The purpose of a pillow is pretty simple: Keep your head and neck aligned while you sleep. If only shopping for pillows were as straightforward. Store shelves and catalogs are stuffed with options: Down, memory foam, latex, polyester, buckwheat hulls. Adding to the confusion is the fact that terms used to describe pillows—such as soft, medium, and firm—differ from brand to brand. And price isn’t necessarily an indicator of performance.
So many consumers people look for a pillow that feels just right in the store. But a squeeze only tells you so much.
It takes about 10 to 15 minutes for your neck to relax onto the pillow, according to Susan Gordon, associate professor of physiotherapy at James Cook University in Australia.
“You will need a week sleeping on a pillow to work out if it really is the right pillow for you,” she says.
Others opt for trial and error: “The pillow that I have is too soft/hard/flat, so I’ll get a firmer/softer/fuller one next time.” Many give up and sleep with multiple pillows, though that can keep your head too high and throw off the natural curve of your neck.
Consumer Reports suggests a more methodical approach to choosing a pillow.
Match Your Pillow to Your Sleep Position
Start your search by matching the pillow to your dominant sleep position: side, back, stomach, or combination. That’s the position you settle into and is likely to be your favorite, according to Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., a fellow at the New York University School of Medicine and co-author of “Sleep for Success!” (AuthorHouse, 2010). Many pillows are now labeled this way, but the terms vary from brand to brand. Use our advice to fine-tune your shopping. Finally, check pillow return policies, so you don’t get stuck with a closet full of rejects.
Almost 70 percent of us sleep on our sides, according to a survey from Consumer Reports. A firm or extra-firm pillow is the best pillow to maintain the proper alignment or curve of the neck and head at what a study in a 2015 issue of Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found was the most comfortable height—10 centimeters, about 4 inches off the mattress. A traditional or contoured memory foam or latex pillow can support the head at the proper angle and might not flatten as quickly over time when compared with a polyester or down pillow.
Look for a pillow that supports or cradles the head without losing the natural curve of your neck. Start with medium-loft, medium-firm models filled with down alternative, memory foam, or latex foam. Loft is a pillow’s height as it lies flat on the bed.
Sleeping on your back is often associated with snoring or the more serious sleep apnea, in which a person stops breathing momentarily. Because gravity can cause the tongue to block the airway and create the disruptive buzzing, one solution is to prop up the sleeper using two to three firm pillows or a wedge pillow to elevate the top half of the body, according to Thomas Roth, Ph.D., founder of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
If you roll over to sleep, your face is very close to the mattress. A thin or soft and scrunchable pillow filled with down or feathers, a down alternative, polyester, or thin foam can keep your neck’s natural curve. But a firm, high-loft pillow could leave you with a sore neck.
If you’re a multiposition sleeper, the best pillow for you might have softer and firmer sections, or one that’s lower in the center (for back sleeping) and higher on the sides (for side sleeping). Buckwheat hulls and pillows made of multiple materials fit this bill.
Tip: Is Your Pillow Toast?
Most pillows last about two years. You should replace yours if it doesn’t pop back when you fold it in half, or in thirds for king-size pillows.