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How to Choose the Right Pillow for Your Neck

Your current pillow is as supportive as a Post-it Note — just admit you need help

An alarming number of us are sleeping on deflated pillows that support our necks about as well as a single stray sock. It really is a damn shame, because a good pillow can make a huge difference in our lives. As one study declares, “A specially selected and individually tested pillow with good shape, comfort and support to the neck lordosis can reduce neck pain and headache and give a better sleep quality.”

But, uh, what does a specially selected and individually tested pillow with good shape, comfort and support actually look and feel like? Well, there are a couple things to consider when shopping for a new pillow.

The Best Sleep Position

For starters, you should keep your preferred sleep position in mind when hunting for a new pillow. Whatever position you like, the goal is to keep your head, neck and spine in neutral alignment, and to support the natural curvature of your spine. Or in simpler terms, your ears should be in line with your shoulders, and your chin should be in line with your sternum, as if you were standing up straight. Of course, different sleep positions require a different kind of pillow to achieve this posture. For example… 

The Best Pillow for Back Sleepers

Sleeping on your back is already the healthiest position for most people, so an average pillow — one with a medium loft (or height) and a medium firmness — is an adequate choice. This should provide your head with enough loft to keep your stomach below your esophagus, which will prevent food and acid from coming up your digestive tract and causing heartburn while you sleep, but not so much that your neck will be craned upwards. Likewise, a material that can conform to the shape of your head, like memory foam, should help it feel comfortably cradled, and prevent it from swaying from side to side while you sleep.

The Best Pillow for Side Sleepers

Sleeping on your side may be good for digestion, but it requires a little more support for your spine than sleeping on your back. That means a pillow with a high loft and a firm support is probably your best bet. This will prop up your head to keep it aligned with your spine, and relieve your shoulder from supporting the entire weight of your body while you sleep. Side sleepers may also find that placing a pillow between their knees helps reduce hip strain, which could explain why side sleepers love pregnancy pillows.

The Best Pillow for Stomach Sleepers

Stomach sleeping is generally frowned upon, because it can be near impossible to keep your neck in alignment with your spine in this position. But a pillow with low loft and soft support — or possibly no pillow at all — can help you keep your spine at least somewhat straight throughout the night. A compressible pillow filled with feathers or some kind of down alternative, like a polyester microfiber filling, will also allow you to embrace the underside of your pillow while you sleep without adding too much additional strain on your neck.

A Few More Pillow Upgrades

If you want to get extra comfortable, there are a couple other things you should consider while pillow shopping. For instance, hot sleepers should look for pillows with cooling properties, such as the Coop Home Goods Eden Pillow, which has a panel around the perimeter that promotes airflow. Sweaty sleepers, meanwhile, might benefit from a moisture-wicking pillow, like one made from polyester, Tencel or bamboo.

If you have sensitive skin or allergies, you might want to choose a pillow made from all-natural materials, such as the certified hypoallergenic Luxe Pillow. These pillows also come with a pillow protector that can protect sleepers from inhaling allergens that might accrue in the pillow over time. Or if you want a pillow that you can chuck in the washing machine, the Chamber Down Pillow by Standard Textile is built to withstand regular washing and drying without losing its loft — Standard Textile is known for supplying luxury hotels with pillows, and those obviously need frequent cleanings.

So, as you can see, there are a lot of options out there. But as long as you keep your sleep position in mind, you can definitely find something better than a stray sock. Unless you sleep on your stomach, in which case sleeping on a sock might actually not be the worst option.