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How to Choose the Right Pillow for Your Sleep Style

Woman sleeping in bed hugging soft white pillow
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Updated June 6, 2024

While a quality pillow can contribute to a superior night of sleep, it’s important to consider the best type of pillow for you and your sleeping habits. Anyone wanting to upgrade their pillow has plenty to consider before they buy. There are so many sizes, fillings, and firmness levels to choose from, and how each model is designed to accommodate different types of sleepers. When shopping for a pillow, knowing what to  look for (based on your preferred sleep position) will save you time, money, and maybe even a literal pain in the neck. 

What’s the perfect pillow for you?

Since everyone is different, there simply cannot be a universal best pillow—only the best pillow for you and your unique sleep needs. There are a few aspects to consider to help you identify the perfect pillow, including your favorite sleep position, its height or “loft,” fill type, and your personal sleeping habits.

Why does the right pillow matter?

“Having the right pillow is important,” notes Julia Siemen, a certified sleep science coach for Sleep Advisor, “because it directly impacts your sleep quality. A suitable pillow gives you the essential support to your head, neck, and spine that you need throughout the night to minimize any discomfort and chances of potential pain. It also helps with healthy sleep posture, making sure you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.”

Raj Dasgupta, MD, chief medical advisor for the National Council on Aging (NCOA), also weighs in. “A supportive pillow is important for maintaining proper spinal alignment and neck posture throughout the night,” says Dr. Dasgupta. “Your pillow should align with your sleep position, whether you’re a back, side, or stomach sleeper, to make sure your head and neck stay in a neutral position while you sleep.”

What is the right pillow for my preferred sleeping position?

Dr. Dasgupta and Siemen share their expertise regarding the best type of pillow for every type of sleeper.

Stomach sleepers

Dr. Dasgupta notes that pillows with a low loft and down or memory foam are typically best for stomach sleepers. Using a thin or low-loft pillow while sleeping on your stomach helps keep your head, neck, and spine aligned throughout the night.

Siemen suggests even trying “no pillow to keep your spine aligned well.”

Side sleepers

Dr. Dasgupta and Siemens both agree that side sleepers do best with a thicker pillow that fills the space between your head and shoulder. Dr. Dasgupta adds that you might also want to think about having a pillow between your knees to keep your hips aligned.

Back sleepers

Dr. Dasgupta says if you’re a back sleeper, look for a pillow that’s not too thick or thin and keeps your neck in line with your spine. 

Siemens adds that a medium-thickness pillow provides nice neck support.

Combination sleepers

If you change sleeping positions throughout the night, Dr. Dasgupta says a pillow that lets you adjust the thickness is a good option. 

Siemens adds, “If you’re all over the place at night, try a memory foam or adjustable pillow for versatility.”

Find the right pillow to suit your sleeper type

Everyone has special sleeping needs. It’s important to match the right pillow to your body type and sleeping habits.

Warm sleepers and sweaters

If you find yourself kicking off the covers at night because you feel too hot and sweaty, consider purchasing a pillow with moisture — and heat-wicking properties, such as latex or gel-infused memory foam, for a cooler sleep.

Allergy sufferers 

Some pillows, such as those made with hypoallergenic materials like memory foam and latex, actively repel common allergens including dust mites and mold.

Body pain

Finding a pillow that properly aligns your spine while you’re in bed is critically important for preventing back, neck, and shoulder pain. Orthopedic models are specially designed pillows for neck pain and maintaining a naturally aligned spine to prevent future aches.

Snorers

Taller and firmer pillows can help snorers by elevating their heads to open up narrow airways and prevent snoring. Side and back sleepers will feel the most comfortable with these kinds of pillows.

Other elements to consider

Firmness 

Soft pillows are the best choice for stomach sleepers, as the extra “squish” allows their heads to sink into the pillow and align with the natural curvature of their spine. Pillows with a medium level of firmness keep a back sleepers spine aligned, with the softness needed to relieve neck pressure. Finally, firm pillows are perfect for keeping a side sleeper’s head from sinking down into the pillow, and that minimal-to-no “give” maintains an aligned spine in this position.

Size

Sleepers should consider the loft (height) of a pillow based on their favorite sleeping position. Side sleepers should look for a higher pillow that comfortably fits in the natural space between their head and shoulder. A low-loft pillow is easily the best pick for anyone who sleeps on their stomach, as it promotes a natural spinal alignment. A pillow over two inches high will push your head and neck upwards, and it is a recipe for discomfort. Finally, back sleepers should look for a medium-loft pillow to keep their head and spine aligned in a neutral position all night long.

Fill

There is a range of pillow fill types to choose from, and each has its own benefits for different types of sleepers.

Latex

A notably cool and allergy-friendly material, these durable and supportive models are best suited for side and back sleepers.

Feather

These feather-filled pillows tend to have a medium-firmness level that back-sleepers will appreciate.

Memory foam

Similar to the properties of latex, cooling, dense, and supportive memory foam pillows are an excellent option for back and side sleepers.

Down

Ultra-soft down pillows have a lot of give when you lay your head on one, making them a top pick for stomach sleepers.

Polyester

Lightweight and inexpensive polyester fiber-filled pillows are often in between soft and medium, so both stomach and back sleepers will get the most from them.

Gel

These especially cool gel-infused pillows tend to be heavier than most others, and most include memory foam for a notable firm feel that is perfect for side sleepers' spinal alignment needs.

Features

If you’re in the market for a superior night’s sleep, it’s worth paying a little extra for a pillow that incorporates one or more bonus features:

Cooling materials

Sweaty and warm sleepers should consider a pillow made with breathable heat-wicking materials such as gel-infused memory foam or latex for a dependably cooler sleeping experience.

Hypoallergenic design

Some pillows use hypoallergenic materials, such as latex and memory foam, that naturally resist dust mites, mold, and other allergens.

Machine washable

It’s easy to keep your pillow fresh and clean if you are able to periodically throw it in the washing machine.

Orthopedic

Some specialty pillows are designed to comfortably support your neck and spine, making them the best option for anyone suffering from constant back, head, and neck pain.

When to replace your pillow

Even if you find the pillow of your dreams, make a note of when you bought it because, on average, even the best pillows should be replaced every 18 months to two years. Even if it still feels alright to you, older pillows have collected more shed skin cells and sweat than you should be comfortable with and will continue to lose their cozy, supportive shape over time. 

These are the most common symptoms that indicate it’s time to replace a pillow:

Pain

Pillows get worn down and misshapen after being slept on night after night, but if you’re waking up with neck stiffness, headaches, and general upper body discomfort, it’s time for an upgrade.

Appearances and feel 

Other clear signs of an older pillow include a lumpy feel where the pillow’s filling is deteriorating, discoloration from sweating, and an accumulation of body oils. A yellowed pillow is both unpleasant to look at and unclean, and needs to be thrown out.

Hygiene

Older pillows are magnets for caked-on sweat, skin cells, and dust mites that feast on them. A pillow that has overstayed its usefulness will be too gross to clean effectively and will become a burden for allergy sufferers.

Polyester, down-alternative, and down pillows should be replaced every two years. Feather and memory foam models can be kept for three years, and latex pillows, which are especially durable and hypoallergenic, last up to four years. Note that a quality pillow protector will shield your pillow from accumulating sweat, skin cells, and makeup residue, and they’re an excellent investment for potentially getting a few more years of use from your favorite pillow.

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