Most of us spend one-third of our lives counting sheep — and for those of us who consider eight hours a luxury, maximizing the winks we do get is an even greater priority.
So what makes up your perfect slumber puzzle? A good pillow is a great place to start.
Since we’re all different sizes, shapes, and enjoy different sleeping styles, not everyone shares the same preference for choosing a perfect pillow. However, what a pillow should do is pretty universal.
A Pillow’s Purpose
The perfect pillow keeps your spine in a natural alignment. Ever woken up with a fuzzy feeling in your head or a crick in your neck? An incorrectly sized pillow causes your head to rest above or drop below a neutral position, creating gaping or pinching the vertebrae directly below your skull.
- A pillow that is too high creates strain in your lower neck and shoulders.
- A pillow that is too low creates strain in your upper neck and the base of your skull.
To properly support your head and the space under your neck, a pillow should maintain a height of six to eight inches. However, pillows can’t work alone! A correctly sized pillow works in concert with your mattress to provide total alignment from hips to head.
If you’re positive your mattress is offering great support, the next step in pillow selection depends on individual preferences.
Knowing your sleeping style is important when deciding which pillow shape and firmness will best allow your head to align perfectly with your shoulders:
Considered the healthiest of sleeping positions, sleeping on your back helps prevent neck and back pain by maintaining a neutral position throughout your head, neck, and lower spine. Additionally, this position lowers your risk for acid reflux by keeping your head elevated above your stomach and minimizes wrinkles caused by micro-tears in the skin, since nothing is pushing up against your face.
Who’s it bad for? Those who snore!
If this is your preferred position (and your significant other hasn’t complained of sawing-sounds), you need:
- A “fluffy-yet-squishy” pillow to avoid throwing your head too far forward
- Medium firmness 
- Extra loft or height in the bottom third to cradle your neck
Side-sleeping has its pros and cons. The primary benefit to side-sleeping is an elongation of the spine, which can reduce snoring. Like sleeping on your back, side-sleeping maintains the head’s position above the stomach and reduces acid reflux. Sleeping on your left side is also useful during pregnancy, as it promotes healthy circulation.
What’s side-sleeping bad for? The constant mushing of your face from side to side causes extra wrinkles. Ladies face the additional risk of uneven support, leading to the potentially lopsided sagging of breast tissue over time (Yikes!).
If side-sleeping is your preferred position, look for the following:
- A thick pillow that fills the space above your shoulders
- Maximum firmness, to keep your head and neck in a neutral position 
- A “center cavity” design that cradles your head
Considered the least healthy of all snoozing positions, sleeping on your stomach puts extra pressure on your joints and muscles and makes it difficult to maintain a neutral spine.
However, for those who snore and aren’t experiencing any aches and pains, belly-sleeping does have the added benefit of keeping your upper airways open. To avoid any future lower back pain from this position, WebMD suggest sleeping with one arm tucked under your stomach. 
If stomach sleeping is your preferred position, consider:
- A very thin pillow or no pillow at all
- Total softness and malleability, to avoid distending your head backward 
Now that you have a better understanding of how your preferred sleeping style dictates ideal fill-density, here’s the inside scoop on pillow materials:
Down & Feather Filling
Often recommended for the most luxurious night’s rest, down pillows should be “soft-yet-firm” and easy to shape. Down and feather pillows cradle the head, giving ideal support for back or side sleepers. The material retains warmth, which is wonderful on chilly nights but could prove uncomfortable for those experiencing hot flashes or living in warm climates.
A disadvantage to down is the risk of allergic reactions. Hypoallergenic pillow covers are available, but may not completely relieve respiratory irritation.
When shopping for a down or feather pillow, it’s important to understand there is a wide difference in quality available. High-quality feathers or down combined with dense “ticking” (fabric), means there should never be any feathers or quills poking through the pillow. Additionally, down and feathers made in the USA and Canada are preferred for cleanliness standards.
Springy and resilient, memory foam molds itself to your head and returns to its natural shape after you arise. Because it conforms to your movements during the night, this material can be a great choice for restless sleepers. Memory foam also works well for those who suffer from neck and spinal problems, as it distributes weight evenly.
The downside to memory foam? It can be quite expensive. Additionally, like down and feathers, this material can retain heat and may be uncomfortable for warm climates or those suffering hot flashes.
When shopping for a memory foam pillow, consider the variety of shapes and sizes available to match your sleeping style. Popular contoured S-shapes support the neck while cradling your head in different positions.
