We all have our own preferences when it comes to sleep. Some of us like to drift off in silence, while others enjoy the hum of a fan or a white noise machine in the background. Some like the warmth of a heavy duvet, and others prefer lightweight blankets.  

A pleasant sleep environment that works for you and your needs is essential to good rest. A great mattress and high quality, breathable bed linens are the building blocks of a comfortable and relaxing place to lay down your head at night — but what you lay your head on is just as important.

Your pillow plays a key role in your comfort as you fall asleep, throughout the night, and into the next morning. If you struggle to sleep at night because you can’t get comfortable in bed or you find yourself waking up with aches and pains, it could be time to invest in a new pillow.

Why does choosing the right pillow matter?

Using the wrong pillow — one that is too soft, too firm, the wrong size, or not well-matched with your sleeping position — could result in neck, back, or shoulder pain by putting unnecessary stress on your spine.

This is because pillows help keep your spine in neutral alignment while you sleep. The right pillow will conform well to your head and neck, and should be suited to the position you sleep in most often. A pillow that is a good fit for you and your sleeping position will provide the best support to your spine as you sleep, allowing your body to relax and minimizing the risk of morning aches and pains.

Different types of pillow fillings

Polyester filling (sometimes referred to as “down alternative”) is made of small synthetic fibers. Pillows filled with polyester are usually affordable, lightweight, and easy to clean — but they tend to flatten and lose their shape more quickly than other pillows. 

Memory foam pillows sink to fit the shape of your head, which can help relieve pressure in your neck and spine. Unlike pillows filled with polyester, memory foam pillows will never clump, and they don’t retain as much heat.

Latex is also used as a pillow filling. Molded latex is firm and won’t lose its shape easily, while shredded latex pillows feel more like down. Latex pillows are durable and can provide excellent support and pressure relief.

Down pillows (which are not the same as feather pillows) are stuffed with the plumage of ducks and geese, at least 75% of which is down. These pillows are very lightweight, and they tend to keep their shape for a long time. They absorb less body heat than other pillows, keeping your body temperature balanced while you sleep.

Feather pillows are less expensive than down pillows and they stay cooler, but they typically have shorter lifespans than down pillows and can be uncomfortable if feathers begin poking through the pillow’s shell.

Buckwheat hull pillows offer both firmness and malleability. They don’t retain much heat, making this type of filling a good choice for those who like to sleep “cool.” 

Cotton is also used as pillow filling, either in organic and raw form or mixed with polyester. Cotton is soft, durable, and naturally hypoallergenic. A potential downside to cotton pillows is that the stuffing may need to be replaced more often than other filling types.

Sleeping positions: which pillow is best?

Your preferred sleeping position will help determine which pillow is right for you. As well as firmness and filling type, the loft of your pillow (its compressed height when your head is resting on it) is important to consider.

Pillows for back sleepers

If you sleep on your back, you need a pillow that keeps your neck and spine aligned: you don’t want your head to be too elevated, but you don’t want it to sink into the pillow too much either. Low or medium loft pillows with medium-firm fillings tend to work well for back sleepers.  

You may also find it helpful to place a pillow beneath your knees — this can help reduce the risk of morning backache.

Pillows for side sleepers

Because most of the stress is on your shoulders when you sleep on your side, side sleepers should consider pillows with a firmer filling and material. A pillow that’s too soft will cause your head to sink in and put extra strain on your shoulders, which can result in neck stiffness. Pillows of any loft can work for side sleepers, as long as they achieve the goal of removing extraneous pressure from the shoulders.

Side sleepers may also benefit from sleeping with a firm pillow between their knees as this offers additional support to the spine.

Pillows for stomach sleepers

Those who sleep on their stomachs should look for low loft pillows with a soft, malleable filling (such as feather or down). A firm pillow will raise your head higher than it should be, preventing your spine from staying in neutral alignment. This can lead to pain in your neck and back.

If you sleep on your stomach, consider putting a pillow underneath your pelvis while you sleep to aid proper spine alignment.

Pillows for combination sleepers

If you’re a combination sleeper — meaning you switch sleeping positions throughout the night — you need a pillow that can support all the positions you cycle through while you’re asleep. Memory foam pillows can work well for combination sleepers because of how quickly they adapt to fit the position of your head if you move in your sleep.

Adjustable pillows (which allow you to choose your level of filling) can also be a good solution for combination sleepers.

Ultimately, the right pillow for you is the one that makes sleep easy and comfortable. A good pillow can vastly improve the quality of your sleep and reduce the risk of problems in your neck, back, and spine. When we sleep better, we feel better: choose a pillow that works well with your mattress, your sleeping position, and your personal preferences to ensure you’re getting the most out of your rest.