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How to Choose a Pillow

If you’re on a mission to get the best sleep of your life (and aren’t we all), you’ve probably already gotten a really good mattress, you likely have some comfortable sheets, and no doubt your bedroom is dark and quiet at night. All of these things are vital for great sleep, however, there is one obvious thing that we sometimes overlook: the pillow. 

There are so many types of pillows out there that many of us just grab the first one that looks good and call it a day. However, pillows are just as important as the mattress itself. The right pillow should keep your spine in a healthy alignment, lifting your head just the right amount for your preferred sleep position. 

Because different types of pillows serve different purposes, I’ll guide you through choosing the right type for your particular body, sleep position, and needs so you can find the best pillow for you.

Why You Need the Right Pillow

If you want to really feel how important a pillow is, try lying down on your bed or the floor without a pillow or anything beneath your head. Move from your back to your stomach and then to your side. Each position will feel different without any support beneath your head; this will likely feel the most comfortable while on your stomach and the least comfortable while on your side. 

This is because, in each of these positions, your head needs a different amount of support in order to keep your spine in its proper alignment. This is called cervical alignment. 

What Is Cervical Alignment and How Can the Right Pillow Help?

The spine has a natural and obvious curve at the lower back and a smaller curve at the top, near the neck, as well. While we’re sleeping, we want to maintain this natural cervical alignment, no matter what position we are in. Making sure the spine maintains this alignment while you’re asleep is the pillow’s main job. It also provides a nice, comfortable cushion for the head. 

How to Choose the Right Loft

You might have heard the term “pillow loft” before. When we use the word “loft” we are describing the pillow’s height. High-loft pillows are thicker, so they lift your neck and head up higher; low-loft pillows are flatter and don’t lift your head and neck as high. Medium-loft pillows are in the middle between those two, offering some lifting but not as much as a high-loft one.

High-loft pillows with a decent amount of firmness tend to be best for side sleepers because they keep the neck boosted. If your head and neck start to collapse toward the bed while sleeping on your side, this could lead to neck and back pain.

Flat, softer pillows tend to be better for stomach sleepers. Sleeping on your stomach with a pillow that’s too thick can lead to pain in the neck and lower back.

Back sleepers are often a great fit with medium-loft pillows that give them some neck and head support but not too much that it compromises their alignment. A back sleeper’s level of firmness can also vary from very firm to softer, depending on preference. 

Pillows and Sleep Position

How to Choose a Pillow for Back Sleepers

As mentioned, we typically recommend medium-loft pillows for back sleepers. Pillows at this height should prevent your head from lifting at an uncomfortable angle or from being too flat against the mattress. 

We love memory foam or latex pillows for back sleepers, as these tend to provide a sustained amount of support through the night. If you are a heavier sleeper, you might opt for a pillow with a slightly higher loft, just to compensate for the extra weight that will be pushing down onto the pillow. 

Learn more: Best Pillows for Back Sleepers

How to Choose a Pillow for Side Sleepers

When you lie down on your side, your shoulder pushes down into the mattress and there is a sort of gap created between your shoulder and neck. You need a pillow that is both high and firm enough to fill in this gap and support your neck and head through the night. Because everyone’s body is different, some people will have a bigger gap here than others and will need a higher pillow. 

This is why adjustable pillows are a great option for side sleepers. Adjustable pillows allow the sleeper to set the height to your preference for the perfect spinal alignment for your unique body. We love adjustable shredded memory foam or latex pillows for side sleepers, where you can remove or add the foam to your liking. 

How to Choose a Pillow for Stomach Sleepers 

The reason we tend to not recommend stomach sleeping is because it can wreak havoc on the neck and back. This is particularly true if you’re sleeping with the wrong pillow. If your pillow is too high while sleeping on your stomach, it will lift the neck at an odd angle, and you could wake up with a crick. 

This will also cause your lower back to curve dramatically, thus throwing off your spinal alignment even more. 

