How to Choose the Right Pillow for Your Best Night of Sleep

Here's what to consider based on your sleeping positions.

Sleep provides an opportunity for your body to rest and refresh—which may be more important than you realize. According to the National Institutes of Health, the quality of your sleep can affect everything from your blood pressure and heart health, to your respiratory and immune systems, to your ability to focus and form long-term memories.

The right choice of pillows can positively or negatively determine your quality of sleep and whether you toss and turn at night; in fact, your pillows can even affect if you wake up with aches and pains.

So, we talked to sleep experts to determine how to choose the right pillow for the best quality of sleep—and included some recommendations to consider.

How Sleeping Positions Determine Which Pillow You Should Choose

According to Dr. Samina Ahmed, a sleep advisor at Pluto, the most important factor for all sleepers is proper alignment. The pillow you choose can affect your alignment as you sleep, depending on which position your sleep in and whether you pillow is too thick, too thin, too firm, or too soft.

“You also want to pay attention to your mattress firmness, as this can dictate how much you sink into your pillow,” Ahmed adds. While fill and firmness can often be a matter of individual preferences, certain pillows work better for certain sleep positions, so it's helpful to know which choice best aligns with your sleep style.

Back Sleepers

Christian Alexander, CEO at Nest Bedding, tells us that sleeping on your back is the doctor-recommended method—but he warns that this positioning can also be pretty stressful for the neck and shoulders if done incorrectly. “This is the position where you are most likely to find the pillow either pressing your chin into your chest or with your head tilted back uncomfortably,” Alexander explains.

Here’s how to tell if you’re using the wrong pillow: If your head tilts backward (the sinus-draining position) when resting on your pillow, he says the pillow is too flat. “If your head tilts forward, even a little bit, then your pillow is too fluffy and you could wake up with neck pain or breathing problems,” Alexander explains.

According to Dr. Chris Tomshack, CEO of HealthSource Chiropractic, “Back sleepers need a medium-thick pillow to keep the head, neck, and spine nicely aligned.” He also advises back sleepers to place a pillow under the knees to take pressure off the lower back.

Back Sleeper Pillow Recommendations:

  • Cozy Earth Silk Pillow: Filled with 100% long-strand mulberry silk, and covered by premium viscose from bamboo shell, this breathable, medium-firm pillow provides just the right level of support.
  • Purple Harmony Pillow: The low height version of this pillow (it’s also available in medium and tall heights) has a honeycombed GelFlex layer and also a Talalay latex core to support your head and neck while relieving pressure.

Side Sleepers

“Most people sleep on their sides either as their dominant or secondary sleeping position,” Alexander says. If you fall into this category of sleepers, he notes that you’ll need the tallest pillow solutions because your shoulder creates additional distance between the mattress and the right level for your head. “However, it can be tricky to find just the right height of pillow: If they're too fluffy, they'll push your head out and to the side, stretching your neck to eventual discomfort,” Alexander adds.

On the other hand, if the pillows are too soft or flat, then your head will tilt inward, causing your neck muscles to pull on your upper shoulder. “Side sleepers usually benefit from firm pillows that offer a good deal of support," Alexander says. "However, if you prefer to stack your pillows, try two soft ones instead."

Dr. Tomshack also recommends a slightly thicker, firmer pillow. “You want to fill the gap between your neck, shoulders, and head—and a second pillow between the knees will help maintain the spine’s natural curvature,” he says.

Side Sleeper Pillow Recommendations:

  • Parachute Down Side Sleeper Pillow: This medium-density pillow is designed for side sleepers, and has a 3.5 inch gusset. It provides plushness and support, and is filled with European white down.
  • Nest Bedding Easy Breather Side Pillow: Filled with premium shredded latex foam, the pillow arrives overstuffed. You can unzip it and remove some of the fill to create a customized firmness level.

Stomach Sleepers

While Alexander says sleeping on your stomach is the least doctor-recommended position, he admits that many people find it one of the most comfortable ways to sleep. “Stomach sleeping generally leaves your body slightly sprawled with your head turned sharply to the side against the pillow,” he explains. And since your head is the closest to the mattress in this position, he recommends a low, squishy pillow. “Down pillows are quite favorable for stomach sleepers because they are very moldable and make it possible to craft a custom pillow support.”

However, if you have a nice pillow-top mattress, Alexander says some stomach sleepers don’t need pillows at all. Dr. Tomshack also believes that the perfect pillow for stomach sleepers may be no pillow. “Stomach sleeping already puts strain on your lower back and raising your head can make it more extreme,” he explains. Instead, he says it may be better to put a thin pillow underneath your belly and pelvis to keep the spine from being pulled out of alignment.

Stomach Sleeper Pillow Recommendations:

  • Casper Foam Pillow: This low-loft, squishy pillow is designed to keep your head and neck aligned, while the Airscape foam ensures that heat doesn’t get trapped in the pillow, allowing you to stay cool.
  • The Company Store Legends Hotel Best Down Pillow: The hypoallergenic white European 600 fill power down pillow is available in soft, medium, firm, and extra firm styles, so you can choose the one that best suits your style.

