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How sleeping style informs pillow choice, according to experts

Whether you sleep on your back, side or stomach, we asked experts which pillows are worth it.
Woman sleeping in her bed, surrounded by 4 white fluffy pillows. Shop the best bed pillows of 2021 including memory foam pillows and pillows that support your back and neck from Buffy, Casper, Brooklinen, Beckham and more.
The right pillow will help ensure you maintain a relatively straight or neutral head and neck position, says sleep medicine specialist Alex Dimitriu, MD.Getty Images

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A pillow “can make a big difference in our ability to sleep well,” says sleep medicine specialist Alex Dimitriu, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist. While you can try to supplement your sleeping situation with blackout curtains or sleep masks or melatonin diffusers, your posture at night is just as important — as is the right pillow to encourage it, among other supports.

SKIP AHEAD Top-rated pillows to consider | What kind of sleeper are you? | What do you sleep on?

Dimitriu told us that the right pillow will help ensure you “maintain a relatively straight or neutral head and neck position — neither too high nor too low.” Imagine your neck as a garden hose: Whereas a straight hose represents how you should be sleeping, a twisted hose is more likely to obstruct both your breathing and sleep quality, he explained. In other words, a pillow that’s too high or too low for your neck might cause problems. Since a pillow can change how soundly you sleep, finding the right one matters. We consulted medical experts — Dimitriu among them — to learn what’s worth considering when you’re buying a pillow. We also compiled some of the best pillows available now for all types of sleepers.

Top-rated pillows to consider

Since we don’t test pillows, we turned to sleep experts about how to shop for the best pillow and which features to look for, as well as which to avoid.

Below are pillows that are highly rated and that align with expert guidance, with options including firm pillows, fluffy memory foam pillows and thin pillows. Experts say your pillow should help keep your neck in a natural, straight position while you sleep, and to avoid anything that disrupts your body’s natural curvature. This may require some experimenting, they advised. If you buy a pillow that doesn’t match your sleeping style, you should keep looking — to help, we share below the return policy of each pillow.

Firm pillows for back sleepers

Viewstar Standard Pillows

Experts told us that more supportive pillows are a great option for back sleepers and the down alternative Viewstar Standard Pillows are described by the company as plump and firm. They come with a gusseted sideband, which gives the pillows more structure, too. The standard Viewstar pillows are machine-washable and measure 20 inches by 26 inches to fit both standard and queen-sized pillowcases. They have a 4.4-star rating from nearly 33,000 reviews. You can return the Viewstar for up to 30 days.

Buffy Cloud Standard Firm Pillow

Buffy’s Cloud Pillow features different firmness levels — from soft to medium to its firmest, aptly named “firm” — which means that you can choose the correct level for you depending on how you sleep. If you need a more supportive pillow for sleeping on your back, though, Buffy’s Cloud Standard Firm Pillow should be a good option. If you run hot, Buffy says the Cloud Pillow’s lyocell fiber should absorb moisture more efficiently than cotton and keep you cool and dry. Buffy’s standard pillow is a few inches bigger than the Viewstar pillow, at 20 inches by 28 inches. The Buffy Cloud Pillow has a 4.7-star rating from nearly 2,600 reviews. Buffy offers a free 7-day trial window after you’ve purchased the Cloud — meaning they won’t even charge your card for the purchase if you end up returning it. Outside of that trial window, Buffy offers a 30-day return period.

Memory foam pillows for side sleepers

Coop Home Good Original Loft Pillow

The Coop Home Good Original Loft Pillow has a removable memory foam fill. In our research, we found that side sleepers benefit from a pillow that’s adaptive — since they often stick their arms under their pillows to support their heads — so memory foam is particularly useful in this case. That it’s removable helps, too. All you need to do is unzip the outer case and the liner to remove or add foam for your sleeping comfort. The queen-sized Coop Home Good Original Loft Pillow is 20 inches by 30 inches, and it has a 4.5-star rating from more than 49,000 reviews. Coop Home Good offers a 30-day return policy.

Brooklyn Bedding Premium Shredded Foam Pillow

Because it’s made from latex and memory foam, Brooklyn Bedding’s soft and adaptive Premium Shredded Foam Pillow stood out to us for side sleeping. The memory foam also features a cooling gel that Brooklyn Bedding says draws the heat out and away from the head and neck areas. Additionally, the Premium Shredded Foam Pillow is hypoallergenic and its cover is machine washable. The queen-sized Brooklyn Bedding Premium Shredded Foam Pillow is 18 inches by 29 inches and it has a 4.6-star rating with more than 2,000 reviews. Brooklyn Bedding offers 30 days to return the Premium Shredded Foam Pillow.

Thin pillows for stomach sleepers

Brooklinen Plush Down Pillow

Stomach sleeping was not recommended by those we spoke to. Still, if you find yourself unable to switch to your back or side, a flat pillow — like Brooklinen’s Plus Down Pillow — to align your head with your backbone while you rest is your best bet. (The brand itself recommends it for stomach sleepers, too.) The Plush pillow has a 100-percent cotton sateen shell with down clusters inside of it to keep its low profile. The Brooklyn Plus Down Pillow is 20 inches by 26 inches and it has a 4.7-star rating from nearly 3,000 reviews. You can return your Plush Down Pillow for 365 days after its purchase.