If you can’t sleep comfortably in any other position, you can at least get a pillow that helps rather than hurts your spinal alignment. Stomach sleepers should get a flatter pillow to keep their neck in alignment.

Again, an adjustable pillow can work well here, especially if sometimes you sleep on your stomach and other times you sleep in a different position. Heavier sleepers might get a medium loft pillow to compensate for the weight pushing down into the pillow, but stomach sleepers should never opt for a high loft pillow. 

Read more: Best Stomach Sleeper Pillows for 2024

How to Choose a Pillow for Combination Sleepers

It might seem difficult to choose a pillow for combination sleepers since different positions require different lofts. This will be especially true if during the night you’re moving from side sleeping (which needs the highest loft) to stomach sleeping (which needs the lowest loft).

You have some options here. You can either buy a higher loft pillow that is also easily compressible so that it will work in various positions; you can buy a medium loft and medium firmness pillow so that it feels like more of a compromise between sleep positions; or you can get an adjustable pillow. 

While you’re not going to be adjusting the loft of your pillow through the night while you’re sleeping, adjustable pillows do have the benefit of trial and error. Try the pillow with more stuffing one night and less the next. See which one feels more comfortable in all sleep positions. 

Pillows and Body Type

In addition to your sleep position, you’ll also need to keep your body type in mind when choosing a pillow. This is because lighter individuals can press into the material more than heavier people. The same general rules for choosing a mattress apply to choosing a pillow: lighter-weight sleepers can go with more softness and less support, whereas heavier sleepers will need more support. Below, we’ll get into more detail about choosing a pillow according to body type. 

Best Pillows for Lightweight Sleepers

Since lightweight sleepers will have less weight pushing down onto their pillow, they won’t need as much support as heavier folks. Plus, some lighter-weight sleepers may need more cushion against their neck and shoulders. 

Good options for lightweight sleepers include down, memory foam, or softer-filled pillows. 

Best Pillows for Average-Weight Sleepers

Average-weight sleepers tend to do best with a medium-firm and medium-loft pillow. This should give adequate cushion and support, though you might go higher or lower depending on your preferred sleep position. 

Best Pillows for Heavyweight Sleepers

Heavyweight sleepers will have more weight pushing down into the pillow, which could be a problem if the pillow is already low loft or very soft. This is why we recommend medium to firm pillows with a high to medium loft for heavyweight sleepers. Again, the loft of the pillow will depend on what position you’re sleeping in. Heavyweight sleepers who sleep on their sides, for example, will need a supportive, high-loft pillow. 

How to Choose a Pillow for Neck Pain

One of the most common causes of neck pain is a mattress or pillow that isn’t a good fit for you. If you already have a great mattress and still have neck pain, it may be your pillow that’s not helping the situation.

I love a good therapeutic pillow, specifically designed for neck pain. Most of these are made from either a solid piece of memory foam or shredded memory foam, but either way, they conform to the sleeper’s shape to help alleviate neck tension. You might also consider a pillow with cooling properties, which may help alleviate pain and inflammation in the neck. 

Alternatively, you might consider latex or buckwheat if you’re interested in pillows for neck pain made with more natural materials. Both of these materials are supportive and contouring rather than soft and fluffy. 

Types of Pillows

There are many types of pillows out there, which can range in price, quality, loft, and pretty much every other factor. To narrow the selections down, you might first decide whether or not you want natural or synthetic materials in your pillow.

Some of the most popular natural materials include: bamboo, buckwheat, down, feather, and latex, and popular synthetic materials include memory foam and polyester. We’ll go over the pros and cons of each below. 

Learn More: Different Types of Pillows

Bamboo Pillows

As a material, bamboo can feel soft and almost silk-like. It tends to be cooling and anti-microbial, and the material is more sustainable than many others. Generally, the part of the pillow made out of bamboo includes only the cover and shell, while the stuffing of the pillow may be made out of a different material. Because of this, if you’re buying a bamboo pillow for its sustainability, be sure you’re checking all of the materials used. 