Types of Pillows

Just as you need to match your sleep style to the right level of firmness and softness, selecting the right material and type of pillow can also make a difference. And there’s no shortage of pillow types to choose from.

Down Pillow

If you want to improve your sleep, Alexander says there are advantages to getting a down pillow. “The name derives from the frequent use of down feathers as filler, and many people prefer soft feathers to cotton or synthetic material that may harden over time,” he explains. Feathers allow the pillow to be moldable to fit your personal style, and Alexander notes that this may be the most comfortable option for stomach sleepers.

On the flip side, Dr. Tomshack notes that down pillows don’t provide the structure of more supportive materials. Also, they may be difficult to clean, and some people may be allergic to the feathers.

Down Pillow Recommendations:

  • Brooklinen Down Pillow: Filled with both down clusters and feathers, and covered with a sateen shell, this pillow is available in plush, mid-plush, and firm support levels for various sleep styles.
  • Parachute Down Pillow: The 750 fill power European white down pillow provides a plush and luxurious experience. It comes in three densities: soft, medium, and firm.

Down Alternative Pillow

“Down alternative pillows have the classic fluffy feel of down but retain less body heat, offering a cooler sleep experience than traditional down,” Dr. Tomshack says. They’re also a good choice for people who suffer from allergies.

But what exactly is the "alternative" material in a down alternative pillow? Alexander tells us that one polyester is a common one. “The synthetic material is durable, easy to clean, and ideal for anyone who is allergic to feathers,” he says.

Down Alternative Pillow Recommendations:

  • Saatva Down Alternative Pillow: Enjoy the best of both words with this pillow that feels like down, but is made of an alternative blend that is 100% hypoallergenic, and has micro air-pockets.
  • GhostPillow Faux Down Pillow: Soft and plush, this down alternative pillow provides the comfort of a down pillow without the price. It’s made of microfiber gel fiber and is suitable for any type of sleeper.

Latex Pillow

“Latex is derived from a natural material found in rubber trees, and users find the base material is durable, moldable, and incredibly soft,” Alexander says. However, latex pillows tend to be expensive.

If you tend to get hot while you’re sleeping, this is an option to consider. “In addition to being buoyant and responsive, natural latex also sleeps cool, because it has an open-cell structure that makes it very breathable,” Dr. Tomshack says. “Latex pillows can be made with solid or shredded latex, but shredded latex in particular has excellent airflow and still provides the feel of a traditional moldable pillow.”

Latex Pillow Recommendations:

  • Saatva Latex Pillow: With a shredded natural latex core, the pillow provides hotel-quality comfort. The pillow is also breathable to keep you cool, and it relieves pressure points.
  • Brooklyn Bedding Talalay Latex Pillow: The breathable Talalay latex pillow conforms to your head and neck to keep them in alignment. It’s available in a low loft and a high loft.

Memory Foam Pillow or Shredded Memory Foam Pillow

Memory foam pillows are growing in popularity. “Because of its contouring ability, memory foam will keep your head in alignment if you sleep on your back or your side,” explains Dr. Tomshack. The only negative is that it tends to provide a warm sleeping experience. However, he notes that graphite-infused memory foam solves this problem. “This is a new material with improved thermal conductivity, allowing it to dissipate heat better than conventional memory foam,” he explains.

Airflow is also improved with shredded memory foam, he says, and this material provides a cooler sleep experience than solid memory foam. “And it still allows the pillow to mold to accommodate different sleep positions," Dr. Tomshack adds.

Memory Foam Pillow Recommendations:

  • Saatva Graphite Memory Foam Pillow: Using advanced graphite technology to pull heat away, the breathable shredded memory foam pillow has a latex core that is contouring and supportive.
  • Allform Helix Shredded Memory Foam Pillow: Designed for side sleepers, this pillow combines 90% shredded memory foam and 10% gel polyester foam. The medium loft provides support and comfort, and the cover is breathable.

Body Pillow

Body pillows are also gaining in popularity for their versatile usage. “A body pillow can help maintain proper circulation, reduce discomfort from aches, soreness, and pain of lying in one position, and promote proper oxygen circulation by preventing you from turning flat onto your back or stomach,” Dr. Ahmed explains.

However, she says that how you position the pillow is important and will depend on your sleep style. “For example, placing the pillow behind your back to avoid being flat will be helpful," she explains. "Similarly, hugging the body pillow from the front for stomach sleepers can help improve sleep and breathing.” And if you’re a side sleeper, she says you can choose either front or back body placement. “But, cradling it between the knees could be particularly beneficial for anyone struggling with back or hip pains," she adds.

Body Pillow Recommendations:

  • Bearaby Cuddler Body Pillow: The 75” by 8” breathable foam body pillow is ergonomic, squishy, and provides supportive cuddles. It’s great for side sleepers, and helps to relieve stress, and pain in the neck, back, or joints.
  • Pluto Puff Body Pillow: The synthetic fiber in the 21” by 54” pillow emulates 600-fill European down, but is hypoallergenic. It’s super plush, and can be hugged, squished—or even punched—and used in any sleep position.
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