Sleep

How to find the perfect pillow for side sleepers

A good pillow sets you up for a good night's sleep. A bad one can be a (literal) pain in the neck.

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One of the keys to waking up refreshed—rather than with a crick in your neck—is using the right pillow for how you sleep. Pillows are integral to keeping your spine aligned and in a neutral (read: comfortable) position all night long.

In the scheme of sleep positions, side sleeping is a close second to sleeping on your back in terms of spine health and alignment. (Stomach sleeping comes in a distant third.) Sleeping on your side has a number of benefits, including snoring prevention—in one study, researchers found that a pillow designed specifically to position the head to the side, rather than in supine position (or flat on the back), reduced snoring. Additionally, side sleepers suffer less lower back and neck strain than stomach sleepers.

What side sleepers need to know about how they sleep

When you sleep on your side, your pillow’s job is to fill in the space between your ear, neck, and shoulder so that your head and spine are aligned and supported. Side sleepers benefit from a pillow with more loft and fill, in order to keep their spine in a neutral position. Those who don’t use a pillow that is firm and high enough to provide this support may wake up stiff or with neck pain from the weight of the head putting stress on the neck muscles all night long. Side sleepers with broader shoulders or a larger frame will need a thicker pillow, and vice versa for people with smaller frames.

If you’re an overachiever and want to make your alignment even better, add a pillow or folded blanket or towel), between your knees to ease pressure on those joints as well as your hips. In addition, placing a small rolled towel in the space between your shoulder and the pillow can help support your neck and reduce strain.

Pillow basics for side sleepers

foam pillow stack
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Different materials and fills have pros and cons that are important to keep in mind when shopping for your next pillow.

Side sleepers who are on the market for a new pillow will likely want a thicker pillow, which should limit stress on their neck, while keeping the head, and neck, in line with the spine.

Some pillows for side sleepers have a contoured shape that is designed to support the neck and head. These are often made of memory foam or latex, and both materials have the added benefit of a longer lifespan than, say, a traditional down pillow, which compresses permanently with prolonged use.

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Pillows with a density that's suited for side sleeping can be labelled differently, but the most common terms are “firm,” or “extra firm.” The choice comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Gusseted pillows, which have a rectangular panel sewn between the top and bottom of the pillow, offer more loft and are a good option for side sleepers. In fact, these pillows can strain the neck of back and stomach sleepers, so side sleepers have this corner of the market. That said, there’s a fine line between too much loft and not enough, as you don’t want your neck to be either pushed upwards or sloped down.

What pillow filling is best for side sleepers?

gusseted pillow side sleep
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Gusseted pillows are a good choice for side sleepers, who need support for their head and neck.

The material that plumps out your pillows is largely a personal preference. But the common pillow fillings have both benefits and downsides specific to side sleepers that they should keep in mind while shopping.

Memory foam

This spongy material was developed by NASA in the 1970s for use in airline seats. Now, it’s everywhere in the bedding world. The foam is absorbent but has a soft, squishy feel. In pillow form, these features allow it to mold to your head and neck. Memory foam’s combination of support and adaptability fuels claims that mattresses and pillows made of these materials are good as sleep surfaces. However, research has yet to determine if memory foam actually improves the quality of people’s sleep. Also, one downside of memory foam worth considering: The material can retain body heat more than other fills.

One type of foam pillow that might appeal to side sleepers are “contoured” pillows, which have a “B” shape, and are sometimes called “cervical” pillows (referring to the vertebrae in your neck). For side sleepers, the more elevated part of the pillow should be under the neck, so their head is cradled by the indentation. The shape may take some getting used to, so if you’re curious, you should consider the return policy when buying. Products from companies like Casper and Nectar offer a guarantee of 50 to 100 nights, so you can sleep on the pillow and return it if you don’t love it. Retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond also have generous return policies—check before you buy.

If you’re ready to jump into the world of contoured pillows, the Therapedic Classic Contour Memory Foam Pillow may be a good option, as it is well reviewed by side sleepers for its balance of support and softness.

For a regular-shaped foam option, the Tuft and Needle Foam Pillow, has 4.5 stars from over 3,000 reviews. Plus, it has a 100-night guarantee for anyone who doesn’t fall in love.

Down feather

As per the name, these pillows are filled with duck or goose feathers, and can be a nice choice because they contour to your head and neck without retaining heat. However, they may be uncomfortable for side sleepers, due to limited neck support and lack of stability, which is particularly important for this sleep position.