What We Like

  • Sustainable material 
  • Hypoallergenic

Potential Drawbacks

  • May have a chemical off-gassing smell, depending on the fill
  • Can be expensive

Explore our top picks for the Best Bamboo Pillows.

Buckwheat Pillows

Buckwheat is a grain, similar to quinoa. When this grain is used to fill a pillow, the outer, protective shell part is used, not the seed. The result is a pillow that molds easily to the head and neck, feels breathable, and is hypoallergenic. 

What We Like

  • Supportive and moldable 
  • Natural material

Potential Drawbacks

  • Too firm for some sleepers
  • Can make some noise when you move

Discover Buckwheat Pillows here.

Down Pillows

Down is the soft undercoat of feathers found on the chest of geese, ducks, or swans. These light feathers make for a soft, squishy, and fluffy pillow, which can often come at a higher price tag. 

What We Like

  • Good for stomach sleepers
  • Lightweight 

Potential Drawbacks

  • May trigger allergies
  • Not always ethically sourced

Find the Best Down Pillows now.

Feather Pillows

Similar to down pillows, feather pillows tend to come from geese or ducks. However, rather than the soft fluff on their chests, these pillows come from the firmer, longer feathers of the bird’s wings and backs. These pillows tend to feel a bit firmer and hold their shape better than down, while still feeling lightweight and fluffy. 

What We Like

  • Moldable 
  • Soft

Potential Drawbacks

  • Quills may poke out of the pillow
  • Needs fluffing to maintain its shape

Latex Pillows

Latex can either be made naturally (from the sap of a rubber tree) or synthetically. This material is becoming a popular alternative to memory foam because it doesn’t retain heat, it’s durable and supportive, and natural latex is far more eco-friendly. 

What We Like

  • Cooling
  • Supportive

Potential Drawbacks

  • Expensive
  • Won’t work for those with latex allergies

Explore our picks for the Best Latex Pillows.

Memory Foam Pillows

Memory foam pillows can either be made from one solid piece of memory foam or a collection of shredded or cubed memory foam. Solid memory foam pillows are dense and supportive – ideal for neck alignment. Shredded foam pillows are a bit fluffier but still contour nicely to the head and neck for support. 

What We Like

Potential Drawbacks

  • They can retain heat
  • They aren’t as environmentally friendly 

Discover the Best Memory Foam Pillows here.

Polyester Pillows

Polyester pillows are filled with polyester fiberfill, also called “poly fill.” This synthetic material is originally made from petroleum. Polyester is inexpensive to produce, which means these pillows are usually more affordable. 

What We Like

  • Inexpensive
  • Available in a variety of firmness levels, shapes, and sizes

Potential Drawbacks

  • Can develop lumps and wear out quickly
  • Not environmentally friendly 

Other Alternative Pillows

In addition to these more common types of pillows, you may come across other options, including wool, cotton, microbead, kapok fiber, gel, down alternative, and even water pillows. All of these are made with different materials and come at different price points, and some are more environmentally friendly than others. 

For a more detailed look at all of these options, read our guide on the different types of pillows. 

Other Considerations for Buying a Pillow

Cooling/Temperature Regulation

Hot sleepers may want to consider a pillow that is either naturally moisture-wicking and doesn’t trap heat, or a pillow with added cooling technology. Pillows that naturally tend to sleep cool include those made with bamboo, natural latex, cotton, or wool. Memory foam, on the other hand, tends to trap heat. However, a lot of memory foam pillows these days include an outer layer of cooling gel foam, aerated foam, or other materials that help keep the pillow cool. 

If cooling is a priority for you, make sure your pillow mentions this in its description. 

Browse the Best Cooling Pillows now.


Pillows come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so you’ll need to make sure you’re selecting the correct size for your bed. Below are the typical dimensions of pillows, but keep in mind that some manufacturers have their own specific dimensions, which should be included in the pillow’s description. 

