needs to be aligned when you're lying down,” McCarty explained. “So if the pillow has too high of a loft to it, it'll cause an extra strain, even though you could have this fantastic mattress.” In other words, fluffier isn’t always better.
What factors should you consider in a pillow fitting?
I headed out to a New Jersey-area Mattress Firm to meet Jason, a Sleep Expert™ with 18 years of experience, for a pillow fitting. Friendly and welcoming, Jason was eager to help alleviate my sleep issues, and I could instantly tell that he knew what he was talking about.
We started at the Sleep Assessment Center. Jason walked me through a few basic questions about my sleep habits and concerns, targeting any discomfort or disruptors. He urged me to be thorough, and not sugar-coat my problems.
He asked me about my:
- Current sleep surface: The firmness of a mattress can be a big factor in the amount of loft for a pillow.
- Preferred sleep position: Stomach sleepers typically do better with a lower loft, while side sleepers benefit from middle to high loft (depending on body size and shape) and back sleepers often prefer a higher loft.
- Aches and pains: Discomfort could signify problems with your current sleep setup.
- Pillow preferences: The firmness and feel you prefer can dictate the filling of your ideal pillow whether down, latex, memory foam, or a hybrid.
Jason also factored in my build, explaining that my frame, on a firm mattress like mine, might mean that I’d need a low-loft pillow to support the seven vertebrae in the neck. He surmised that too high of a loft could have caused my neck pain.
Jason quickly chose a pillow and put it in a hygienic pillowcase. I’m a side sleeper — a position Jason calls “the Heisman,” so he led me to a mattress similar to my home bed, so that I could gauge the feel on a surface most like my own sleep setup. I curled up on my side and lay my head down, nicely propped up.
He encouraged me to take my time, explaining that a body needs to settle into a comfortable position to best gauge whether a pillow is a good fit. “It feels pretty good,” I enthused.
And this is where Jason’s sleep expertise took me by surprise. He noticed that my neck was out of alignment, which would certainly cause discomfort over eight hours each night. He used his forearm and fist to give me a visual of how my neck looked: The loft was too high.
Jason left and returned with the BedGear Balance 1.0. He tucked it into a protective cover, and swapped it in for me. Made with springy foam and air-flow technology for temperature regulation, the firm pillow both conformed to my head and elevated it in a natural way.
I was instantly aligned and comfortable, but most surprisingly, I didn’t feel like I was on a pillow; I could’ve been floating in perfect suspension. Jason encouraged me to test it for a few minutes, and he left, to minimize any awkwardness I might feel. I tossed and turned a bit to put the pillow to the rolling test and felt totally secure and comfortable.
Do pillow fittings actually work?
When Mattress Firm started conducting pillow fittings in stores, its data science partner, SleepScore Labs™, tracked the sleep patterns of customers who went through the pillow-fitting process. Healthy adults got 487 more minutes of sleep per month on average — or an extra night of sleep per month — on their fitted pillow. They also got more deep sleep, which is the stage of sleep when your body builds and repairs muscles and strengthens your immune system. In addition, they self-reported a 27% increase in pillow comfort and a 26% increase in overall sleep quality in the four weeks following their pillow fitting*.
“It’s a bed for your head,” Jason says, and he’s not wrong. Since my fitting, I’ve felt more nestled at night and less tense in the mornings. And my Sleep.com app sleep tracker agrees — I notched a SleepScore of 94 the other night, which is the pillow equivalent of winning a marathon.
*Based on 2021 pillow fitting study conducted by SleepScore Labs™. Individual results may vary. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional for any health condition.