Whether you need a ‘soft’ or ‘firm’ mattress will ultimately depend on your body, budget, and personal preferences. The right firmness level for a given sleeper varies by height, weight, and sleep position.
Additionally, mattress firmness is often linked to pricing and performance factors like durability and pressure relief. Due to the wide range of mattresses sold today, multiple firmness options are available for memory foam and latex beds, innersprings, hybrids and other common mattress types.
Read on to learn more about finding a mattress with the right firmness level for you and your sleep partner.
A mattress with the right firmness level will provide adequate support and alleviate pressure points throughout the sleeper’s body. Mattresses that feel too firm or not firm enough can create joint discomfort, back and shoulder pain, and exacerbate pressure points.
How soft or firm a mattress feels will largely depend on how the comfort layer (or comfort system) is constructed, as well as its overall thickness. The comfort layer is defined as the body-cushioning system that forms the topmost part of the mattress, and its composition will determine how closely the mattress conforms to a sleeper’s body. Common comfort layer components include polyfoam, memory foam, latex, and/or steel microcoils, as well as the mattress cover. Some mattresses have a single-layer comfort system, while others may have as many as four or five individual layers in the comfort system.
Other factors can be used to evaluate firmness in different mattress types. In innerspring mattresses, the gauge (or thickness) of steel coil and other metal components can affect overall firmness. In mattresses made entirely of foam and/or latex, firmness may be linked to a measurement known as indentation load deflection (or ILD). ILD refers to how much weight is needed to indent a sleep surface by 25%; mattresses with low ILD ratings are not as firm and require less weight for indentation, while mattresses with high ILD ratings are firmer and require more weight.
Due to the wide range of firmness preferences among individual sleepers, many mattress manufacturers offer models with multiple firmness options. Additionally, some mattresses are available in ‘dual firmness’ or ‘split firmness’ designs that feature different firmness settings on both sides of the top surface; these models are geared toward couples with differing firmness preferences. Other ‘flippable’ models feature different firmness settings on both the top and bottom surfaces, and they can be rotated whenever the owner wants to change the firmness.
Firmness is tied to bodily support, although it’s important to differentiate between these two terms: firmness refers to how a mattress feels as soon as a sleeper lies down, whereas support refers to how well a mattress maintains an even and sag-free surface, aligns the sleeper’s spine, and relieves pressure throughout the night.
That being said, mattresses that are too soft or too firm may lack proper support for certain sleepers. Excessively soft mattresses often sink excessively, which can compromise support for heavier individuals. These beds may also create discomfort for those who sleep on their back or stomach, since both of these positions require flat surfaces for good spinal alignment.
Alternatively, many lighter individuals find that excessively firm mattresses do not conform closely enough; as a result, they do not experience as much pain and pressure relief as heavier people. Side sleepers also tend to prefer mattresses that are less firm; this position often requires surfaces that conform closely to align the spine and alleviate related aches and pains as they develop.
In addition to firmness, sagging and indentations in the sleep surface can also negatively impact mattress support. Minor indentations of 5 inches or less may not affect how the mattress feels, but deeper sagging can cause pressure points to develop in affected areas of the sleeper’s body. Generally, mattresses built with high-density foam, Dunlop latex, or coil support cores withstand sagging and indentations to the most noticeable extent.
At Tuck.com, we rate mattresses using the following 1-10 firmness scale:
It’s important to note that mattresses with firmness settings of ‘1’, ‘9’, or ’10’ are quite rare because the vast majority of sleepers prefer surfaces with firmness settings of 2 to 8. As a result, most mattresses sold today fall between ‘Soft‘ and ‘Firm.’
Body weight and sleep position are arguably the two most important factors for determining the right mattress firmness.
People with below-average weights generally feel more on mattress with lower firmness settings; if the mattress is too firm, then they may not weigh enough to feel any conforming or pressure relief. On the other hand, people who weigh more than 230 pounds may experience uncomfortable sinking on mattresses with low firmness settings.