  • Standard: 20” x 26”
  • Super Standard: 20” x 28”
  • Queen: 20” x 30”
  • King: 20” x 36”
  • Euro: 26” x 26” / 24” x 24” / 22” x 22” / 20” x 20” / 18” x 18” / 16” x 16”
  • Body: 54” x 20” / 48” x 20”
  • Toddler: 14” x 20”


Some people are allergic to down and/or feathers, and some are allergic to the dust mites that are more likely to collect in these types of pillows. If this is the case for you, you might want to consider a latex, buckwheat, cotton, or memory foam pillow as these materials are less likely to cause allergies. 

Of course, if you happen to have a latex allergy, avoid latex pillows as well.

Specialty Pillows

Specialty pillows are typically non-standard in their size, shape, or construction, and are specifically made for certain conditions or needs. For example, cervical pillows can help hold the neck and head in a specific position for those with neck or spinal pain. Body pillows support the entire body rather than just the head and can be a great option for pregnant sleepers. Toddlers will also need a specific “toddler pillow,” since regular pillows will be too big for their proportions. 

Can a Pillow Prevent Snoring?

Yes, the right pillow could help manage snoring. Research shows1 that sleeping on an incline could help reduce snoring and even moderate sleep apnea symptoms (one of which also includes snoring). One way to achieve this is with an adjustable base bed, but a gentler and more cost-effective option is with an inclined pillow. 

The inclined pillows that can help with snoring will be most effective and comfortable for back sleepers. This is especially helpful since back sleeping can increase your risk of snoring2.

Best Pillow to Use with CPAP Machine

If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and use a CPAP machine at night, you might consider getting a pillow that better accommodates your CPAP mask and tubing. Wedge pillows can be a good option, as well as can certain contouring, cervical pillows. 

Depending on your mask type, you might want to get a pillow that is specifically shaped to work with your CPAP machine. Here are some of our favorite pillows for sleep apnea

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know which pillow is right for you?

Choosing your perfect pillow really comes down to body type, sleep position, and personal preference. The lighter you are, the less support you’ll need from your pillow, and so you can go for softer pillows – if this is your preference. Conversely, heavier-weight sleepers will need more support.

You’ll want to factor in your sleep position as well. Side sleepers tend to need higher loft (or thicker) pillows, back sleepers can use low to medium-loft pillows, and stomach sleepers will need flat, low-loft pillows.

You’ll know the pillow is working well for you if your spine and neck feel comfortable and well-supported throughout the night and whether you wake up without any soreness or stiffness in your shoulders, neck, or lower back.

Which type of pillow is best?

While there isn’t one pillow that will be best for every sleeper, in general, adjustable pillows tend to be more universal. These pillows include filling that can be added or removed, based on your unique preferences. They’re a great option that allows you to test out what works best for you.

Check out a complete list of our top rated pillows here.

Why are hotel pillows so comfortable?

Many higher-end hotels invest in pillows with a combination of down and feathers, which tend to feel soft, cushiony, and luxurious. Their covers are often made with 100 percent cotton as well, which can add to the soft, comfy feel.

What should you avoid when buying a pillow?

When buying a pillow, we recommend avoiding the very cheapest pillows as they are usually not very durable, supportive, or environmentally friendly. The least expensive pillows are often made with polyester and poly fill, which can easily clump up over time, lack cervical support, and aren’t eco-friendly. Instead, consider opting for a higher-quality pillow that is still affordable.

Natalie Grigson

Natalie Grigson


About Author

Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.

Combination Sleeper


  1. Danoff-Burg, Sharon., et. al. “Sleeping in an Inclined Position to Reduce Snoring and Improve Sleep: In-home Product Intervention Study”. JMIR Formative Research. 2022. 
  2. “HOW TO STOP SNORING”. University of California at Irvine. Webpage accessed February 26, 2024.