The Benefits of Side Sleeping
Side sleeping is the most popular sleeping position among U.S. adults. This position has a few advantages over back or stomach sleeping. For one, side sleeping can minimize snoring because it keeps your airway open; back sleepers snore more often because the tongue falls back into the throat, creating an obstruction for the airway. Side sleeping can be beneficial to people with sleep apnea and/or acid reflux for the same reason. If you’re a pregnant woman, chances are you’ll feel more comfortable on your side than you will in other sleep positions; a bolster pillow for the legs or knees can also provide comfort for pregnant sleepers.
Side sleeping can also align the spine and reduce discomfort in the shoulders, hips, and other areas where pressure points tend to develop. However, this is contingent on a mattress and pillow that offer enough support to align your head and neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips.
How to Choose a Pillow for Side Sleepers
The best pillow for side sleepers will provide adequate cushioning to support the head and neck. Pillows that either sink too deeply or feel too thick can interfere with spinal alignment, and neck and shoulder aches typically occur as a result. In determining the best pillow, you should look at several factors, including loft, firmness level, and material composition. In the next few sections, we’ll discuss how side sleepers can find a pillow that will work for them.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Pillow for Side Sleepers
In your research for a pillow that is compatible with side sleeping, you’ll no doubt come across pillow manufacturers who claim their products are suitable for all sleep positions, or that their pillows’ construction and materials offer universal comfort for all sleepers regardless of body type or personal preference. These marketing claims are misleading. Each pillow is uniquely designed to provide a distinct feel. Given the demands of different sleep positions, any pillow you select will be better suited to some sleepers and less so for others.
Rather than using marketing jargon to guide your pillow search, focus on the following attributes instead.
- Loft: Loft, or thickness, is arguably the most important consideration for side sleeping. Most side sleepers need medium to high loft pillows that provide enough cushioning for the head and neck without sinking too low. If your thickness preferences vary by night, you may be a good candidate for a pillow with adjustable loft levels.
- Support: Support refers to how well the pillow maintains an even surface for your head and neck. Spinal alignment is imperative for side sleepers, so you’ll want a pillow that doesn’t sink too much or elevate your head excessively. Pillows with solid foam or latex cores typically provide the best support.
- Firmness Level: A pillow that feels too soft will probably sink too much beneath your head, leading to alignment issues and the potential for added pressure. If the pillow is too firm, then you may experience discomfort around the neck and shoulders. Pillows with mid-level firmness are usually the best choice for side sleepers because they provide a balance of contouring and support.
- Pressure Relief: Many side sleepers feel pressure in the shoulders and hips because their mattress is not supportive enough. Likewise, pressure points may develop around the neck and shoulders if the side sleeper’s pillow does not keep these areas aligned with the spine. For this reason, side sleepers generally need a supportive pillow that also contours to the body.
- Shape: Some fill materials compress over time, causing the pillow to flatten and feel less comfortable. You’ll need to regularly fluff these pillows in order to give them a full shape. Other materials, such as solid foam and latex, maintain their shape with less effort.
- Price: The price of a pillow largely depends on its material components. Pillows made of polyfoam, down alternative, and feathers typically have the lowest price-points, while those with memory foam, latex, down, and buckwheat hulls tend to be the most expensive models. That said, you should be able to find a high-quality pillow with any fill material for $150 or less in a queen size.
- Quality Materials: The materials used to construct a pillow’s cover and inner components can impact a wide range of qualities, including durability, temperature regulation, and shape retention. You may pay more for a pillow with higher-quality components, but you can also count on more longevity and stronger performance from many of these models.
What Pillow Materials Are Best for Side Sleepers?
The best pillow fill materials for side sleepers include memory foam, latex, buckwheat hulls, and other components that offer sufficient support without feeling too firm. However, However, the amount of comfort a pillow offers side sleepers depends on a few other factors. The most common pillow materials are outlined below.
- Memory Foam: Memory foam, or viscoelastic polyurethane foam, is engineered to feel softer when it comes into contact with body heat. This creates deep conforming for your head and neck when lying on a memory foam pillow, which can help to align the spine and reduce pressure in different areas.
- Buckwheat: Buckwheat pillows are filled with hulls, the hard outer casings of buckwheat kernels. These pillows have a very firm and supportive feel; many liken them to hard bean bags. Most buckwheat pillows can be adjusted for loft by adding or removing kernels, and they promote good airflow, too.
