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How to Choose the Perfect Pillow for a Good Night’s Sleep

Tips to help you find individualized comfort and support

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​Blake Brossman spent a month testing pillows before he found the right fit. ​

The 50-year-old CEO used to sleep just three or four hours a night, leaving him sluggish and not at his best for managing his business. Then, he found a memory foam contour pillow.

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​“As soon as I use that pillow, I feel like I have entered the dreamworld and all my worries are out the window; then I go to sleep extremely quickly and I sleep like a baby,” says Brossman, of Lynbrook, New York. Now he clocks nine hours of sleep each night.​

Your pillow, experts say, is just as important to your health and sleep quality as your mattress. It provides comfort and keeps your head, neck and spine aligned to reduce stress that can cause pain and disrupt sleep.​

“Finding the right pillow can often mean the difference between restless sleep and a restful night, or not having neck or back pain when you wake up,” says Sudha Tallavajhula, M.D., medical director of the Neurological Sleep Medicine Center in Houston. Inadequate sleep can affect mood, cognitive skills and metabolism and can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.​

Furthermore, studies have found a link between the loss of muscle mass in older adults and poor or disrupted sleep, while menopausal and postmenopausal women who experience hot flashes may benefit from a cooler sleep surface, notes Michael Breus, a sleep expert and clinical psychologist based in Manhattan Beach, California.

Pillow prices start as low as $4 and can reach $400. Generally speaking, the bigger the pillow, the higher the cost, with price also being affected by pillow type, material and brand. Specialty and luxury pillows tend to be pricier. Polyester and polyfoam models are less expensive.

So finding the perfect pillow goes beyond bedroom décor — it could be the difference between tossing all night and getting the rest you need.

Find the right pillow — for you

There is no one-size-fits-all pillow. Once you start looking, you’ll find a wide range of options for style, shape, size and material — from traditional feather pillows to state-of-the-art models embedded with sensors and cooling technology. ​

So how to choose? Sleep experts recommend testing several types of pillows, whether that means lying down in the store or bringing them home to try. Look for stores that invite customers to stretch out with their pillows or companies offering a trial period (some are 100 nights or longer) and easy return policy.​

When searching for a pillow, sleep experts suggest asking yourself a few questions:

  • ​Do you prefer a soft or firm pillow? ​
  • What is your starting sleep position? This helps determine the type and height of a pillow.​
  • Do you tend to get hot or sweat while sleeping, or do you have allergies? This may determine the best material for your pillow stuffing and cover.​

After answering these questions, a few tips may help you find a pillow:​

Determine what kind of sleeper you are

Typically, the more you weigh, the more support you need. How you sleep also can also influence the type of pillow that will deliver the best rest.​

Stomach sleeper: Stomach sleepers need a thin or soft pillow to keep their neck from arching backward. Some may also benefit from placing a pillow under their abdomen to support their lower back.​

Side sleeper: Sleeping on one side usually requires a thicker, moderately firm pillow to keep the head, neck and shoulders level. Side sleepers may also need support from a second pillow between the knees to straighten the spine and ease pressure on the knees and hips. A good rule of thumb, Breus says, is that the pillow for your head should be the same height as the gap between your ear and shoulder.​

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Back sleeper: Back sleepers tend to like a soft, flatter pillow to align the neck and spine. They also may need support under their knees or lower back to reduce strain on those areas.​

Combination sleeper: People who shift between positions over the course of the night might consider an adjustable pillow that lets you change the height and firmness by adding or removing stuffing or one that can be easily altered using a zipper.​

Linda Egeler of Elk Rapids, Michigan, sleeps on her back and side. The 62-year-old also has suffered from neck pain since being in a car accident at age 12. ​

“I have tried a multitude of pillows over the years,” she says. “My go-to pillow is now the Sleep Number True Temp contour pillow. I’m addicted to it.”​

For snorers and people with sleep apnea: Snoring and sleep apnea (a disorder in which breathing is frequently disrupted) tend to be exacerbated when people lie on their backs. So memory foam or contour pillows that keep your head elevated or keep you lying on your side may help reduce snoring. A wedge or stack of pillows at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees also can reduce snoring and keep airways open.​

For people who use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for sleep apnea, there are specially designed pillows that help keep the breathing mask and tubing in place. The Contour CPAPMax 2-in-1 Cooling Plush CPAP Comfort Pillow has a list price of $90. Built into the $129.99 Smart Sensor Anti-Snore Pillow from the Sharper Image is a sound sensor that detects snoring and will gently inflate to nudge you to change your sleeping position. ​

Brossman, who suffers from sleep apnea, likes the Scandvia CPAP pillow he ordered from Amazon for less than $50.​

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When to Replace Your Pillow?

A pillow should last at least a few years, says Sudha Tallavajhula, M.D., of the Neurological Sleep Medicine Center in Houston. What are the signs it may be time to replace the one you have? If you start waking up with new aches and pains, your pillow feels lumpy, the memory foam has deep indentations or the pillow has an unpleasant odor.​

“Everybody uses pillows,” says Michael Breus, a sleep expert and the author of several books on sleep health. And yet, many “people don’t really think about pillows and their level of importance.”​

Think about the material 

What goes into your pillow determines how it feels and functions, and how long it lasts.​

Microfibers and traditional materials like feathers and down are soft and fluffy. Memory foam and latex are firmer and may conform to the shape of your head. Kapok is a soft, natural fiber that’s often combined with other materials like shredded memory foam for a balance of softness and support. Gel layers and gel-infused poly-fiber create a cooler sleep surface.​

When it comes to pillow covers, you can’t beat natural fibers like cotton, linen or bamboo for comfort, moisture-wicking abilities and durability. Look for covers that are removable and machine washable.​

Consider a specialty pillow

Some pillows tout special features to increase comfort and sleep quality.​

Cooling technology: Cooler surfaces may help people with insomnia fall asleep faster and sleep longer, says Tallavajhula, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Texas Health Houston’s McGovern Medical School. To avoid overheating at night, consider pillows with gel inserts, copper fibers or other cooling technologies. ​

Check out the Beckham Hotel Collection gel-filled pillow ($46 for two queen-size pillows), the GhostPillow with gel memory foam ($95) or Brooklyn Bedding’s luxury cooling memory foam pillow ($129), to name a few.​

Allergen-free: If you have allergies or asthma, avoid down, feathers and latex filling. Look for pillows that have undergone an antimicrobial treatment to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew. ​

Wedge: A foam wedge can help reduce snoring, sleep apnea and other conditions like acid reflux, Breus says. Wedges can also be used by back sleepers to elevate their feet and legs and reduce pressure on the back. ​

Find Your Best Sleep Position

Music pillows: Some people find it restful to listen to music or other soothing sounds — and there are pillows designed with them in mind. The Dreampad collection of pillows, which cost between $109 and $159, uses audio technology to send calming sounds to your brain and relax your body. Or try the Sound Pillow Sleep System, which comes with an MP3 player that delivers soothing music and nature sounds. ​

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