Finding the Best Pillow

finding the right pillow

With so many pillow options available, it seems impossible to find the single, best pillow.  Yet there are countless sites that claim to have found the top 10 pillows, or the top 7, or the top 5.

The truth is, to get a good night’s sleep, you need to find the pillow that is best for you.  There are two steps.

  • Select a pillow that has the firmness and loft that keeps your spine aligned
  • Pick a pillow fill material that you find comfortable

Keep your Spine in Proper Alignment

If you wake up with neck or shoulder pain, this may be because your spine is not aligned properly while you sleep.  Determining your preferred sleep position is the first step in finding proper spine alignment.  Do you prefer to sleep on your back?  On your stomach?  On your side?

Sleep position can vary greatly through the night and most of us cannot be pigeon-holed into sleeping in only one position all night long.  But it is also true that most of us have a preferred position to sleep.   Why does sleep position matter in selecting a pillow?  When sleeping on your side you will need a pillow with greater loft to keep the spine aligned than when you sleep on your stomach.  On the other hand, a stomach sleeper will need a flatter pillow to maintain this alignment.  If you wake up with neck pain, a simple fix could be finding the optimal pillow height for your style of sleep.

Spine alignment will not completely depend on the type of pillow that you choose.  Your mattress is a critical component of maintaining spine alignment. as well.  For instance,  a super-firm, high loft pillow probably won’t keep your spine aligned when used on an old, soft mattress, nor will it likely be comfortable.

Pick the Pillow Filling

Down and Feather Fill

Before the advent of synthetic materials, down was the pillow filling of choice.  Taken from the soft underbelly of a duck or goose, down offers a comfortable, fluffy experience.  Some have an allergic reaction to bird feathers, ruling out this material, and making a synthetic filling a better option.

Pillow Fight Down and Feathers

Though down and feather may seem to be the same, there is an important distinction, especially when used inside the pillow.  Down is fluffier than a feather. and feathers tend to stack and lay flat inside the pillow.  A feather also has a quill which can poke through the pillow casing, causing an unpleasant, sharp stick to your skin.  As you might expect, down pillows are more expensive than feather pillows.

Down is sorted for quality, and that measure of quality is called fill power.  A higher fill power number will result in a fluffier pillow that will retain its shape longer than a lower fill number.  The fill weight of a pillow determines how firm or how soft the pillow.

Another natural fill material that has been growing in popularity is to use seeds such as buckwheat or millet as the filling material for pillows.

Synthetic Fill

Foam pillows are a popular choice, and for good reason, offering comfort at a lower price than down.  Foam pillows can be purchased as solid foam, shredded foam, or a combination of both.  Some companies are developing a synthetic down designed to mimic the feel of real down.  If you have an allergy to fowl feathers, this could be a good option.

Most of the shredded foam pillows are constructed so you can remove and add back foam.  This feature allows you to completely customize the pillow loft that is right for you.

Solid foam pillows are similar to the experience of a memory foam mattress.  A common complaint with solid foam is that they can trap heat and cause your head to sweat as you sleep.  Manufacturers have come up with a variety of methods to overcome this shortcoming, though there has been little research available to validate if these approaches actually work.

Whatever the pillow you select, check the return policy before you purchase, to make sure that your selection is right for you.

Recommended Pillows for Side / Back Sleepers

Shredded Foam Pillow

Shredded Memory Foam

The Layla Kapok Pillow features a cover woven from a copper infused yarn, to transport heat away from your head and neck while to prevent overheating
solid foam fiber combo

Combination Solid Foam & Fiber

The height of the Keetsa GoodNite Pillow can be adjusted by removing foam until you find the ideal height for your sleeping comfort
goose down pillows

Down 800 Fill Power

Cuddledown of Maine 800 Fill premium down pillow. Medium/Firm is best for back and side sleepers

Recommended Pillows for Stomach Sleepers

Solid Foam pillow ideal for stomach sleeper

Solid Foam

Thin 2.5 inch profile solid foam pillow specifically designed for belly sleepers. The foam is infused with gel particles to reduce heat trapped by the foam while sleeping.
Brooklinen Down Alternative Pillow

Down Alternative Pillow

This Brooklinen pillow uses polyfill microfibers manufactured to mimic the fluffy feel of real down, but without the allergy. Made in the USA.
Continental 550 fill goose down pillow

Down 550 Fill Power

Continental Premium Pillow, Goose Down 550 fill power, 300 thread cotton cover. Made in the USA.


Specialty Pillows

One Size Does Not Fit All

The standard pillow sizes — twin, queen and king — are all designed with the adult in mind.  Children may find pillows too large for their small frames, resulting in poor sleep and soreness.  Their are a variety of options available for pillows made in a kid friendly size.  When the little ones grow out of these smaller pillows, they can be repurposed and are ideal to bring in the car for long trips, or for air travel.

Alternative Natural Filling

For those who are allergic to fowl down and feathers, but still prefer a natural filling over synthetically produced foam and fillers, buckwheat pillows may provide a good option.  PineTales offers buckwheat as well as millet, which they claim provides a softer, smoother experience compared to the buckwheat filling.  Hot Cherry is using recycled cherry pits to create a therapeutic pillow.  The pillows can safely be heated in the microwave to bring comfort to sore muscles and joints.  Expectant mothers may also find these to be a good solution to ease aches and pains.

Pillows to Alleviate Sleep Discomfort because of Medical Conditions

Acid Reflux disease or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) can be treated with medication and surgery, but sometimes a simple sleep realignment can help.  Published research has shown that sleeping on your left side with your head elevated slightly can reduce acid reflux.  This sleep position can be accomplished by sleeping on a foam wedge pillow.  The MedCline pillow has a unique design that uses a special cut-out for your arm to reduce the shoulder strain that can accompany sleeping on a wedge.

Some side sleepers who suffers from back pain have found placing a pillow between the legs can take pressure off the back muscles.  An ordinary pillow can be used, or there are shaped foam pillows which are less bulky and specifically designed for this purpose.

If you have been diagnosed with OSA, you may also find a specialized pillow can help them sleep better while staying compliant with CPAP therapy.  These pillows are shaped with cut-outs for the mask and tubing, providing clearance for when you turn onto your side.

Travel Pillows

Requirements for travel pillows are very different from pillows for your bed,  Travel pillows need to be durable, easily cleaned, and provide a good compromise between comfort and compactness.  It is impossible to take a red eye flight without spotting half the passengers adorned with neck pillows.   The infinity pillow offers the features of a neck pillow, with the ability to create additional shapes for napping in awkward positions.  Coming in at less than 20 ounces, the case of the infinity pillow is washable so you can clean off all the travel dirt and grime you might pick up in the airport.

Latest posts by ASA Authors & Reviewers (see all)

Popular Sleep Topics

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Thank you. You are now subscribed!

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated.