illustration of people sleeping in different positions on their respective beds

What's the Best Pillow for Your Sleep Style?

By Kaitlin Vogel
Reviewed by Samantha Domingo, Psy.D.
March 29, 2024

When it comes to sleep, the main thing on our minds is getting enough of it. That means finding a way to be comfortable as we drift off. And the position you fall asleep in—side, back, or stomach—is a product of habit.

“Sleep styles depend on biological and environmental factors,” says Christina Pierpaoli Parker, Ph.D., director of the Integrated Behavioral Medicine Service Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. You may have started off sleeping on your belly, but as you got older—or went through a pregnancy—you may have gradually switched to side or back sleeping.

But if your position of choice has suddenly become less comfortable than it used to be, particularly if you experience neck and shoulder discomfort, it just might be your pillow that’s to blame.

Choosing the Right Pillow for You

Below, we break down the best pillow for every type of sleeper.

Side Sleepers

illustration of a woman sleeping on her side

If you sleep on your side, you may benefit from a firmer, thicker pillow. “Look for one that’s as thick as the distance between your ear and outside shoulder on the same side,” says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a clinical sleep specialist in Manhattan Beach, California. “You want to make up for that space from the side of your head to your outer shoulder to keep your nose in line with the center of your chest,” Breus explains.

He suggests choosing a pillow that comes with extra stuffing. That way, you can adjust it to your specific situation.

In addition to proper head and neck alignment, side sleepers should also pay attention to hip positioning, says Pierpaoli Parker. “Imagine a string running from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet,” she says. “You want to create a supportive system such that when we ‘pull’ the string, everything aligns.”

That may mean placing a small pillow or cushion between the knees to keep your side on the same axis. “This helps to distribute body weight and reduce pain, which can promote more comfortable, deeper sleep,” Pierpaoli Parker says.

Stomach Sleepers

illustration of a woman sleeping on her stomach

If you prefer sleeping on your belly, placing a pillow under your head may “risk hyperextending the neck, which could contribute to discomfort and sleep-interfering pain,” says Pierpaoli Parker. She suggests sleeping without a pillow. If you have to use one, “an extra flat and thin pillow could serve as a more acceptable middle ground.”

If sleeping on your stomach triggers back pain, placing a thick pillow under your belly and pelvis may help alleviate it, Breus says.

Back Sleepers

illustration of a man sleeping on his back

If you sleep on your back, using a thinner pillow can help keep your head and neck in proper alignment. Breus suggests using a softer pillow, providing you don’t have neck pain. If you do, he recommends a slightly firmer one that can provide additional support.

If you have or are at risk for having obstructive sleep apnea, using a firm wedge pillow to elevate the head, neck, and upper back can reduce the pressure on the airway that can trigger episodes of arrested breathing, says Pierpaoli Parker.

Lastly, it’s important to note: “While tailoring pillows to your sleep style and personality can optimize your sleep, they cannot fix underlying sleep pathology,” Pierpaoli Parker says. “If you experience persistent issues initiating and/or maintaining sleep, experience nightmares, excessive daytime fatigue, etc., and those symptoms cause distress and daytime impairment, consult with your physician or a behavioral sleep medicine expert.”

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