Bluewave Bedding Ultra Slim Gel Memory Foam Pillow

The Bluewave Bedding Ultra Slim Gel Memory Foam Pillow is ultra-slim for stomach sleepers — literally, that’s how it’s branded, as “ultra-slim” — at 2.75 inches high. You can opt for its “super slim” version, which is a little taller, at 3.25 inches, or its “hyper slim” version, which is a little shorter, at 2.25 inches high. Like the Brooklyn Bedding Foam Pillow, the Bluewave Bedding pillow is infused with a cooling gel that it says moves heat away from the sleeping surface. The Bluewave Bedding Ultra Slim Gel Memory Foam Pillow is 16 inches by 24 inches — a little smaller than other options here — and it has a 4.5-star rating from more than 5,000 reviews. If you find the Bluewave Bedding Ultra Slim Gel Memory Foam Pillow is too slim to sleep with, you have 30 days to return it.

Affordable down alternative pillow

Allswell Down Alternative Pillow

In addition to the Viewstar Firm Pillows we recommend above, the Allswell Pillow is made from a down alternative, making it quite inexpensive. The pillow features a fiberfill and a 100-percent cotton cover. Allswell calls it lofty and supportive, which could make it a good pillow for back or side sleepers. It’s 20 inches by 28 inches. The previous version of this pillow had a 4.4-star rating from more than 200 reviews on Allswell. (Allswell’s pillows are positively reviewed by publications like Architectural Digest, too.) The Allswell Down Alt Pillow comes with a 30-day return window.

Cooling pillow for hot sleepers

Tuft & Needle Original Foam Pillow

Tuft & Needle says its Original Foam Pillow is dense enough for back and neck support, but because it’s made from a combination of open-cell foam, graphite and cooling gel, it also pulls heat from the body so that the pillow feels cool from either of its sides. The Standard Tuft & Needle Original Foam Pillow is 16 inches by 25 inches — a little smaller than the other options highlighted here, like the Bluewave Bedding Ultra Slim Gel Memory Foam Pillow. It has a 4.4-star rating from more than 4,000 reviews. Tuft & Needle offers a 100-night trial period on all its products, including the Original Foam Pillow.

How do you sleep?

The experts we consulted all agreed you should determine what type of sleeper you are before buying a pillow. There are three types of sleepers: back, side and stomach.

  1. Back sleepers require firm support from their pillows
  2. Side sleepers require fluffy and malleable pillows
  3. While stomach sleepers require thinner pillows

Regardless of your preferred sleeping position, Dimitriu told us, make sure your neck is in a natural, straight position when you lie on your pillow. This may involve having someone look or photograph you in your natural sleeping position (as well as some trial and error). That said, you can plan ahead with the types of pillows experts recommend for each type of sleeper.

As for hot sleepers, Khosla suggested cooling pillows. Since you’re able to fall asleep as quickly as your body temperature cools, a cooling pillow — which uses gel or foam to absorb body heat — could be of use for those of us who run hot. “Ideally you would go from something warm — like taking a warm bath or sipping a hot tea — right into a cold sleep environment,” she said.

Back sleepers

Back sleepers should look for a firm pillow with a little bit of extra structure and support for their head and neck, like one filled with polyester, said Dr. Seema Khosla, medical director at the North Dakota Center for Sleep.

Down and down alternative (think polyester, as we mentioned above) pillows can feel as thick or thin as you make them. And since they’re similar in feel but down alternatives are often more affordable, choosing one over the other may come down to a matter of price.

Side sleepers

To help keep your spine and neck aligned and to avoid strain, experts told us that side sleepers should look for a thick and fluffy pillow to help support their upper back and shoulder blades. Experts told us that the spongy material of a foam pillow can “easily adapt” to support a side sleeper just right — allowing them to sink into a straight position that’s better for their bodies. (Fluffy pillows generally provide higher loft, or height, which experts told us side sleepers need.)Sometimes side sleepers will tuck one of their arms under their pillow to support their heads, Khosla told us. In that case, it’s good for the pillow to have some malleability to make it easier for you to move your arm under your pillow while you sleep.

Stomach sleepers

Sleeping on your stomach throws your neck out of whack, Khosla told us. “Chiropractors hate it,” she laughed. Like side and back sleepers, though, stomach sleepers should still aim to align their heads with their backbones in a straight position, as Dimitriu told us. Khosla shared that you’ll want a thinner pillow with a lower loft so you don’t disrupt the natural curvature of your neck when you’re resting on your stomach.

What’s in your pillow?

While your sleep position is very important, so is your pillow’s filling, which directly impacts how the pillow feels, as well as how it supports your head. Similar to the three types of sleepers, there are three common fillings you’ll see when shopping for a pillow.

  • A down pillow, which is full of feathers, usually from ducks or geese
  • A down alternative pillow, which uses synthetic stuffing to resemble the experience of a down pillow. This is important if you have allergies, Khosla told us. Down pillows and down alternative pillows are great for those who want to adjust their pillow to be thinner — stomach sleepers, for instance — or thicker — back sleepers, for instance
  • A memory foam pillow, which experts told us molds precisely to your body to relieve pressure and give better support. Memory foam pillows are great for side sleepers because their fluffiness will support side sleepers’ upper backs

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