Picking The Perfect Pillow

Most of us are sleeping (or not) on pillows that are too old and too dirty. Sleep experts advise buying a new pillow every 12 to 18 months. If your pillow is more than two years old, it’s definitely time for a replacement. Not only does an old pillow not provide the support you need, but one that’s past its prime can also be packed with allergens, including mold, fungus, and dust mites, which can make up half the weight of an older pillow.

Sleeping on the wrong pillow can also take a toll on your health, by worsening head and body aches, shoulder and arm numbness, and wheezing. To prevent back and neck pain, elevate your head only one pillow high. The perfect pillow is firm enough to keep your head and neck in alignment with your spine, just as they would be if you’re standing up, Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, director of the spine service at NYU Hospital for Joint Disease told me. Here’s what else you need to know to find the pillow of your dreams:

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Firm or Soft? Consider Your Sleep Style.

Back Sleeper: A medium firm pillow bolsters your neck without flexing your head forward. Also, look for a pillow with extra loft in the bottom third of the pillow to cradle your neck. 

Side Sleeper: A thick, firm pillow offers the best support, by filling the space between your ear and shoulder. 

Stomach Sleeper: A softer, flatter pillow helps prevent neck strain. However, you should try to train yourself to sleep on your side or back, since the prone position can contribute to back and spine problems.

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Feathers, Foam or Fiberfill?

Feathers. Down, the fluffy undercoat of a goose or duck, is the softest and most expensive filling. For more support, choose a mix of down and feathers, or all feathers (firmest). Goose feathers are almost as fluffy as down, with curved quills that add spring, while duck feathers cost less, but aren’t as buoyant.

Fiberfill. This polyester product is soft, pliant, and moderately priced, but may lump during laundering. 

Foam. This material makes the firmest pillows and comes in a variety of shapes, including contours to cradle your head and neck. “Memory” foam is supposed to mold itself to the shape of your head, but when I tested several of these pillows, which tend to be pricier, I didn’t notice any significant increase in comfort.

Pillows for Special Situations.

Many pillows are designed to address specific needs. Here’s a look at some of the options:

Allergies. A “hypoallergenic” synthetic pillow may not be your best choice, unless you are allergic to feathers. Several studies show that feather pillows offer notably better protection against dust mites and pet dander than synthetics do. 

Hot Flashes/Night Sweats. Choose a pillow that dispels heat: These brands usually have the words “cool” or “chill” in the name, and typically contain a filling of tiny beads that absorb heat, leaving the surface that your face rests on cool. That way, you don’t have to keep flipping the pillow to find the cold side.

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Neck Pain. Available in various sizes and shapes, cervical pillows are contoured to provide extra cushioning to support the neck. While there’s not much research to show they work, I’ve noticed great improvement personally after switching from a traditional pillow to a contour design. 

Heartburn/GERD. Wedge-shaped slanted pillows raise the esophagus higher than the stomach to prevent the upward flow of stomach acid that ignites heartburn when you’re lying flat. However, some people find that they tend to slide down on a slanted pillow. 

Pregnancy. Once you reach the second trimester, you’re likely to notice that it’s hard to find a comfortable sleep position—the problem that maternity pillows aim to solve. There are several designs, ranging from small wedges to support the belly to U-shaped whole-body pillows that support the head, hips, back and legs in the side sleeping position that is usually advised during pregnancy. 

Audio Pillows. If music helps lull you to sleep, snuggle up and listen to your favorite sounds with an audio pillow. These products typically plug into any audio source with a standard headphone jack and have well-padded built-in speakers that play at a gentle volume only you can hear. Some audio pillows can also be used as alarm clocks.