The Right Pillow Could be Your Answer to Better Sleep

Samantha Lefave
by Samantha Lefave
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The Right Pillow Could be Your Answer to Better Sleep

By now, everyone and their mother has talked about the importance of a good night’s sleep. Science has shown us that not only is it the time when your muscles recover and repair from a hard day’s work (and workout), but waking up rested can also help improve memory, boost cognitive function and increase your muscular strength and speed.

But no matter how many times you’re told to go to bed earlier or bank more zzz’s, it rarely actually happens. (There’s a lot of stuff to get done in the day!) So instead of changing your sleep habits, make what you do already work better for you — and consider how you pair your pillow type with your sleep position.


By re-evaluating those pillows on your bed, you might just improve your sleep. Most people know what type of sleeper they are — side, stomach or back — but they have no clue what kind of pillow they should be using to complement their position. The two are intimately connected, says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep expert at The Benjamin Hotel in New York City and creator of the property’s Rest & Renew program.

“Picking a pillow that is matched to your sleeper type [helps ensure] your head, neck and spinal column are in alignment when you lie down,” Robbins says. Starting in correct alignment helps ensure you maintain proper positioning throughout the night; if you don’t, it could lead to postural issues, she adds.

Regardless of your sleep position, the first thing you need to do is make sure the pillow under your head feels comfortable. It should also support the natural curve of your neck, allowing your neck to stay aligned with your chest and lower back, reports the University of Rochester Medical Center. Doing so helps prevent unnecessary muscle strain. 

Lastly, your pillow should allow you to easily switch positions as you sleep. “Tossing and turning is a normal part of sleep [that’s] helpful for the musculoskeletal system, since movement prevents muscles and joints from becoming too stiff,” says Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, a , physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. (Constant movement could be a sign of poor sleep quality, though, in which case you may want to see a sleep specialist, he adds.)

Once you have those issues squared away, these are the other pillow tips to keep in mind based on your preferred sleep position.

Sleeping on your side, either with your legs straight or in a fetal-like curl, is the most common bedtime position, says Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach and founder of SleepZoo. While it can be helpful in reducing acid reflux and snoring, there are adjustments to make.

“Side sleepers may have a gap between their shoulder and mattress, causing their neck to flex laterally,” Dr. Kirschner says. This could cause a muscle strain, leading to shoulder, neck, back and even knee pain.

To bridge the gap, Dr. Robbins suggests using a thicker pillow. “Essentially, you need more support to keep your neck in alignment and to fill the space between your head and the mattress,” she says.

A study in Manual Therapy also found a rubber or latex pillow is better than a foam or polyester option for side sleepers, whereas feather pillows should be avoided at all costs.

Lastly, side sleepers should place a pillow between their knees to help maintain neutral spine alignment, Dr. Kirschner says. Once in position, the knees shouldn’t touch, nor should there be any tension in the lower back. If there is, or if you feel a pulling sensation at the side of your hip, then you may need a pillow with more substance.

Unfortunately, this sleep position is often dubbed the worst because, to have good alignment, your face needs to be directly in the pillow. That doesn’t work with a standard pillow because, well, odds are you’ll suffocate. Most stomach sleepers keep their necks rotated to the side — a move Dr. Kirschner says puts a lot of strain on the structures of your neck.

“Sleeping on your stomach also flattens the natural curve of your spine, which can lead to pain in the lower back,” Brantner says. “Chronic back pain is a very common cause of sleep disruption, so continuing to sleep this way could definitely lead to insomnia.”

To ease the effects, Dr. Kirschner suggests trying a doughnut-type pillow with a hole cut in the middle. “[That way] you can breathe while keeping your neck in a straight, neutral alignment,” he adds. If that doesn’t work, Brantner says a very thin pillow — one that isn’t more than 3 inches thick — would be best, or even snoozing sans pillow. You could then move a pillow under your pelvis to help get your spine back in line.

If sleep positions got gold stars, this one would be covered in gold. “Back sleeping is the easiest way to properly support and align your head and neck,” Brantner says. It reduces stress on pressure points, widely distributes your weight and allows your spine to be more naturally aligned.

But choosing the right pillow can be a bit of a Goldilocks situation. Dr. Kirschner says back sleepers should look for one that extends from the back of the head to the top of the shoulders. It should also be on the firmer side, as you’ll want something to fill the gap between the bed and your neck, but not have so much volume that it pushes your head forward and out of alignment. “The ideal pillow is one that dips in the middle a bit, but provides ample support on the sides,” Brantner adds.

That’s not the only pillow you want, though: To support the natural curve in your lower back and reduce stress on your spine, place a small pillow under the back of your knees, suggests the University of Rochester Medical Center.


At the end of the day, choosing a pillow is personal. What works for one person may not work well for another, so don’t be afraid to experiment. (Pillows should be replaced about once a year anyway.) If you’re unsure whether your pillow is doing its job, pay attention to how you feel as soon as you wake up, Dr. Kirschner suggests. “Signs that the pillow may be the wrong type could include neck or shoulder pain, stiffness, headache, acid reflux or coughing in the morning, frequent waking at night or sleepiness during the day.”

But if you wake up feeling rested, without pain and ready to tackle the day? Jackpot.

About the Author

Samantha Lefave
Samantha Lefave

Samantha is a freelance fitness, health and travel writer who loves eating, drinking and sweating her way around the world. You can find her Instagramming her favorite destinations, squeezing a “Friends” quote into every conversation, or eating peanut butter straight from the jar.


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