How to Pick the Right Pillow for Your Best Night’s Sleep

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How to choose the best pillow - image of woman holding pillow

The wrong pillow can wreck your sleep. It can make headaches worse, increase neck and shoulder tension, and have you waking up feeling like you’ve spent hours wrestling a nightmare monster. Knowing how to choose a pillow—the right pillow—on the other hand, can set you on the path to pleasant dreams and leave you refreshed and ready to greet the day.

How to choose a pillow for a great night’s sleep

What’s true for mattresses also applies to choosing a pillow: To make the best choice, match the pillow to your sleeping habits and preferences. Here’s how.

Consider your sleep style

When buying the right pillow, begin with your preferred sleeping position: Do you mainly sleep on your back, side, stomach, or a mix of all of them? Back sleepers need a medium-thick pillow to keep the head, neck, and spine nicely aligned. The perfect pillow for side sleepers (the majority of people) is a slightly thicker, firmer pillow for optimal alignment. Finding the perfect pillow for stomach sleepers may mean not buying a pillow at all. Stomach sleeping already puts strain on your lower back; raising your head can make it more extreme. (In fact, when you sleep on your stomach, the best place for a pillow is under your belly and pelvis, to help maintain the natural curvature of your spine.)

Mixed sleepers—those who move from back to side to side—will want a medium-thick but softer pillow that can be used comfortably in multiple positions.

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Take pillow size into account

Pillows come in an almost bewildering array of sizes and shapes. The two most common sizes for sleeping are the standard pillow (20 x 26 inches) and the super-standard/queen pillow (20 x 28 or 30 inches). Then there’s the king pillow (20 x 36 inches), designed for the extra-wide king or California king bed.

(A note on pillow measurements: The height of the gusset—a strip of fabric sewn around the edge of the pillow, between the top and bottom halves—is sometimes deducted from overall pillow measurements. A gusseted pillow “lofts” better and fills the space between the sleeper’s head and shoulders. Whether or not the manufacturer explicitly calls out the gusset in measurements should not affect how well the pillow fits in the equivalently sized pillowcase.)

In addition to standard sizes for sleeping, you’ll also find specialty pillows, like the square-shaped Euro pillow (26 x 26 inches), mainly used for décor and reading, and the extra-long body pillow (around 20 x 50 inches) that can be placed between your legs for hip and lower-back support (it’s especially useful during pregnancy).

Of course, you can mix and match pillow sizes to create an inviting designer look, with a king, queen, or euro pillow in the rear, a smaller size sleeping pillow in the front, and really any combination that suits your fancy. Or you may simply want to have different pillow options for days when you need more support than on other days.

Choose a pillow filling

When it comes to choosing a pillow filling, the first consideration should be any medical issues you may have, such as asthma or allergies, or neck and back pain, which may steer you to one type of material or construction over another. These are the most common pillow fillings:

Down or feathers: These pillows are filled with the soft inner feathers of geese or ducks. Down is very light and offers little support, while feathers are usually harder and may even poke through the fabric of the pillow cover, or ticking, in a lower-quality pillow. Some people avoid down or feather pillows because of allergies.

Latex: Made from the sap of rubber trees, natural latex is hypoallergenic and resistant to dust mites and mildew. Latex is responsive and provides contouring support that conforms to your head and neck. That’s why we chose 100% Talalay latex for the core of the new Saatva pillow. Because it’s more breathable, Talalay latex also tends to be cooler than other types of latex or memory foam. (Learn more about the new Saatva Dreams line of sheets and pillows.)

Memory foam: Made from polyurethane, memory foam provides good support, especially if you have neck, jaw, or shoulder problems. Although memory foam conforms well to your head and neck, the material doesn’t “breathe” and can make you feel hot. Memory foam also can take time to re-mold into different shapes if you move around a lot in your sleep. (Learn more about memory foam pros and cons here.)

Microbead: These pillows are made of tiny unexpanded polystyrene (EPS) beads that provide hard support, frequently used for travel neck pillows. (Follow these sleep tips for the global traveler.)

Synthetic fill: A down alternative, synthetic fill is usually made from polyester material and is hypoallergenic and machine washable.

Wool or cotton: Natural wool and organic cotton are options if you suffer from severe allergies, as these materials are not susceptible to dust mites or mold. But they are typically quite firm and don’t compress well.

A note on covers: How well a pillow performs and how good it feels also depends on what’s on the outside. Natural materials like cotton are breathable and wick away moisture for a cool, comfortable night’s sleep.

How to care for—and when to replace—your bed pillows

There’s no set schedule for replacing a pillow, though the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting a new one every one to two years. Some pillows, like natural and synthetic down, can be machine-washed; others, like foam, cannot, though a pillow protector will help keep them clean and extend their life. Continuing to use a pillow that has lost its shape or molted too many feathers isn’t a good idea.

Here’s a quick test to decide whether you need to replace your pillow: Simply fold it in half lengthwise and hold it like that for 30 seconds. If it doesn’t go back to its original shape when released, it’s time for a new pillow.

Always wake up with a stiff neck? Here’s our guide to finding the best pillow for neck pain.