We spend nearly a third of our lives with the lights out in pursuit of restorative sleep. But in today’s stressful, always-connected and sleep-deprived world, the need for a good night’s rest has never been more important.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, people over age 65 should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night. A high-quality mattress is the foundation, but a pillow is a significant player. If it’s terrible, you may be tossing and turning all night to find a comfortable position.
The right pillow should keep your head, neck and spine in neutral alignment (ears should be in line with shoulders and chin should be in line with sternum), supporting the natural curvature of the spine. Keeping a neutral spine alleviates neck pain and relieves pressure on shoulders, back and hips so you wake up pain-free.
While the pillow you choose is largely based on personal preference, the recommended starting point in your pillow shopping journey (for you or your loved one) is to first identify your sleep position.
Best pillows for each sleep position
Understanding your sleep position and matching it to a pillow that’s best for your sleep style can ensure a better night’s rest.
“When it comes to alleviating pain, sleeping on your back is a mixed bag. For people with neck pain, sleeping face up can sometimes make pain worse. If you have soreness in your spine, experiment with different positions and pillows to find what works for you.”
Snoring is another very common sleep problem. Experts say positioning yourself on your side or stomach will help airways stay open and can reduce snoring and alleviate mild apnea.
Back sleepers require the least amount of head and neck support and should therefore opt for a low-to-medium density or contour pillow. An excessively dense style may press the head forward and cause the neck to overextend. A thinner pillow with extra loft (the pillow’s “lift” or thickness) at the bottom will provide the support needed to cradle your neck. Memory foam and latex are good options. If you’re a back sleeper with back pain, try sleeping with another pillow under your knees to maintain the curve of your lower back to relieve discomfort. (Here’s how to protect your back while you sleep.)
Side sleepers, on the other hand, should go for medium-density fill with higher loft to ensure the neck isn’t strained. This style ensures the neck and head are aligned with the body. Without the right kind of support, side sleepers could easily end up with shoulder soreness, so the best choices are down, memory foam, latex and buckwheat pillows.
Lastly, stomach sleepers require softer pillows that prevent the neck from being laterally overextended. The best pillow fill for stomach sleepers is one that’s breathable and medium-firm. The best choices to consider are down, feather and organic cotton. Avoid high loft pillows as they tend to strain the neck and shoulders.
The best pillow style for every sleep position
Experts recommend a new pillow every 18 months or so, although a well-made memory foam pillow will last longer—about three years. If it’s time to shop for a new one, try some of these recommendations that match pillow type with sleeping position:
With antimicrobial properties and moisture absorption, most bamboo pillows feature a shredded foam interior with a bamboo viscose shell—meaning you get the benefits of a shredded memory foam pillow with the cooling properties of bamboo.
Pros: Antimicrobial, hypoallergenic, cooling and moisture-wicking
Cons: Chemical off-gassing, heavy, difficult to clean
Best for: Back sleepers
Crafted from a naturally thermoregulating and breathable fabric, it’s hypoallergenic, moisture-wicking, static-free, odor-resistant and eco-friendly.
The best non-toxic, organic alternative to polyurethane materials, these pillows have shells that are firm but breathable.
Pros: Malleable, breathable, cooling, long-lasting
Cons: Makes noise when you move around, heavy, too firm for some sleepers
Best for: Back and stomach sleepers
Premium buckwheat hulls are grown and milled by American farmers, and contain no animal products for those interested in a vegan lifestyle. The design allows air to move freely, preventing uncomfortable heat buildup, and it includes a 100% organic cotton twill case.
Best for those with allergies to synthetics, cotton pillows are biodegradable for those concerned about the environment (and they’re also easy to launder).
Pros: Hypoallergenic, breathable and odorless
Cons: Needs frequent laundering for dust mites and mold, doesn’t contour to head, can clump and flatten easily
Best for: Side, back and stomach sleepers
Made in the U.S., this pillow is filled with layers of domestically grown cotton batting. The cover is a soft and durable cotton sateen, and it’s zippered to adjust the loft to suit comfort. Choose the light fill for stomach sleepers or the extra-thick fill for back and side sleepers.
Down pillows are made from soft fibers close to the skin of a goose or duck. Because fill is sometimes blended with feathers, check the down-to-feather ratio to find an ethically sourced brand. Look for certification from the Responsible Down Standard, which guides ethical treatment of ducks and geese.
Pros: Moldable, good head and neck support, durable, can last several years, lightweight, soft
Cons: Retains body heat, potential for allergic reactions, requires fluffing to maintain loft, difficult to clean, need to find ethically sourced down
Best for: Side, back and stomach sleepers (Down is one of the best pillow fills for stomach sleepers due to cushion and softness characteristics.)
