Positions and pillows
As much as I try to change my habits, I’m pretty resolutely a stomach sleeper. As such, I know rather too well how a lofty pillow can mean a bad night’s sleep and a stiff and painful neck the next day. Whether you’re a stomach sleeper, side sleeper, back sleeper, or a combination sleeper, your go-to sleep position will affect the best choice of pillow for you.
In this Leaf Score series on pillows, I’ve already looked at the toxic chemicals in many conventional pillows, and the pros and cons of different types of pillow materials. In addition to these considerations, you’ll also want to get to know some pillow terminology, learn how sleeping with the wrong kind of pillow can be downright dangerous, and discover which kind of pillow will work well for your sleep needs. Spoiler alert: if you’re a side sleeper, I recommend the Organic Kapok Body Pillow from Savvy Rest (View Price on Savvy Rest), which received a 5/5 Leaf Score.
How to find the right kind of pillow
Finding the right pillow can be a real challenge, especially if you suffer with back or neck pain. Different companies use different terms to describe the firmness of their pillows, which can make things confusing. One company’s ‘firm’ might be another’s ‘medium-firm’, and what feels perfectly soft to you might be unbearably extra-soft to someone else. All in all, when buying a pillow, it’s a good idea to look for products that have a reasonable return policy. After all, you’ll likely need at least a week sleeping on a pillow to decide if it’s right for you.
According to a couple of studies, most people experience proper cervical spinal alignment with a pillow that is around 4 inches (10-11 cm) high (pillow height is known as loft) (R, R). Another study suggests that a pillow with a loft of 5-10 cm is best for pulmonary function (i..e the function of your lungs) (R). The ideal height for your pillow will vary depending on the firmness of your mattress. For a firmer mattress, you’ll need a higher pillow. If your mattress is softer and your body sinks in more, a lower pillow is better.
Why does pillow height matter?
A properly designed pillow helps to ease pressure on cervical (neck) muscles and promotes a good night’s rest (R). The correct pillow height can also support good air flow and blood flow to the brain, without which there is an increased risk of neurological disorders, including cerebral hemorrhage and stroke (R). In general, research shows that feather pillows perform less well than other types of pillow and that latex pillows perform best (R, R).
Side sleepers, stomach sleepers, and those who sleep on their back tend to do better with different types of pillows. As such, thinking about how you sleep is a good place to start when considering any new pillow purchases. Some brands conveniently label their pillows as ideal for different sleep positions, but, as with firmness, these designations can vary.
The best pillows for side sleepers
In general, side sleepers do best with a firm or extra-firm pillow as this helps to keep the neck and spine in alignment. Most people (around 70 percent) are side sleepers, and side sleepers tend to sleep better with a contoured pillow shape that supports the neck and head. Traditional or contoured latex pillows help support the head at the proper angle and do not flatten over time, unlike polyester or down pillows. A soap shape (high on the sides and low in the middle) pillow is also a good option for side sleepers. The Organic Kapok Body Pillow from Savvy Rest is a great choice that I review here.
The best pillows for back sleepers
Back sleepers do best with a pillow that supports the head without compromising the neck’s natural curve. Medium-loft, medium-firm latex or buckwheat pillows are a good place to start. With buckwheat, you can add or remove filling as needed to get the correct alignment for your back and neck. I recommend the Vegan Organic Buckwheat Pillow from Rawganique (View Price on Rawganique). You may also be able to do this with some shredded latex, wool, and cotton pillows.
The best pillows for stomach sleepers
Stomach sleepers sleep with their face very close to the mattress, which means that a soft, scrunchy pillow is best. This may be a kapok pillow, thin latex pillow, a down pillow, or a buckwheat pillow with some of the filling removed. High-loft, firm pillows make for an uncomfortable sleep if you tend to end up face-down on your pillow as these force your head up and cause neck pain. I can confirm this from painful experience.
The best pillows for combination sleepers
If you’re a rebel, AKA a combination sleeper, it’s a good idea to go for a pillow that is lower in the center and higher on the sides, possibly with a mix of firm and soft areas. Buckwheat and millet pillows are excellent choices for combination sleepers.
However you sleep, there’s a pillow out there that’s right for you. My advice is to try out a few different types of pillows in store or by buying online and testing while the pillows are still in their packaging. Or, if you’re replacing all the pillows in your home or shopping for a new home, buy a variety of pillows, so that you and your guests have plenty of choice for a comfortable night’s sleep.