Do I Need a Soft or Firm Mattress?

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.

Why Is Firmness Important?

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 vs. Support

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 five inches (5″) 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.

How Is Firmness Measured?

At Tuck.com, we rate mattresses using the following 1-10 firmness scale:

  • 1 (Extra Soft): An extremely plush sleep surface that sinks deeply beneath a sleeper’s body.
  • 2-3 (Soft): A very plush surface that conforms closely and sinks somewhat deeply.
  • 4 (Medium Soft): A plush surface with adequate conforming and minimal sinking.
  • 5 (Medium): An even balance of firmness and conforming with little sinking.
  • 6 (Medium Firm): A low-conforming surface with very little (if any) sinking.
  • 7-8 (Firm): A sufficiently firm surface that conforms to a degree without any sinking.
  • 9-10 (Extra Firm): An extremely hard surface with no conforming or sinking.

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.’

Firmness and Sleeper Type

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.

  • Back sleepers require more spinal and lower back support to maintain proper spinal alignment and prevent pain and discomfort from developing.
  • Side sleepers have vulnerable pressure points at the shoulders and hips, and also require neck support for proper spinal alignment.
  • Stomach sleepers generally need firmer mattresses to adequately support their hips and prevent uncomfortable sinking; most physicians do not recommend stomach sleeping due to the high risk of discomfort and pressure.

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
Average
(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

Firmness and Mattress Price

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 lowest firmness settings. Alternatively, firmer mattresses feature less padding and are usually cheaper by comparison.

Firmness and Mattress Performance

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:

  • Durability: Mattresses with low firmness settings – particularly innersprings – tend to be the least durable due to premature sagging and indentations in their relatively soft sleep surfaces. Firmer mattresses are less susceptible to this type of degradation, and their average lifespan is significantly longer.
  • Pain/Pressure Relief: Mattresses with mid-level firmness settings (4 to 6) tend to alleviate the most bodily pain and pressure, since they are designed to offer a balance of comfort and support. Models that are too firm or not firm enough provide less pain and pressure relief by comparison.
  • Smell: Off-gassing odor is an issue for most mattresses, but mattresses with low firmness settings (1 to 3) tend to produce stronger, longer-lasting smells because they have thicker foam layers; off-gassing is a major complaint among foam mattress owners. Firmer mattresses, on the other hand, generally contain lower amounts of foam and, as a result, produce less odor.
  • Temperature Neutrality: Medium Firm and Firm mattresses typically retain less body heat and sleep somewhat cool as a result, while mattresses with lower firmness settings usually sleep warmer. However, temperature neutrality is more closely linked to mattress type; innersprings and hybrids tend to retain less body heat than foam and latex models.
  • Sex: Mattresses with mid-level firmness settings tend to be best for sex because they are sufficiently responsive without causing too much sinkage. Firmer mattresses are usually responsive enough for sex, as well. Mattresses with lower firmness settings may also be responsive but sinkage is an issue for some.
  • Ease of Moving/Maintaining: Mattresses with low firmness settings are usually heavier, and need to be rotated more often, than mattresses with higher firmness settings.

The table below features a summary of pricing and performance expectations for mattresses with different firmness settings:

Criteria 1-3 Firmness
(‘Extra Soft’ to ‘Soft’)
4-6 Firmness
(‘Medium Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm’)
7-10 Firmness
(‘Firm’ to ‘Extra Firm’)
Price Most Expensive Affordable Most Affordable
Durability Poor to Fair Fair to Good Good to Very Good
Pain/Pressure Relief Poor to Fair Good to Very Good Poor to Fair
Smell 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/Maintaining Poor to Fair Fair to Good Good to Very Good

Firmness and Pillow Loft

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 three inches thick, medium-loft pillows measure three to five inches thick, and high-loft pillows measure more than five 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 Setting Low-loft Pillow Rating Mid-loft Pillow Rating High-loft Pillow Rating
1-3
(‘Extra Soft’ to ‘Soft’)
Very Good Fair to Good Poor
4-6
(‘Medium Soft’, ‘Medium,’ and ‘Medium Firm’)
Fair to Good Very Good Fair to Good
7-10
(‘Firm’ to ‘Extra Firm’)
Poor Fair to Good Very Good

Buying Tips

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.

Mattress Firmness Checklist

Before purchasing a mattress, here are a few firmness-oriented considerations to make:

  • What is your mattress budget? Mattresses with low firmness ratings tend to be more expensive than those with higher firmness ratings.
  • What is your weight? People who weigh less than 130 pounds usually feel more comfortable on ‘Soft’ or ‘Medium’ mattresses, while those who weigh more than 230 pounds often prefer higher firmness ratings. People who fall in the middle, fittingly, tend to prefer ‘Medium Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm’ surfaces.
  • What is your preferred sleep position? Generally speaking, side-sleepers are more comfortable on mattresses with lower firmness ratings, while back- and stomach-sleepers prefer mattresses with higher firmness ratings.
  • Do you have chronic back pain or constant pressure/discomfort? If the answer is yes, then you may feel most comfortable on mattresses with mid-level firmness ratings.
  • Is off-gassing a major issue? People who are sensitive to strong smells may prefer firmer mattresses, since they produce less off-gassing odor compared to mattresses with lower firmness ratings.
  • Do you sleep hot? Mattresses with ‘Medium’ or ‘Firm’ ratings typically retain less body heat than those with ‘Soft’ ratings, and sleep cooler as a result.
  • Do you plan to use the mattress for sex? Mattresses with lower firmness ratings tend to be more responsive – and thus, better for sex – than those with higher firmness ratings.
  • Do you plan to move/rotate the mattress on your own? Mattresses with lower firmness ratings tend to be heavier (due to additional padding layers) than firmer mattresses. Additionally, less firm mattresses need to be rotated more often on average.
  • What type of pillows do you own? Low-loft pillows are best paired with mattresses that are less firm, while high-loft mattresses go with firmer mattresses. If you do not own pillows with the right loft level, then you may need to purchase new ones in order to feel comfortable.
  • Are firmness exchanges allowed? Before committing to a specific brand, be sure to review the terms of their sleep trial and mattress warranties. In some cases, you will not be able to exchange your mattress for a model with a different firmness once the initial purchase has been made.

Firmness FAQ

Next, we’ll answer some common additional questions regarding mattress firmness options:

How can I test out firmness before buying?

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.

What if I have different firmness preferences than my partner?

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. Examples include Sleep Number smart beds and the ‘Dual Balanced’ and ‘Dual Extra’ models from Helix. 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. Examples of flippable beds include the Layla Mattress, Latex for Less Mattress, and the Zenhaven by Saatva.

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.

I bought a mattress and I don’t like the firmness level. What can I do?

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.

Are different materials firmer than others?

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.

I’m (X) weight and sleep in (X) position but I don’t like the firmness level your table says I’d like. What’s up with that?

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.

Additional Tuck Resources

For more information about firmness ratings and options for different mattress and sleeper types, please check out the Tuck pages listed below.