European white down offers optimal comfort, support and multiple certifications, and it’s available in three densities (soft, medium and firm).
A synthetic version of natural down pillows, most are polyester fill used to mimic down. Polyester makes down alternative pillows hypoallergenic and much more affordable.
Pros: Affordable, easy to clean, hypoallergenic, no ethical sourcing issues
Cons: Can develop lumps, not moldable, less insulation than true down
Best for: Back and side sleepers
Multi-layered polyester clusters line the base of the pillow to form a support layer that keeps the head and neck on an even plane, while a top layer of silky microdenier fibers recreates the luxurious plushness of real down.
When feather pillows are made, the material is taken from the back and wings of the bird—often combined with down to make them softer. Check the filling content if you’re allergic.
Cons: Needs fluffing to maintain loft, difficult to clean, retains body heat
Best for: Side and back sleepers (due to higher loft)
The Snuggle Soft Classic is defined by its 25% down, 75% Hungarian feather blend and pearl white long-staple Egyptian cotton shell.
Typically made from gel combined with another material, like foam or latex, gel holds shape well and has great cooling ability. It can also be molded to fit contours of sleepers, similar to memory foam.
Pros: Hypoallergenic, cooling, easy care
Cons: Too firm for some sleepers
Best for: Stomach and back sleepers (Side sleepers may find gel pillows too firm to find a comfortable sleeping position.)
The top layer features TranquilAire Cooling Gel, which draws heat away from the head. The Jacquard cover features proprietary cooling fiber. Pillow is infused with Microban technology that provides antimicrobial protection that resists growth of microbes.
Popular for the high level of support provided for the head and neck, latex pillows maintain a soft and cozy feel and are manufactured in solid and shredded fills. Look for latex-blend pillows.
Pros: Durability, moldable, breathable, cooling and biodegradable
Cons: Odor, high cost, not hypoallergenic
Best for: Side and back sleepers
With quilted and flat sides, this pillow also includes shredded natural latex fill that’s adjustable: To change firmness, simply unzip to access the interior. An extra inner compartment keeps the latex separate for easy care of the outer layer.
Memory foam pillows are generally firmer and hold their shape, and generally come in four types of foam: shredded, single slab, layered and contoured—and are a good fit for all sleeping positions. They allow the head and neck to mold the pillow into a position that’s most comfortable.
Pros: Pain relief, no clumping, contours to body
Cons: Need to find foam density that doesn’t inhibit breathability, may retain body heat
Best for: Side, back and stomach sleepers (However, memory foam pillows may be too firm for some side sleepers.)
Dense and luxurious, this pillow is offered in three heights (or densities): The “lo” and “mid” options are made with two sheets of memory foam sandwiching a middle layer of “microcushions.” The high-quality fabric is well-stitched and taut, designed to keep the sleeper cool.
Made with a synthetic material called uniform polymer particles, microbead is a synthetic alternative, offering breathability and easy conformity to head shape. However, it may also lose shape faster than true buckwheat hull pillows.
Pros: Breathable, malleable, firm, supportive
Cons: Chemical off-gassing, not durable, retains heat
Best for: Back sleepers and some stomach sleepers
More than 13 million beads mold to the contours of your head. Even though they may feel soft and squishy, these micro air beads will not break down or lose their shape.
A popular budget-conscious pillow choice, polyester pillows also tend to absorb heat and become lumpy.
Pros: Affordable, lightweight, hypoallergenic
Cons: Can develop lumps, not breathable or durable
Best for: Back, stomach and side sleepers
The 100% cotton cover features a breathable percale weave that increases airflow to help sleepers stay cool. A pillow-in-pillow design is packed with microfiber fill, providing both support and comfort. The outer layer is removable and machine-washable for easy cleaning.
Shredded memory foam
This type is an alternative to traditional memory foam. Shredded filling can be added or removed depending on individual preference and is a good fit for nearly every sleep position.
Pros: Doesn’t clump, moldable, offers customizable support, easy to clean
Cons: Chemical off-gassing, may be overfilled, not durable
Best for: Back and side sleepers (Some stomach sleepers may like shredded memory foam, but others report finding this pillow uncomfortable due to firmness.)
Made with a gel-infused blend of memory foam and microfiber, the pillow is fully adjustable so you can get perfect alignment in any sleep position. Comes with a removable bamboo cover, individually sold.
Wool is naturally hypoallergenic and temperature controlling, as well as resistant to dust, mold and mildew.
Pros: Adjustable loft, promotes healthy posture, temperature control, wicks away body moisture
Cons: Some brands have an odor, are not moldable and hard to launder (can also affect fill)
Best for: Back, side, stomach
Organic, machine washable and adjustable, this pillow is filled with organic wool, and a quilted wool cover helps regulate body temperature.