Consider shopping for a “non-toxic” memory foam pillow if you’re easily bothered by chemical smells. While the jury is still out on the long-term effects of non-organic materials, third party certifications such as Oeko-Tex Standard offer eco and health-conscious consumers peace of mind. 
The firmest of pillow materials, latex is made from the sap of rubber trees. Latex is resistant to bacteria and dust mites, making it a great choice for those who suffer from allergies. These pillows come in all shapes and sizes as well as varied consistencies created by either shredded or solid cores. Like memory foam, contoured versions are available to help with neck support and proper back alignment.
A solid competitor to memory foam, latex also offers better breathability and relief for those who suffer from overheating. However, latex pillows fail to give that “sinking in” feeling and maintains a fixed shape.
When shopping for a latex pillow, be sure to test that it’s the right height! Due to their firmness, latex pillows can’t be shaped to fit. 
Wool or Cotton
Great for those with allergies, wool and cotton pillows resist mold and dust mites. All natural and non-toxic, cotton and wool pillows also offer better breathability, which helps hot-sleepers regulate temperature.
The downside? Both cotton and wool tend to be quite firm — not a great choice for those who enjoy extra squish! Additionally, these fillings compress over time and need to be replaced more frequently than down, feather, foam or latex options.
If you’re shopping for a cotton or wool pillow, look for one made without dyes, perfumes, or formaldehyde in order to enjoy the most allergy-friendly option. Also, look for a sturdy casing, as wool and cotton pillows can be “re-fluffed” by a quick turn in the dryer with several tennis balls.
Millet or Buckwheat
Filled with the hulls of either millet or buckwheat plants, these specialized fillings shift with your position. If you’re used to softer pillows, the crunchy sounds made by natural husks may take a little while to get used to. However, these materials are great for keeping your head cool in warmer weather and promoting increased circulation.
When shopping for a millet or buckwheat pillow, look for a thick wool outer layer to help muffle the sound of crunching when you shift. Check that the casing gives access to your filling, allowing you to remove volume to achieve your desired thickness.
This silky fiber harvested from the ripe pods of tropical ceiba trees provides a fluffy, hypoallergenic alternative to down. Lightweight and offering minimal resistance, kapok is said to be great for back sleepers.
The material can be cared for much like cotton and is available at similar prices. However, kapok pillows may be hard to find outside of specialty shops.
There are plenty of pillows on the market tailored to specific situations, including hot flashes, headaches and neck pain. However, these can be more expensive and are rarely supported by clinical evidence about how well they work. Some options include:
- Cervical Pillows: Available in various shapes and sizes, these pillows promise neck pain relief with extra cushioning in the lower portion of the pillow.
- Water Pillows: By allowing you to add or remove water, these pillows create a customized level of density or support.
- Cool Pillows: Designed to offer relief for those who suffer from night sweats or hot flashes, cool pillows are filled with tiny, moisture-wicking beads.
- Anti-Snore Pillows: Designed for back, stomach, or side-sleepers, there is clinical support that these pillows may provide relief when the right size is chosen for your body. 
If you’re considering purchasing a specialty pillow, be sure to look for reviews and research that justify the extra expense.
Ready to Shop for Your Perfect Pillow?
If your current pillow doesn’t bounce back after being held in half for 30 seconds, it needs to be replaced.
Depending on the material you chose, a quality pillow can last you up to ten years. To make sure you get the most out of your pillow purchase, consider more than just the cost. A higher price tag doesn’t automatically indicate a better pillow or one that’s right for you. Instead, what matters most is how the pillow feels. Which means it’s important to try any pillow out in the store before purchasing.
Grab it, squeeze it, shape it! If there’s an option to lay down, that’s your best pillow test. If not, stand next to a wall in the position that you sleep and lean your head against it. A friend should be present to make sure your neck is supported to fall in line with your spine.
Once you’ve found a pillow that fits, be sure to care for it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For foam pillows or other non-washable materials, this may include purchasing a protector to keep it clean.
More on Sleeping Better:
- 9 Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep
- How Sugar, Stress and Sleeplessness Are Hurting Your Memory
- Mattress Buying: Why Are There So Many Online-Only Brands? Do They Deliver Value?
- WebMD: Snuggle Up With the Perfect Pillow
- Oprah: Tips For Buying an Eco-Friendly Mattress
- Pillow Advisor: About Latex Pillows