Feature Archive

Snuggle Up With the Perfect Pillow

Expert advice on how to find the pillow that suits your sleep style.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nothing starts your day off better than getting a good night's sleep. And sleeping with the right pillow can help.

"Pillows can not only impact the quality of our sleep, but also how healthfully we rest and recharge," says sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep.

But the wrong pillow may worsen headaches, neck pain, shoulder and arm numbness, discomfort, sneezing, and wheezing, notes orthopaedic surgeon Andrew Hecht, MD.

"A bad pillow won't be the cause of any of these problems, but using the incorrect pillow can certainly exacerbate many of the underlying problems linked to these symptoms, and it certainly can keep you from getting a good night's rest," says Hecht, the co-chief of spine surgery at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.

And if your pillow is past its prime, it may contain skin cells, mold, mildew, fungus, and dust mites, which make up more than half of an older pillow's weight, Breus notes.

Is it time to buy a new pillow? Experts say the general rule is to buy a pillow every 12 to 18 months. After two years, it's definitely got to go.

Pillow Shopping: Consider Your Sleeping Style

Before you buy a new pillow, think about your sleep position.

"The goal of using a pillow is to help keep your head in what is called a 'neutral alignment,' meaning your head is sitting squarely on your shoulders without bending back too far or reaching too far forward," says Kammi Bernard, PT, a physical therapist at the Baylor Health Care System in Dallas.

Some expert advice:

If you sleep on your back: "Back sleepers need thinner pillows, so their head is not thrown too far forward," Bernard says. Also look for a pillow with extra loft in the bottom third of the pillow to cradle your neck.

If you sleep on your side: Side sleepers need a firmer pillow to fill in the distance between the ear and outside shoulder.

If you're a stomach sleeper: Look for a very thin, almost flat pillow. You may not even need a pillow for your head, but consider tucking one under your stomach to avoid lower back pain, Breus suggests.

Pillow Stuffing Options

There is no shortage of fillings you can find stuffed in a pillow these days. The most common ones are down-feather combinations, foam, or polyester fiberfill. Memory foam and latex pillows have become quite popular in recent years, particularly among people looking for additional neck support.

What's right for you? That may depend on how you're feeling on a given day, says Breus, who recommends that most people have more than one type of pillow to choose from. A pillow wardrobe, in other words.

Pillows serve multiple purposes," Breus says. For instance, you may want a pillow to support your neck if your neck is bothering you one day. But once your neck feels fine again, that same supportive pillow may not be the most comfortable for you, Breus notes.

Here's what to look for in each type of pillow filling:

Foam: "Go by the density," Breus says. "The higher the density, the less breakdown, and the more support you will have without getting too soft."

Memory foam: These are popular because they reduce pressure points by continuously molding and adjusting to the shape of your body as you move throughout the night. Memory foam pillows come in various shapes, including a popular contoured S-shape, which is meant to support the neck. Breus notes that memory foam material is known to make sleepers hot, and can sometimes emit an unpleasant chemical odor.

Latex: This is the firmest type of pillow, and it resists mold and dust mites, Breus says. Latex pillows may also help with back and neck alignment, as they're often contoured for neck support.

Wool/cotton: Wool and cotton pillows are hypoallergenic and resist mold and dust mites. Both also tend to be quite firm. So if you love a squishy pillow, these fillers aren't for you.

Down/feather: Many sleep experts recommend these as one of the best pillows for a good night's rest. "One of the great things about down pillows is that you can move the stuffing around so that you have the most support where you need it," Bernard says. "Plus, it's soft, yet firm enough to give you the support you need."


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