Sleep position is key because it determines which areas of the body need more cushioning and support.
As a result, a side sleeping individual who weighs 150 pounds will react quite differently to the feel of a mattress than a back or stomach sleeper who weighs 300 pounds. Additional factors include the sleeper’s shoulder, waist, and hip measurements.
Using customer reports and product analysis data, the table below features the most popular firmness setting for individuals with different weights and sleep positions. Please note that this table reflects general findings; mattress firmness preferences are highly subjective, and we strongly urge all buyers to test out multiple firmness settings before buying a new mattress.
|Weight Group||Sleep Position||Optimal Firmness Range|
|Lighter than average|
(Less than 130 lbs.)
|Side||Medium Soft to Medium|
|Back||Medium Soft to Medium Firm|
|Stomach||Medium Soft to Medium Firm|
(130 to 230 lbs.)
|Side||Medium Soft to Medium|
|Back||Medium to Firm|
|Stomach||Medium to Medium Firm|
|Heavier than average|
(More than 230 lbs.)
|Side||Medium to Medium Firm|
|Back||Medium Firm to Firm|
|Stomach||Medium Firm to Firm|
Although mattress price-points vary from brand to brand, models with low firmness settings (1 to 3) tend to be the most expensive due to extra padding layers that make the comfort system feel exceptionally soft.
Additionally, high-end materials like Talalay latex and gel memory foam tend to produce comfort systems with the softest settings. Alternatively, firmer mattresses feature less padding and are usually cheaper by comparison.
The firmness setting may be used to determine how a mattress will perform in the long run. Performance factors tied to mattress firmness include the following:
The table below features a summary of pricing and performance expectations for mattresses with different firmness settings:
|Firmness Range||Extra Soft to Soft (1-3)||Medium Soft to Medium Firm (4-6)||Firm to Extra Firm (7-10)|
|Price||Most expensive||Affordable||Most affordable|
|Durability||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good|
|Pain/pressure relief||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Poor to Fair|
|Odor potential||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good|
|Temperature neutrality||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good|
|Sex||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good|
|Ease of moving||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good|
Pillows play an important role in mattress firmness preferences. Pillow loft, or pillow thickness, can greatly affect the feel of a mattress. The thickness of a pillow is measured using the term ‘loft’. Low-loft pillows measure less than 3 inches thick, medium-loft pillows measure 3 to 5 inches thick, and high-loft pillows measure more than 5 inches thick. A good rule-of-thumb when choosing pillows for a mattress: the lower the firmness setting, the lower the pillow loft.
The table below features a detailed breakdown of the optimal pillow loft for different firmness settings:
|Firmness Range||Low-Loft Pillow Rating||Medium-Loft Pillow Rating||High-Loft Pillow Rating|
|Extra Soft to Soft (1-3)||Very Good||Fair to Good||Poor|
|Medium Soft to Medium Firm (4-6)||Fair to Good||Very Good||Fair to Good|
|Firm to Extra Firm (7-10)||Poor||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good|
Many mattress manufacturers list a firmness setting with different models. If this information is not available online for a particular model and you are unable to test out the mattress in person, we strongly recommend reaching out to that company’s customer service division to inquire about its firmness level.
Many online-only mattress brands offer sleep trials for new customers. These trials are typically 30 to 90 nights in length; customers have the option of returning their mattress for a full or partial refund before the trial period ends. In some cases, customers may be able to exchange their mattress for a different model — but it is important to read the fine print, since some brands do not allow customers to exchange their mattress for a model with a different firmness level.
Additionally, most companies will not honor warranty claims for customers who are dissatisfied with the firmness level of their mattress, or whose comfort preferences have changed since they made their original purchase. Unless the mattress shows another type of defect covered under the warranty (such as deep indentations or protruding wires), mattress owners will likely be unable to replace their mattress for a model with a different firmness setting.
