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Do I Need a Soft or Firm Pillow?

Quick Overview

You may think that a pillow’s softness or firmness is just a matter of comfort. In fact, a pillow’s firmness is often a crucial factor in making sure you get the right amount of support in order to avoid back or neck pain.

By understanding what type of pillow you need before buying one, you’ll give yourself the opportunity to choose the most suitable pillow for getting a good night’s sleep. Below you’ll find out crucial information for helping you decide whether a soft or firm pillow is right for you.

Why is Pillow Firmness Important?

Pillow firmness is important because it will directly impact your comfort level and sleep quality. There are a few factors to consider when trying to decide if a pillow is the right firmness for you:

Sleep position: You want a pillow that will provide just the right amount of comfort and support depending on your preferred sleep position. For example, a stomach sleeper will prefer a soft pillow with little loft because it helps their neck remain in a neutral position. Alternately, a side sleeper will need a firm pillow with a good amount of loft to achieve proper head and neck alignment.

Weight: Body weight can impact the amount of firmness you need to get the best possible support. For example, buckwheat pillows are great for pain and pressure relief, but they’re not recommended for sleepers who weight less than 130 pounds.

Head or neck pain: If a pillow isn’t firm enough to support the head and neck, pain and discomfort can become an ongoing issue.

How Is Pillow Firmness Measured?

As of now, there’s no universal method for effectively measuring pillow firmness. In general, the term refers to how much the pillow sinks whenever you apply weight to it. Certain brands have their own unique pillow firmness scales, so it’s important to keep this in mind when comparison shopping. The most common terms for measuring pillow firmness are below.

Soft: These ultra plush pillows are great for sleepers who need very little support, such as stomach sleepers. They offer very little resistance and easily conform to your head and neck.  Because these pillows lack firmness, they can lead to neck pain when used with the wrong sleep position.

Medium Soft: These pillows offer a little more support than the softest pillows, while still feeling plush. However, larger bodied sleepers who might require more loft and firmness than what these pillows offer.

Medium: Neither too soft nor too firm, these pillows suit back sleepers and those who’re likely to change positions at night.

Medium Firm: These pillows are very firm, but not so much that they lack give. They offer a great deal of support for the head and neck, while also providing conformity and some extra cushioning.

Firm: These pillows are often very heavy with practically no give. Stomach sleepers are encouraged to avoid these pillows as they won’t conform enough to keep the head and neck comfortably supported in this position. Larger bodied sleepers might prefer these pillows as they offer adequate support to the head, neck, and back. Firm pillows most commonly feature a buckwheat fill.

Pillow Firmness and Sleeper Type

No pillow is inherently bad for sleeping or outright contributes to neck and back pain. Each type of pillow is suitable for sleepers according to their sleep position and specific preferences. Pillow choice is ultimately subjective, but the suggestions below are more often correct based on your body’s support needs as well as your usual sleep position.

Side Sleepers: These sleepers typically want firm pillows that are also highly conforming, allowing the neck to more easily align with the spine. For the best possible results, side sleepers are encouraged to use memory foam or latex pillows.

Stomach Sleepers: Stomach sleepers generally need the least amount of loft out of all sleepers. A flatter pillow is best for keeping their necks in a neutral position while avoiding the strain that more firm pillows cause. It’s also common for stomach sleepers to forgo a pillow altogether.

Back Sleepers: Back sleepers will avoid too soft a pillow because they need a pillow that will keep their neck and back aligned.

Combination Sleepers: These sleepers tend to move around during the night, switching from their back to their sides. Because of this, they’ll likely prefer an adjustable pillow or a pillow that’s highly moldable and works for multiple sleep positions.

Pillow Firmness vs. Loft

It’s common to mistake pillow firmness for loft, as both concepts directly impact how supportive and comfortable a pillow is. However, firmness and loft shouldn’t be used interchangeably because they’re entirely different descriptive terms.

Loft refers to the height and thickness of a pillow. There are typically three categories of pillow loft: low loft, medium loft, and high loft. The higher the loft, the thicker and taller the pillow will be. Meanwhile, pillow firmness describes how easily a pillow gives when there’s weight on it, as well as how well it conforms to the head and neck area.

For example, a side sleeper will prefer a higher-loft to allow their neck to experience the optimal amount of alignment. At the same time, they’ll want a pillow with more firmness because it will provide their head and neck area the best possible support.

The best way to remember the difference is to associate loft with height and firmness with support.

Pillow Firmness and Material

The material used in creating a pillow will often decide its firmness level. That’s why it’s very important to understand and compare materials when pillow shopping. Below you’ll find the most common pillow materials, as well as brief descriptions and their common firmness range.

Pillow Type Description Typical Firmness Range
Memory foam Memory foam, also known as viscoelastic polyurethane foam, is designed to conform to the body. Newer foam will easily retain its original shape. These pillows are either made up of a solid section of foam or filled with shredded foam fibers. Medium Soft to Medium Firm
Latex Latex is a natural substance made rubber tree sap. Latex pillows offer a similar level of head and neck support to memory foam. The difference is that latex pillows tend to be more uniform and require very little fluffing or shaking. Soft to Firm
Buckwheat Pillows filled using the husk-like outer shell of buckwheat kernels. Buckwheat pillows tend to be very heavy and offer above-average support. Firm to Extra Firm
Down Down pillows are stuffed with the plumage from geese or ducks, but not their feathers. They must contain at least 75% down to be classified as as down pillows. Soft to Medium
Down alternative Down alternative pillows are usually made with polyester fibers in an effort to mimic the soft and lightweight qualities of authentic down. Soft to Medium Firm
Feather Feather pillows are filled with goose and/or duck feathers. They’re not to be confused with down pillows, which primarily consist of plumage. Soft to Medium Firm
Polyester Polyester pillows are entirely filled with polyester fibers. Soft to Firm
Water pillow A pillow that features a thin waterbase. You can add water to the pillow through the water pouch. Might also be filled with materials such as fiber, down, or memory foam. Soft to Medium Firm

 

Adjustable Firmness Pillows

Adjustable firmness pillows are a great help to sleepers who often find themselves stuck with pillows that are too soft or firm. With a customizable pillow, you have control over the amount of head and neck support it provides you.

There are multiple ways in which a pillow might be adjustable. For instance, a pillow stuffed with shredded foam could contain a zipper, allowing you to open it and remove as much foam stuffing as you need to get to the preferred amount of loft. Sometimes zippers are used to expand or collapse the pillow, allowing you to manually change the firmness. Depending on the pillow, you might have a single removable core or multiple removable inserts. Removing inserts not only affects the loft, but depending on the material, it also affects pillow firmness.

An adjustable firmness pillow is a smart purchase for sleepers who tend to switch positions during the night. While a firm pillow will suit you on your side, if you switch to your stomach, the same pillow will be less comfortable and force your neck upward at an odd angle. With an adjustable firmness pillow, you can make changes to your pillow without feeling the need to buy another pillow to suit a different sleep position.

Conclusion

The bottom line: we recommend trying out pillows with different firmness settings in order to determine your preferred feel. Testing out pillows with different compositions and loft measurements is also recommended.

For more information about different pillow types, please visit the following guides on Tuck.com.

Additional Tuck Resources

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