Side sleepers who prefer down pillows should look for something firm or extra firm and that is thick enough to keep your head and neck in line with your spine. The well-reviewed Brooklinen Down Pillow in “firm” is one worthy option.

Side sleepers who use down pillows should plan to replace them annually, as that’s typically how long the loft lasts before it really falls flat. Sinking into the feathers at night feels good when your head first touches down, but spending your night on a collapsed surface can make the next day lackluster, at best (and painful, at worst).

Down alternative

This type of pillow is stuffed with a synthetic material that replicates the loft and feel of goose and duck down. This fill is considered hypoallergenic and therefore a good choice for allergy sufferers, as long as it’s kept clean of dust and dust mites. Pillows with down-alternative fill also tend to be cheaper than natural feathers. However, pillows with synthetic down have a shorter lifespan than feather-filled pillows.

For side sleepers, this synthetic fill carries the same possibility of being too soft and compressing over time, like down feathers. If you decide to go for down-alternative fill, the Brooklinen Down Alternative Pillow in "firm" is beloved by reviewers, who praise its balance of support and comfort.

Bamboo

This type of pillow is newer to the sleep scene. The name might lead you to believe that the fill is made from bamboo, but it more often refers to fibers used in the covering. Many of these pillows contain a memory foam core, but the bamboo fibers in the outside covering purport to be sweat-wicking to help keep you cool at night.

Side sleepers concerned about the heat of memory foam but prefer how it feels may like a bamboo-encased pillow. The well-reviewed Xtreme Comforts Shredded Memory Foam Pillow, which allows sleepers to adjust fill volume is also our favorite of our pillow test, and one possible solution.

Can soft pillows cause neck pain for side sleepers?

Soft pillows aren’t recommended for side sleepers because they don’t provide sufficient support to hold up your head and neck overnight. Even for people who sleep in multiple positions, a medium-firmness pillow is recommended.

If you want something that feels soft without compromising spinal alignment, consider opting for a “firm” down or down-alternative pillow or one with a gusset, which creates more height. The fill alone will provide some sense of cushiony softness, and firm pillows have a bit more give than their extra firm cousins.

How to wash your pillow

washing bedding
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You should probably be washing your pillow more often.

Most down-alternative and down-filled pillows are machine-washable, so you can clean them at home. Dry-clean-only pillows can become a different type of pain in the neck, so be sure to check the label and washing instructions when shopping. Lab tests found that sample swabs from unwashed pillowcases had 17,000 times more colonies of bacteria than a toilet seat—and those pillows had only been used for a week!

Foam pillows are more complicated to clean, because many can’t be tossed into the washer. Check the tag to be sure. If your pillow can’t be laundered, you can treat it like a mattress, says Jason Chan, lab manager at Reviewed. Sprinkle baking soda over the pillow surface, let it rest for an hour, then vacuum it up.

For side sleepers who are also allergy sufferers

allergy pillows
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For people with allergies, there are additional considerations to account for when buying a new pillow.

We spend a lot of time with our pillows. While all sleep positions can trigger allergies, side sleepers’ faces are in close contact with their pillow. Pillows pick up dust and, of course, dust mites. For the 20 million Americans with dust mite allergies, spending a night up close and personal with these organisms may trigger unpleasant side effects. People with allergies and other sensitivities, like eczema and contact dermatitis, can experience symptoms due to their bedding, at night and even during the day, says Melanie Carver, Vice President of Community Health at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

Fortunately, you can buy hypoallergenic pillows (as well as encasements that make any pillow hypoallergenic). Look for pillows and covers that are certified asthma and allergy friendly by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pillows with this certification “have an effective fabric barrier that prevents dust mites and other dust mite allergens from passing through and making contact with skin,” according to the AAFA. As regular washing can make a tremendous difference in easing symptoms, the certification also ensures that pillows can be laundered often “without losing shape and appearance.”

The bottom line on pillows for side sleepers

Side sleepers want to look for a pillow that keeps their spine horizontally aligned while they lie in bed. Firm or extra-firm pillows provide sufficient support to keep a side sleeper’s neck from straining or craning throughout the night. Some foam pillows are designed with a contoured shape specifically for this task. Down and down alternative pillows, in contrast, should be chosen with care, as they tend to compress over time. If you’re a side sleeper who prefers fluffy fills, consider a gusseted pillow that is tall enough to fit your frame. In the end, pillow selection comes down to your comfort, which is personal and can only be determined by you.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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