Before purchasing a mattress, here are a few firmness-oriented considerations to make:
Lastly, we’ll answer some common additional questions regarding mattress firmness options.
Those who visit brick-and-mattress stores can arrange to visit one of these locations and lie down on a mattress to test the firmness. However, physical stores typically have a narrower selection of beds and price-points tend to be higher due to overhead costs related to maintaining a brick-and-mortar establishment.
Many online mattress brands do not operate brick-and-mortar locations, but they offer ‘sleep trials’ that allow customers to test out a bed before committing to a full purchase. Most sleep trials begin on the date of purchase and delivery, and extend for at least 90 consecutive nights; in rare cases, the trial may span one year or longer.
If the customer is dissatisfied with their bed before the trial period expires, then they may return it for a full or partial refund (depending on the brand’s trial offer). Some companies will also arrange for the mattress to be picked up from the customer’s residence at no extra charge, while others will apply shipping and transportation fees to the total refund amount.
One thing to note: some mattress sellers impose a mandatory break-in period. This means customers must test out the mattress for a certain amount of time (typically at least 30 nights) before they qualify for a full refund on their return.
Differing firmness preferences can be a challenge for couples, but many of today’s beds address this concern by offering multiple firmness settings. These include mattresses with dual-firmness, meaning each side of the bed has a different firmness setting.
Other mattresses are flippable, with a different firmness setting on the top and bottom surfaces. These beds may be more suitable for couples who are willing to compromise on firmness night-to-night.
For couples with different preferences who would rather not purchase a new mattress, toppers can be very useful. A mattress topper is an individual layer of cushioning that rests on top of the mattress, usually beneath the top sheet. Most toppers make the mattress feel softer but some can actually increase the firmness. Common topper materials include memory foam, latex, down/feather blends, and wool.
First, look into the bed’s return policy. If you are dissatisfied with the firmness but 90 nights have not elapsed since the original purchase or delivery date, then you may be able to return the bed for a full refund or, in some cases, exchange it for a different model from the same brand.
If the trial period has passed, then you will most likely be unable to return the mattress for a refund. Most mattress warranties stipulate that mattress repairs or replacements are not available simply because the owner’s firmness preferences have changed; in other words, firmness preference is not considered an identifiable defect.
Those who want to change the feel of their mattress after the trial period expires can use a topper to increase or reduce their bed’s firmness. If six to seven years have passed since the mattress was purchased, then it may be time for a new bed; the average mattress will perform for about seven years before it needs to be replaced.
When evaluating mattress firmness, material composition is usually a poor indicator. A bed’s comfort layers may contain memory foam or polyfoam, latex, minicoils, wool, and other materials with firmness settings ranging anywhere from ‘Extra Soft’ to ‘Extra Firm.’ How these materials are engineered will determine how firm or soft they feel.
However, as noted above, some materials tend to be more supportive than others. For example, beds with Dunlop latex and/or coils in the support core typically maintain flat sleep surfaces with minimal sagging.
On the other hand, memory foam and polyfoam beds tend to develop sagging and indentations in the sleep surface that compromise support, regardless of how soft or firm these materials actually feel.
As a general rule, use the bed’s listed firmness setting to evaluate how it feels and avoid using the mattress materials as criteria. If the firmness setting is not listed, feel free to contact the brand’s customer service division to inquire.
Although our general mattress assessments are mostly accurate, firmness preferences are highly subjective.
Just because a sleeper has a certain weight and/or preferred position does not necessarily mean their optimal firmness setting will correspond to the majority of sleepers in their weight or position group. A lighter individual or side sleeper may prefer an ‘Extra Firm’ bed, while a heavier person or back/stomach sleeper may find a softer bed is most comfortable.
Ultimately, the most important consideration is the firmness level you prefer, regardless of body type of sleep position. The best way to decide is to test out as many different firmness settings as possible.