The first pillows were simply wooden or rock headrests that supported the neck in Egypt and helped to not smudge tribal body paint in Africa and later to not ruin fancy hairdos in North America and England. Additionally, there is a health benefit in having the neck elevated to allow air flow and keep the body cooler. The Chinese developed a ceramic pillow that was able to be filled with hot or cold water depending on the time of year.1 The idea behind all pillows has always been that, regardless of an individual’s sleep position, the spine, neck and head are all aligned.
The first step in choosing your perfect pillow is determining how you typically sleep. Most people are back sleepers, side sleepers or stomach sleepers. Each of these positions has different benefits and requires specific pillows to adjust the head for the best and most restful sleep.
- Back sleepers typically need a pillow thin enough to not push the head and neck too far forward. Sleeping on one’s back with a contoured or “s-shaped” pillow is the most ideal sleep position due to back and neck support, reducing acid reflux and helping to prevent wrinkles. 2
- Side sleepers will require a thicker, firmer pillow to prevent the spine from dipping down as there is a further distance from the neck to the mattress in the side sleeping position. Side sleeping is not as ideal as sleeping on one’s back; however, it will help with snoring that is at its worst when sleeping on the back. Also, sleeping in this position is the recommended position for pregnant women as sleeping on the back puts all the fetal weight on a major blood vessel.1
- Stomach sleeping is discouraged by experts because it pushes the neck backwards and forces individuals to have to keep their heads turned in one direction for hours at a time. Because of this, experts recommend a very thin pillow or no pillow at all. Again, the goal is to keep the spine, neck and head aligned. Although this position is not ideal for the spine, it opens up the airways making snoring less likely. 2
- Memory foam pillows will offer the same benefits a memory foam mattress will such as alleviating pressure points and adding support; however, the pillows do not allow you to adjust the pillow to each individual’s desired shape and thickness.2
- Natural-fill pillows (feather and down) are still very popular because of their “customizable” properties. An individual can warp the pillow to fit their needs and are typically very soft. These pillows typically last longer than synthetic pillows.3
- Latex pillows are great because they are the firmest type of pillow and are not prone to mold and dust mites.2
- Polyester blend pillows are the cheapest type of pillow but will not stand the test of time and will not give the same support as some more expensive pillows.
Retire Your Pillow
People have the strange need to hang on to pillows long after they are broken. Experts say that individuals should buy a new pillow every 12-18 months to insure that you are getting the most support and comfort out of a pillow, not to mention bacteria and mold that can build up in such a personal item. The easiest way to test if your pillow is still in working condition is to fold the pillow in half or in thirds for a King sized pillow and push all of the air out of the pillow. When letting the pillow go, it should spring back into shape and unfold completely without assistance.3 If it does not, your pillow is broken.
1. Carskadon, Mary A. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1993.
2. Bouchez, Colette. “The Best Pillow: Foam, Down, Anti-Snoring, Support, Comfort, and More.” WebMD. WebMD. Web. 25 May 2012. <http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/snuggle-up-with-the-perfect-pillow>.
3. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.