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How to pick the right pillow

Getting quality sleep starts with having the right bed. If you’ve spent time selecting the perfect foundation, the right mattress, and bedding that makes you comfortable – don’t forget the pillow. Most people don’t change their pillow often enough, and when they do, they pick what’s available instead of what’s best for them. Here are our tips on how to find the pillow that gives you more restful sleep.

Signs it’s time to replace your pillow

The most obvious sign of a bad pillow is if it doesn’t feel right. You may have changed your sleeping position, or you’re waking up with a stiff neck or headache. An average foam pillow is good for 1 to 3 years, depending on quality. Higher quality pillows will last for longer, but most people wait far more than 3 years to replace theirs. After it starts to break down, it’s no longer giving you the right support, so it’s better if you don’t wait to pick out a new one.

How can you tell if your foam has broken down? The pillow will be lumpy, flat, or easily fold in half, and can’t be fluffed back into shape. You can extend the life of the pillow by washing it (just make sure to follow the care instructions) and flipping it regularly. Washing also helps remove the dust , mites, and other things that gather in your bedding.

If you’ve tried washing and fluffing and still can’t get comfortable, your allergies act up, or you have breakouts, the pillow may be beyond saving.

Pillow materials

There are more choices in what goes into your pillow than ever before. The materials that make up the filling and cover make a difference in how you sleep. Although there are more types than we could go into, here are the most common pillow types and their benefits and drawbacks:

  • Memory foam – These are the most common type of pillow. The foam contours to your shape, providing softness but also support. However, they can retain heat and may break down quickly depending on the quality of foam used.
  • Latex – More firm, but still comfortable. Latex is cooler than foam, and offers increased resistance to mold, mites, and other unpleasant substances. They don't conform to your shape as easily as foam.
  • Cotton – A natural material that is hypoallergenic and resistant to dust mites and mold, cotton is a good choice for people with allergies or other sensitivities. They can be flat and more firm than other materials, and may bunch up and get lumpy more quickly.
  • Wool – Another hypoallergenic, natural material, wool wicks moisture away from your skin and helps regulate temperature. They tend to be more firm, but will last longer with regular cleaning and fluffing.
  • Down – These are usually made with a combination of down, feathers, and other material, so make sure to read the fine print. Some people are allergic, although hypoallergenic versions are available. Down pillows are very soft, and can last longer with regular cleaning and fluffing. However, to get the benefits, a good down pillow can be expensive.
  • Synthetic down and polyester fill – These are less expensive than many other pillow types because they often contain cheap materials that will flatten and become lumpy more quickly than others. They are soft, but a little more firm than down. These pillow types need to be replaced fairly frequently.

You should also know about fill power, which is an indicator of quality in pillows that contain down or synthetic fill. The higher the number, the better it is. A pillow with fill power of at least 600 is a very good pillow.

There’s also the pillow cover to consider. While some use simple cotton or polyester over their fill materials, others engineer the cover to be part of the experience. The material may be made to be antimicrobial, add softness, or reduce heat.

Pillow type based on sleep position

You probably fall into one of the three most common sleep positions: side, back, or stomach. The way you sleep determines what kind of support you need for your head and neck.

  • Back sleepers – A thinner pillow may be the best so that the head isn’t pushed too far forward. A wider pillow also helps support the neck, and memory foam can help keep consistent support. You may also want a second pillow under the knees to keep the spine from falling out of alignment.
  • Side sleepers – Keeping the spine in a straight line is a priority for side sleepers. Too high or too low will curve the head and neck out of alignment, causing pain. A firm pillow will keep things in place, and you want one that is extra wide to provide support to the neck. A secondary pillow can benefit side sleepers when placed between the knees, to prevent the lower spine from dipping.
  • Stomach sleepers – A very thin pillow, or none at all, will help keep a stomach sleeper’s spine in alignment. A softer pillow allows  your head to sink in more and straightens the spine.

Your sleep position may also determine the size of the pillow that you need. Pillows come in standard, Queen, and King sizes. A larger pillow may provide more support to your neck, or a smaller pillow may be all that’s needed.

Specialty pillows

If you have a specific issue you need to solve with your pillow, there may be a custom solution out there. These specialty pillows tend to be more expensive, and, depending on the issue and pillow options, may not help more than getting the right kind of normal pillow.

  • Positional pillow – Shaped like an upside-down “u”, this pillow is supposed to help people stay on their back and in the right position to help with sleep apnea.
  • Cervical pillow – These pillows are shaped to keep your head and neck in alignment when sleeping on your back, with an extra section on the bottom to support the neck.
  • Anti-snore pillow – Shaped like a wedge, this pillow keeps the sleeper’s head raised slightly to open airways and reduce snoring.
  • Side sleep pillows – This is a shaped pillow that keeps the sleeper from rolling onto their back or stomach with sculpted ridges. If a medical issue is eased by side sleeping, this will help you stay in that position.
  • Smart pillows – Technology is everywhere these days, even in your pillow. There are several pillows and pillow additions that offer ways to help you sleep better. Some might vibrate, make a noise, or even inflate when you start snoring. Others offer sleep tracking.

Pillows can also move out of place, so if you're using one of these and still not solving your sleep issues, it may be time to look at adjustable beds.

These are just some of the options you have when choosing your pillow. The wrong pillow can damage your overall health, so make sure the one you pick matches your preferences, health needs, and sleeping position.