How to Find the Right Pillow for a Perfect Night's Sleep

It's important for both mental and physical health.

Photo: James Ransom

While turning off your electronics and sipping soothing tea may both be part of a healthy sleep routine, whether or not you have the right pillow is what really impacts your ability to catch quality zzzs each night. "You spend roughly a third of your life on your pillow," says Natalie D. Dautovich, a spokesperson for the National Sleep Foundation. "Having a pillow that supports you sufficiently not only allows you to sleep more continuously, but it enables your body to spend more time in each stage of sleep, including restorative sleep. This is important for both mental and physical health."

To find the right pillow, there are several factors you'll need to consider, including the loft-the pillow's height when laid flat-that will give you the most support, the difference between fills, and your sleeping tendencies. While everyone's ideal pillow will vary based on their different body types, pre-existing health conditions, and preferences, knowing what to look for can help narrow down the many options available to you. To help, we asked the experts for advice on finding the right pillow for your needs so that you can get a more restful night's sleep.

Identify Your Sleep Position

The first step to picking out your pillow is knowing your typical sleep position. Are you most comfortable on your back, side, or stomach? Your answer will help you choose a pillow that's most supportive for your body. "The human head weighs around nine to eleven pounds," says Pete Bils, Vice President of Sleep Science and Research at Sleep Number. "Unsupported, [the head] can place tremendous stress on the neck and shoulders as they must bear the brunt of the unbalanced load. Poorly fitted pillows can cause substantial repeated stress and ultimately pain in those areas."

If you prefer to sleep on your side (70 percent of people do!), you'll need a more supportive pillow to keep your head, back, and neck properly aligned, says Dr. Daniel Barone, sleep expert and neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian and author of Let's Talk About Sleep. "Sleeping on your side is actually the ideal sleep position," says Dr. Barone, which is why he recommends making the switch if haven't already. "You can try sleeping with a body pillow, if that helps, or with a pillow between your legs." Prefer to sleep on your back? Look for a pillow that's supportive enough to keep the natural curve of the neck in place-a pillow that's too high for you can quickly put you at risk for neck strain. If you suffer from lower back pain, Dr. Barone suggests propping a pillow up under your knees to help make you more comfortable.

Bad news, stomach sleepers: This is the least recommended sleep position due to the upwards strain it puts on the neck. If you are going to sleep on your stomach, look for softer, flatter pillow options since too much height can worsen the strain. If you're the type of sleeper that that tosses and turns while sleeping, look for a pillow specifically made for combination sleepers. Often times these feature a divot that allows for neck support whether you're on your side or back, or can be compressed enough to accommodate stomach sleepers.

Find the Best Fill for You

Choosing the best pillow fill is more than just a matter of personal preference and budget; different options can also offer varying levels of support, can accommodate (or worsen!) any allergies, and require different levels of maintenance. Down or feather-down combinations can be luxuriously soft, naturally anti-microbial, and machine-wash friendly, but are often pricier and in need of regular fluffing to keep their shape. Many people may also find that they are allergic to down. Polyester,often marketed as "down-alternative," can offer the same soft bounce as down at a more budget-friendly price. It's also a hypo-allergenic option (unless you're sensitive to synthetics) and safe to wash in your machine. If you tend to overheat while sleeping, however, this fill is not always the most breathable.

"Memory foam, on the other hand, can be formulated and shaped to match curves, contours, and sizes of specific sleepers," says Bils. Shredded memory foam, compared to solid memory foam, is also less likely to lose its shape over time because it's made of so many tiny foam pieces. Typically, memory foam options tend to be a bit more expensive.

Latex, like memory foam, can also come in a solid or shredded form and is best for matching the shape and curves of your body. You'll often see two types on the market, Dunlop and Talalay, which come from the same rubber tree source but vary slightly in processing. Latex is also more reactive to pressure providing both structure and a bounce-feel, and tends to be more moisture-wicking than other alternatives. However, latex pillows can be on the pricier side as well and a bit trickier to wash and dry.

Other types of fill include cotton (an all-natural option that's completely hypo-allergenic and breathable, but may clump over time),gel or gel-layers (which can help you stay cooler), buckwheat hulls(another natural option, but harder to wash), and wool (also trickier to wash, but good at regulating temperature while you sleep).

Shop Smart

If you can buy your pillow in person and test it out first, either in store or with a trial-period policy, definitely do so. "Too many people pick pillows out of a bin, hug them and make their decision based on feel alone," says Bils. "Pillow-fitting is critical." If you're ordering online, try and find brands with a generous return policy or a similar trial period.

Know When to Swap Out Your Pillow

As for how often you should be shopping for new pillows, Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director at Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, says, "If possible, you should generally be replacing your pillow every one to two years; every year if it's a pillow you can't wash in the machine."

Invest in a Pillow Cover

Because we make such close contact with our pillows every day, Dr. Gamaldo reminds us that they can quickly become hidden sources of dander and allergens, even more so if you live in a home with pets. To help extend the lifespan of your pillow, she suggests getting a hypo-allergenic cover to put over your pillow and washing that regularly. "And if you still find that you're not getting the best quality sleep, and have tried a variety of pillows, don't be shy discussing sleep with your doctor. It could be something in need of attention or a sleep specialist."

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