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How to choose a pillow (for your best night’s sleep)

How your pillow affects your sleep quality

When we’re looking to improve our sleep, it’s common to spend a lot of focus (and money) on finding the perfect mattress. No matter how great your mattress is, however, you might still be waking up with aches and pains or even struggling to fall asleep in the first place. If that’s the case, you might be sleeping on the wrong pillow. Just like a mattress plays a role in spinal alignment as you sleep, the right pillow will keep your neck properly aligned throughout your slumber. 

Although it seems like a small decision, your choice of pillow could leave you waking up either feeling refreshed or sore. The correct pillow loft and firmness for you depends on your body, your mattress, and your typical sleep position. How do you select the right pillow for you — the pillow that will relieve pressure as you sleep and help you sleep through the night? Read on to learn how to choose the best pillow for you.

Pillow in comfortable beige bed with linen sheets

How high should your pillow be?

Pillows come in different heights, referred to as its loft. The best pillow loft for you will depend partially on your sleeping position (read on for how to choose a pillow by sleep position), but it all depends on how your body aligns with your pillow. Ever have trouble getting comfortable at night, or wake up with a kink in your neck? Your pillow might not be at the right height.

Just as a mattress keeps your spine aligned as you sleep, a pillow keeps your neck in alignment, releasing pressure (proper alignment can even help reduce or eliminate snoring!). As you’re lying on your pillow, your neck and spine should create a straight line. A pillow with too high or too low of a loft, and your neck is out of alignment all night long (side sleepers, read on for tips on how to size your pillow correctly).

When you’re looking for neck support when choosing a pillow, look out for one that has a gusset: a strip around the sides that’s usually an inch or two (like the pillow shown above). This will create an extra bit of support and keep your pillow in the correct shape throughout the night (extra important for side sleepers).

Choosing the right pillow based on your sleeping position

Everyone has different bodies and habits, and and our sleeping position is no exception. The way we sleep plays a big part in how what pillow will give us our best night's sleep.

How to choose a pillow for side sleepers

Side sleepers need the most neck support from their pillow, making it important for them to choose a pillow with a mid or high loft. When your pillow is the correct loft, your neck should be aligned as you sleep. If you neck is angled up or down, your pillow is an incorrect height and you could wake up with neck pain.

Below is an example if a pillow that's too high, causing the neck to crane upwards.

side sleeper pillow height - too high
In the example below, this pillow is too low, causing the neck to crane downwards. 
side sleeper pillow height - too low

If you're a side sleeper, look for a pillow that lets your neck rest at a neutral angle, like the pillow below:

side sleeper - correct height

How to choose a pillow for back sleepers

To keep the neck and spine aligned, back sleepers need pillows with a lower loft. If you’re a back sleeper, avoid firm pillows or those with a high loft that can’t be adjusted. A materials like memory foam can help cradle your neck to keep it aligned throughout the night

How to choose a pillow for stomach sleepers

Stomach sleeping isn’t recommended as it puts strain on your neck and lower back. Still, if that’s the only way you can fall asleep (we won’t argue with you there), then you want the lowest pillow you can find. Even the smallest bit of loft can make the alignment even worse.

How to choose a pillow for combination sleepers

Many of us will change our sleeping positions throughout the night, or over time. If you tend to mix it up between different sleeping positions, an adjustable pillow could be a good choice for you. Many pillows on the market (like the Henrie adjustable pillow) allow you to switch between lofts on a whim — meaning you don’t need to buy multiple pillows.

If you're looking for an adjustable pillow, try to find one like the pillow below that allows you to fully customize the filling. 

adjustable memory foam pillow

How pillow filling can impact your sleep quality

Choosing a pillow can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to what’s inside. The materials in your pillow’s inner filling are arguably the most important aspect to getting the right fit. Softer materials like polyester or down can appear to have a high loft, but in reality flatten under pressure. Depending on the quality and thickness of the filling, you might find yourself stacking pillows to find a higher loft, or even replacing them with fuller pillows in less than a year.

If you’re looking for a medium or high loft pillow, something that retains its shape like memory foam will be more likely to give you the support you need (and maintain it). Since all materials compress or break down over time, you might notice your loft reduces over time. To keep your pillow at the right height for longer, get into the habit of fluffing up your pillow each night, or invest in an adjustable pillow with a customizable loft.

Regardless of loft, you also want to pay attention to choosing a pillow that’s low in allergens. If you’re sleeping 8 hours per night, that’s one third of your life spent in bed. This is exactly why the bedroom is notorious for collecting dust mites, the little creatures that feed off of your dead skin cells. Polyester and down in particular are known to attract dust mites. If you suffer from allergies, look into materials that are naturally more resistant to dust mites, like memory foam or natural alternatives like kapok.

What materials are the coolest? Truth is, most claims about “cooling” materials have little evidence to back up their claims. Even though memory foam is activated by body heat, it’s a myth that memory foam is hot.

comfortable bed in beige bedroom with white sheets

Special considerations

Just like a pillow isn’t one-size fits all, sometimes there are special cases where you might need a medical opinion on your pillow. If you suffer from a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, suffer from chronic pain, or are recovering from an injury that could impact your sleep position, it’s best to seek advice from a professional who understands what you’re dealing with. Just like the right pillow can improve your sleep — and in some cases, your recovery — the wrong one can exacerbate issues or worsen the quality of your sleep.

Why you should look for an adjustable pillow

When you choose a pillow, you’re choosing it based on how it aligns with your neck and body today. Pillow fit is dependent on your typical sleep position, your present body shape and physical health, and the bed and mattress you have today. Over time, these things can change, meaning your pillow needs will shift, too. Even if you don’t foresee any changes in your future, an unexpected injury could shift your sleeping habits dramatically. Investing in a quality pillow can run you anywhere from $150-300 dollars, so opting for an adjustable pillow is your safest bet when it comes to keeping your pillow for the long-term.

By choosing an adjustable pillows (like the Henrie adjustable pillow), you can adjust your pillow to the loft that suits you best — right now, and next year — and be sure that your pillow will fit just right when you get it home.


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