Which Pillow Helps Me Sleep Better?
One sleep expert explains how to pick the right pillow for you
By Heidi Mitchell in the Wall Street Journal
People put a lot of effort into choosing a mattress. But picking the right pillow can be just as important says one expert, Ana C. Krieger, medical director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The distance between the neck and bed can make all the difference.
Stuffed with stuff
A pillow should align the hip, back and neck to keep the spine as straight as possible. Amid a wide variety of materials and shapes, including latex, contouring foam and hypoallergenic, Dr. Krieger lumps pillows into just two categories: natural and synthetic. Down and feather pillows can be good because they discourage dust mites and can be molded easily or folded in half when shifting positions during the night. They also tend to stay cool and last long, she says. Synthetic pillows have the advantage that they keep their shape and height, but they only last about half as long as feather pillows. And Dr. Krieger discourages synthetic pillows with a fixed shape. “If you move out of the position, you’ll be uncomfortable and wake up, and we know you’ll move out of that position,” she says, noting that there is not a lot of hard science focusing on pillows.
Side sleepers should choose a pillow that can clear the distance between the shoulder and the ear, to maintain neck alignment. “People who sleep on their side may like feather or down pillows because they can remold,” Dr. Krieger says. “But a slightly firm synthetic might be better to provide consistent support without misaligning the neck,” Dr. Krieger says.
Back sleepers have the widest range of choice, though they should be careful not to use a pillow that is too high or low. “The top of the head should not be tilted higher than the chin, or you may feel back or neck pain during the day,” she says. A back-sleeper choosing to sleep with no pillow or a very thin pillow should make sure the chin doesn’t fall against the neck, as that may make breathing more difficult, the sleep specialist says.
Dr. Krieger recommends that stomach sleepers, like herself, sleep with no pillow or a very thin pillow so that the head isn’t raised too high, putting the neck out of line. “Feather or down can be great for them because the air within can be displaced easily,” she says.
Cool it down
In her work treating people with sleep disorders, Dr. Krieger has observed that patients seem to prefer a pillow that stays cool. “The coolness of a pillow helps keep your body temperature down, so you wake up less frequently,” she says. A breathable material, whether a light synthetic or feather pillow, will stay cool the longest, she says. She notices that some patients like to keep two pillows on the bed to be able to switch to the cooler one in the middle of the night.
Make that change
To find your optimal pillow, Dr. Krieger says to first identify your favorite position and determine the most comfortable height and thickness. Then choose the type and quality of pillow. For sleepers who are unsure of the kind of sleeper they are, she recommends purchasing two or three different kinds and trying them out for a few months.
Because sleepers change position an average of once per hour, the type of pillow that makes them comfortable can vary throughout the night. “The way you are able to fall asleep isn’t necessarily the way you stay asleep,” she says. Some people start out with two pillows on their side, then drop one in the night and sleep with one on their back, or vice versa—which is why some people like to have two pillows available on the bed. “Comfort is the critical factor, as long as your alignment is adequate,” says Dr. Krieger.
Pillows take a beating in regular use. A synthetic pillow should be replaced every two to three years, and a down or feather pillow every five to six years. A pillow cover beneath a breathable-cotton pillowcase will extend a pillow’s lifetime by keeping dust mites and sweat out. “If you can fluff up the feather pillow and it comes back to a good height, that’s the sign of a healthy pillow,” she says. “If you fold a synthetic pillow and it stays folded, it’s time to get a new one.”