How to Choose the Best Pillow

Your pillow plays an important role in your daily sleep.  A bad pillow can give you neck, back and shoulder problems and can make you restless as you try and find a comfortable sleeping position.

With so many different pillows out there, how do you know which pillow is best for you? In this article we’ll take a look at the purpose of a pillow, how to judge whether or not you need a new pillow, and finally, how to choose your perfect pillow.

Purpose of a pillow

A pillow serves two main purposes, which is to provide:

  1. Comfort – The more comfortable you are in bed, the easier it will be to fall asleep.

  2. Correct sleeping posture – A good pillow supports your neck and head, putting them in the correct posture preventing stiffness and muscle pains in the neck, back, head and shoulders.

So you want a pillow that is both comfortable to sleep on and one that properly aligns your head, neck and spine, providing you with lasting comfort, avoiding any future aches and pains.

Do you need a new pillow?

Like everything, pillows wear down over time and lose their effectiveness.  The average lifespan of a pillow is around 2 to 7 years depending on the quality.  Here’s a quick test to see if your pillow is still up for the job:

  1. Pillow TestFold your pillow in half
  2. Put a shoe or other light weight on top of the pillow.
  3. Let go of the pillow

The pillow should fold back into shape, flinging the shoe off it.  If not, the pillow has lost its shape, firmness, and support, so you should consider replacing it.

Choosing the best pillow for you

There are many different variations of pillows, which means you can choose one that provides you with exactly the right support and lasting comfort.

Choosing the right pillow depends on three factors.  First is your primary sleeping position. Next is the level of support the pillow provides your head and neck.  And finally the type, the material used to fill the pillow.

Sleeping Position

The biggest factor for deciding the size and shape of your perfect pillow is your sleeping position.

  • Side sleepers do best with a large, thick pillow that bridges the gap between your mattress, keeping your neck and head in line with your spine.  Pillows for side sleepers should be firm to medium.

  • Back sleepers should go for a medium sized pillow that provides just enough support for the head and neck.  The height should be neither too much so that it tilts the head too far forward, nor too little so that it extends the neck and tilts your head upwards.  Medium firmness is ideal.

  • Stomach sleepers need very little support so should choose a relatively soft, flat pillow.  You need to lift the head off the ground just enough to align the neck and spine.

Head and Neck Support

Here’s a quick test you can do in a sleep store to try out a new pillow or against your own pillow to see if it correctly supports and contours to your body:

  1. Pillow SupportStand next to a wall as if you were lying down on your mattress.  For example if you are a back sleeper, stand with your back against the wall, with your side against the wall for a side sleepers or facing the wall if you sleep on your stomach.
  2. Now rest your head against the wall.  Notice how your neck and head isn’t straight with your spine?  The job of your pillow is to fill this gap.
  3. Put the pillow in between your head and the wall and notice the alignment of your spine from your neck down to your back.  Is it straight or is it bent?  Does it feel comfortable or uncomfortable?  Would you be happy to spend 8 hours in this position?

If you were using the perfect pillow, you would be looking straight ahead with a straight neck. This indicates that your head, neck and spine are correctly aligned and supported. If not, it’s not the right pillow for you.

Types of Pillows

Pillows are filled with a range of materials, each with their own properties:

  • Feathers – Creates a firm pillow and keeps a good, adjustable shape.
  • Down – Softer and often more expensive than normal feathers, providing medium firmness.
  • Memory foam – Firm but adjusts to pressure points, molding its shape around your head and neck.
  • Buckwheat – Medium to firm providing good support.  May be noisy when moving around at night.
  • Water – Firmness can easily be adjusted by altering the water levels. Contours around your neck and head but may be noisy when shifting position.
  • Wool – Medium to soft.  A good thermal regulator maintaining a temperature neither not too hot or cold.
  • Cotton & Polyester – Less expensive that wool, often medium to soft in firmness.


Pillows come in all shapes and sizes, and vary in firmness.  The perfect pillow for you may not be the perfect pillow for someone else.  The best thing you can do is go to a bed store and try a few out.  Find a mattress around the same firmness as your own, lie down and see how they feel.

Important questions to ask when trying out a pillow include:

  • Does it feel comfortable, not too soft, not too firm?
  • Does it provide the right support for my head and neck to align my spine?
  • Would I be happy to spend eight hours in this posture?
  • Does the temperature of the pillow feel good against my head?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these questions then congratulations, you have found your perfect pillow. :)

Once you’ve tried out a few pillows, you’ll start to get an idea of your preferred heights, firmness and types. You might find it useful to search popular online pillow stores such as US Beds where you can browse a large range of pillows and often get a better price than traditional off-line stores. Also take a look at my pillow reviews where you’ll find my top pick for each type of pillow along with its pros and cons to help you find the best pillow.