A good slumber allows you to wake up well-rested and feeling great, and part of that essential shut-eye equation is using the right pillow.
Is a pillow really that important for a restful sleep? Actually, yes—in fact, way more so than you might think. A good cushion for the head allows the neck muscles (which are strained throughout the day) to relax and regenerate during the night. “It’s rare that people have perfect posture while they work. That’s why it’s so important for our neck muscles to loosen up at night,” says Karyne Marin, president of The Canadian Society for the Tradition of Osteopathy. “If there isn’t enough neck support while we’re asleep, those muscles will continue to work.”
“At night, the body needs to be in a position that ensures the muscles and joints aren’t twisted, stretched or compressed,” says Chantal Boucher, an occupational therapist. Sleeping on the wrong pillow can lead to neck and head pain, jaw problems, shoulder aches and soreness that can extend all the way to the fingers, hands and upper back. But with so many options on the market, what’s the right one to choose? Here, we break it down.
Shape (standard or ergonomic), firmness and composition (filling) are major deciding factors, as is price. Also, consider the potential lifespan of the pillow and whether its construction will allow it to hold its shape long term. And remember to give your body a few days to adjust to a new pillow before deciding for or against it.
Composition: Synthetic materials, including polyurethane, but can also be made with a percentage of soy, water and other natural ingredients. Look for a minimum of 70 percent memory foam.
Good for: People who don’t move much during the night and who experience neck or shoulder pain.
Pros: Can be easily reshaped. Gives firm, flexible support without being too hard.
Cons: Stains easily, must be protected with a pillow cover.
Composition: A mixture of natural feathers and/or down (shorter feathers).
Good for: People who frequently move during the night; works for all types of sleepers.
Pros: Long lifespan. Down is of superior quality and keeps its shape better than feathers. Wash able (allow the pillow to dry completely before use).
Cons: Can become flat and hard with time; can attract mites.
Cost: $ to $$
Composition: Synthetic materials, including petroleum and plastic.
Good for: People who move around in the night and those with allergies.
Pros: Wide range of thickness and firmness.
Cons: Limited lifespan, and has a tendency to flatten overnight.
Composition: Usually a mix of 50 percent silk and 50 percent polyester with a cotton cover; consistency of a feather pillow.
Good for: People with allergies and/or asthma.
Pros: Typically antiallergenic and antimicrobial. It’s also washable.
Cons: Thin, limited support.
Composition: Anywhere from 25 to 100 percent natural or synthetic latex; may also contain additional synthetic materials.
Good for: All sleeping positions.
Pros: Holds its shape well, offers good support and is durable.
Cons: Can feel too firm and inflexible. Not washable.
Cost: $$ to $$$
Composition: Cleaned and dried natural buckwheat hulls.
Good for: People who don’t move very much while sleeping, as buck wheat can make noise if crushed, stirred or repositioned.
Pros: Adaptable with the addition or removal of filling.
Cons: Since the grains are supposed to move easily inside the casing, these pillows doesn’t offer great support. Texture can take time to get used to.
Cost: $ to $$
Composition: Sheeps’ wool (should be 100 percent).
Good for: Side sleepers, as well as people who want a firm pillow and good support.
Pros: Hypoallergenic. Naturally repels mites.
Cons: Can be uncomfortable.
Cost: $$ to $$$
Composition: A mix of plastic and polyester or microgel and memory foam.
Good for: People with allergies and those who want ergonomic support.
Pros: Hypoallergenic and repels mites. Long lifespan and stays fresh. Can be customized.
Cons: Can lack neck support (opt for a combination of microgel and memory foam for added reinforcement).
Cost: $$ to $$$.
Pillow Talk Q&A
1. Testing out a pillow before you buy is critical, says the experts, but what should I look for?
- The pillow should fill the gap between the top of your shoulders and your head.
- Your nose should be aligned with your sternum. If your head leans toward the mattress, the pillow is not thick enough. If your head is raised toward the ceiling, it’s too thick.
- Your shoulders should be just brushing against the pillow, not on top of it.
- Your head should rest completely on the pillow.
- Is your body well aligned, do you feel strained?
- Are your chin and forehead at the same height?
- Your shoulders should be just brushing against
2. How bad is it to sleep on my stomach?
Sleeping on your stomach requires rotating the neck—a constant extension of the neck muscles— and extending the lower back. If the alignment of the body is not neutral, it’s not at rest. “It puts too much stress on the neck vertebrae to maintain this position overnight,” says Marin. “If there’s any way to avoid sleeping on your stomach, do it.”
3. How often should I change my pillow?
A good quality pillow has a lifespan of five to 10 years. It should be replaced as soon as it no longer feels supportive and starts to change shape. If you have allergies, buy a waterproof pillow protector and wash the protector every week.
4. Should I sleep with a pillow between my knees?
Placing a pillow between your knees when sleeping on your side can help relieve lower-back issues. If you’re a back sleeper and have a defined arch to your spine, place a pillow under your knees to neutralize the position of the spine. (To check your arch, lie on your back on the floor with your legs extended. If you can fit more than one hand in the hollow of your lower back, you have a defined arch.)