Finding the Best Pillow for Better Sleep

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When you need better sleep, you'll do just about anything to get it. Many people seek better sleep in a pillow, one of the many models available that seem far more advanced than the traditional cotton-filled rectangles.

Can an expensive pillow actually improve a person's sleep and alleviate problems such as nagging neck pain and back pain during waking hours?

Many experts say that there certainly are superior choices, but they may be different for each of us. Since people have different body types and varied physical ailments, some pillows may bring relief and rest to some, but not do much for others.

Criteria for Choosing the Best Pillow

The key to choosing the right pillow is buying one that keeps your neck in a neutral position—that is, your head is square with your shoulders and not bent too far forward or back. Which pillow will help you best achieve this depends on what position you sleep in.

In his book, Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep, clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Breus states that using better pillows positively affects the quality of our sleep, allowing for the restful recharge we need to feel more healthy.

He explains that, when choosing a pillow, you should test it out (ideally in your normal sleeping position) and make sure that your head and neck are in a straight line. A softer pillow is needed when your head tilts away from the bed, while a firmer pillow is needed if it tilts toward the bed. Down and feather stuffed pillows are often good choices simply because you can manipulate the stuffing to align yourself properly.

Many physical therapists, chiropractors, and general practitioners will tell you that it isn’t necessary to break the bank with an expensive pillow. Although some certainly find these pillows comfortable and helpful, the key is ensuring proper head and neck positioning while you sleep—and, for many, that can be achieved with wise selection and use of a more run-of-the-mill model.

Pillows for Side Sleepers

Side sleepers need a pillow that will take up more space than a pillow needed by those who sleep in other positions. This is because of the distance that one's shoulders puts between their head and the bed. You don't really need a specially shaped pillow in this case, just a firm and thick one that will support your head well.

However, some side sleepers like one arm underneath the pillow, and this can sometimes get uncomfortable. Some pillows are specially designed with a "cave" to allow room for the arm to rest below the pillow. These pillows are often made of memory foam and can run between $100 and $200.

Pillows for Back Sleepers

Thinner (though not thin) pillows are necessary for back sleepers so that their heads aren't raised or flexed backward too much. Again, test out the options you are considering. Too thick, and your head is tilted too far forward. Too thin, and your head is arched back, which can cause pain.

You can likely find a suitable choice among regular pillow options. If not, you may want to consider a pillow crafted with a soft down middle and a firmer latex edge. These pillows keep the contours of your head and neck properly aligned—support where you need it, less where you don't. These can run about $100.

Pillows for Stomach Sleepers

Stomach sleepers have no shoulder width between them and the bed. Their necks are closest to the mattress because of the way they position their face to one side, and because of this, they need the thinnest pillows of all sleepers. Look for a model that is not only lightly packed with stuffing, but that is made of material with a lot of give. Memory foam, for example, is not the wisest choice for stomach sleepers.

Regardless of the pillow you choose, be sure to replace it every 12 to 18 months. Skin cells, mildew, mold and dust mites can collect over time.

Written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick

Sources: Breus, Michael, PhD. Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep. New York: Penguin Group USA, 2007.

National Sleep Foundation: Waking America to the Importance of Sleep. Available at www.sleepfoundation.org Accessed June 7, 2011

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 21 Jul 2011

Last Modified: 03 Mar 2015