The Best Pillow for Your Sleep Position

    Many consumers look for one that feels just right in a store, but a squeeze tells you only so much

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    Person sleeping on their side with their head on a pillow. Photo: Getty Images

    The purpose of a pillow is pretty simple: to keep your head and neck aligned while you sleep. If only shopping for pillows were as straightforward.

    Store shelves and catalogs are stuffed with options: down, memory foam, latex, polyester, buckwheat hulls. Adding to the confusion is the fact that terms used to describe pillows—such as soft, medium, and firm—differ from brand to brand. And price isn’t necessarily an indicator of performance.

    More on Pillows

    Some shoppers try to assess whether a pillow is comfortable by squeezing it in a store. Others take a trial-and-error approach, where they sleep on a pillow a few nights to see how it feels and if they don’t like it, they return it.

    Consumer Reports suggests a more methodical method to choosing a pillow. Our approach will lead you to the right pillow so that you can get a great night’s rest without putting strain on your neck or spine.

    Match Your Pillow to Your Sleep Position

    Start your search by matching the pillow to your dominant sleep position: side, back, stomach, or combination. That’s the position you settle into and is likely to be your favorite, says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, an instructor at the Harvard Medical School and co-author of “Sleep for Success!” (AuthorHouse, 2010). Many pillows are now labeled this way, but the terms vary from brand to brand.

    Use our advice to fine-tune your shopping. And make sure to check pillow return policies, so you don’t get stuck with a closet full of rejects.

    Almost 70 percent of us sleep on our side, according to a Consumer Reports survey. A firm or extra-firm pillow is the best pillow for side sleepers. It maintains the proper alignment, or curve of the neck and head, at the most comfortable height—which, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, is 10 centimeters (about 4 inches off the mattress). Either a traditional or contoured pillow in memory foam or latex can support your head at the proper angle without flattening as quickly over time when compared with a polyester or down pillow.

    The best pillow for back sleepers supports or cradles your head without losing the natural curve of your neck. Start with medium-loft, medium-firm models filled with a down alternative, memory foam, or latex foam. (Loft is a pillow’s height as it lies flat on the bed.)

    If you’re prone to snoring or have sleep apnea (a medical condition in which you momentarily stop breathing during sleep), back sleeping can exacerbate the situation. In this case, elevating the top half of your body with two or three firm pillows or a wedge pillow can help. That’s because it’s often gravity that’s causing the tongue to block the airway, which in turn causes snoring.

    If you flop onto your belly at bedtime, your face is very close to the mattress. That’s why the best pillow for stomach sleepers is a thin or soft and scrunchable one filled with down, a down alternative, polyester, or thin foam. These pillows can help maintain your neck’s natural curve. A firm, high-loft pillow could leave you with a sore neck in the morning.

    The best pillow for combination sleepers—people who change positions while sleeping—are those with softer and firmer sections, or those that are lower in the center (for back sleeping) and higher on the sides (for side sleeping). Buckwheat hulls and pillows made of multiple materials fit this bill.

    For more information about pillow types and how to shop for them, read our pillow buying guide. CR members can also check out our pillow ratings, where you can filter for price, brand, sleep position, and other criteria according to your needs.

    3 Top-Rated Pillows From CR's Tests

    Here are just a few of our top-rated overall pillow picks, listed alphabetically.

    Tip: Is Your Pillow Toast?

    Most pillows last about two years. You should replace yours if it doesn’t pop back when you fold it in half (or in thirds for king-sized pillows).

    How to Get a Good Night's Sleep

    Not getting enough zzz’s? Our sleep expert shares tips on how to fall asleep faster and wake up more rested in the video below. And check out CR’s sleep guide for more advice on how to get the shut-eye you crave—and need.

    Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.