- Feather: Feathers are the outer plumage of ducks and geese. While light and airy, feathers have a coarser and denser feel than down. As a result, side sleepers won’t sink as deeply into the pillow. Feather pillows also sleep very cool and offer good durability compared to other pillow types.
- Latex: Latex is a substance derived from the sappy extract of rubber trees. When molded into a foam, latex contours to the body like foam but feels much more responsive. Side sleepers may find a latex pillow more supportive since the material does not sink as deeply.
- Down: Down is the soft inner plumage of ducks and geese. The material is exceptionally airy and light, and it also promotes insulation. To ensure adequate support for sleepers, many down pillows are reinforced with feathers in their outer chambers. This prevents side sleepers from sinking excessively.
- Polyfoam: Polyfoam molds to the body but it also feels more responsive. You won’t feel the same deep contour as memory foam, but the material is more adaptive than latex. Polyfoam has a tendency to sleep hot, but many manufacturers ventilate or aerate their foam to minimize body heat absorption.
Other Tips for Side Sleepers
In addition to selecting a supportive pillow that promotes spinal alignment, side sleepers can use the following strategies for sleeping comfortably each night.
Choose the Right Mattress: The best mattress for side sleepers will provide ample cushioning to the shoulders and hips in order to align the spine and alleviate pressure in different areas. Most side sleepers prefer mattresses with softer feels that conform closely to the body without sinking too much beneath their heavier areas.
Use a Pillow Between the Knees: A pillow between the knees can also improve spinal alignment and reduce pressure in the lower back and hips. Pillows filled with down/feathers, shredded foam, and other moldable materials tend to be most comfortable. You may also find more comfort and pressure relief by placing the pillow beneath your legs.
Invest in a Mattress Topper: A topper is a single layer of cushioning material placed on top of your mattress. Toppers can measure up to 4 inches thick, so using one can make your mattress feel significantly softer or firmer. For side sleepers, the right topper can mean closer conforming, better spinal alignment, and less pressure.
Frequently Asked Questions
What pillow types are best for side sleepers?
Some side sleepers prefer down or down alternative pillows, while others find that foam or other specialty pillows work better for them. Down and down alternative pillows have a comfortable, classic feel, but they are not always firm enough to offer side sleepers the neck support they need for proper spinal alignment. Because of this, side sleepers who use a down pillow should ensure theirs has a high enough loft to provide support.
Foam pillows are usually firmer and are available either as a single cut piece or filled with shredded foam for easy adjustment. Single piece foam pillows sometimes have cut-outs to accommodate and support the shoulders and neck, but side sleepers should doublecheck that these will work for their sleep position before purchasing.
What pillow loft works best for side sleepers?
Side sleepers usually need a medium to high loft pillow in order to keep their head, neck, and spine in proper alignment. This usually means using a pillow that is at least 4 inches thick. However, pillow loft is dependent on both the shape of your body and how much you sink into your mattress.
People with broad shoulders may need a pillow that is over 6 inches, while people who sink deeply into their bed might find that even a 4-inch loft is too high. Adjustable pillows can be a good choice for people who are unsure what pillow loft they need.
What pillow type is best for side sleepers with neck pain?
Side sleepers with neck pain should first check that their pillow is firm enough and at the correct loft. If the firmness and loft are comfortable, then a memory foam. Neck pain can result from your neck and head being misaligned with your spine throughout the night. It can also be exacerbated by an incompatible pillow.
Memory foam pillows offer pressure relief and the right amount of compression to align your neck, while contoured foam pillows are designed to cradle the head while releasing tension from the neck and shoulders. Contoured pillows tend to be the most popular among people with neck pain, but some struggle to adjust to their unique shape.
How firm should a pillow be for a side sleeper?
A medium to medium firm pillow is ideal for side sleepers. If a pillow is too soft, side sleepers may also sink so far that the pillow covers the mouth, causing discomfort. Side sleepers can also sink far enough into them that the excess filling goes over the mouth, making it difficult to get comfortable.
On the other hand, extra-firm pillows can lead to tension and pain through the neck and shoulders. If you find a medium or medium firm pillow uncomfortable or too “hard,” consider purchasing a memory foam pillow with pressure relief for a more cushioned feel.