What should side sleepers look for in a mattress?
Dr. Rebecca Robbins, PhD, associate scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, recommends shopping around before choosing a mattress and trying in person if you can. “The most important thing when it comes to buying a mattress is making sure that you can lie down on the mattress,” said Robbins. “The ability to lie down on it is key because then you can see if the mattress will support you. You won’t know until you try. So trying is key.”
Unfortunately, many folks still feel unsafe visiting showrooms and many remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thankfully, our mattress picks come with sleep trials of at least 90 nights. So, if you find the bed isn’t right for your sleeping style, you can return it.
Robbins warned about the environmental implications of this policy, though. “It is nice, of course, to be able to return the mattress if it’s not suiting your personal preferences,” she said. “But, some of the mattresses will unfortunately go into a landfill after they’re returned, which is a little bit hard on the environment, but it is good to have the ability to return the direct-to-consumer options.”
What types of mattresses are best for side sleepers?
There are essentially four main types of mattresses on the market these days: foam, hybrid/innerspring, latex, and adjustable airbeds. Though no one type is the best or worst for side sleepers, they each have their pros and cons.
Foam: Popularized by the bed-in-a-box industry, foam mattresses feature layers of gel-infused foam, open-cell foam, or viscoelastic memory foam. The best foam mattresses adjust to the contours of your side-sleeping body for optimal spinal alignment and pressure relief. All-foam mattresses tend to be more affordable than other varieties, but they are likelier to trap heat.
Hybrid/innerspring: Both hybrid and innerspring mattresses feature metal coils that add durability, airflow, and support. Though the line between the two types of beds gets blurrier each year, traditional mattresses with pillowtops are generally called innerspring mattresses, while hybrids typically arrive at your door in a box and feature latex or memory foam. However, you can find innerspring beds-in-a-box and hybrids with pillowtops. The suitability of these mattresses for side sleepers will depend on the model, but consider a bed with a pillowtop for the added softness that side sleepers typically need.
Latex: Natural latex mattresses are usually more eco-friendly than the other alternatives. Look for OEKO-Tex or Greenguard Gold certification. As far as feel, latex is more responsive than other materials. It quickly contours to your body to relieve your pressure points. Plus, the responsiveness makes it easier for you to move around on your bed. You can also count on a cooler sleep, which makes it ideal for hot side sleepers.
Adjustable or airbeds: Adjustable airbeds feature a combination of foam, latex, wool, or other layers and air chambers to which you can add or remove air to fit your comfort needs. Though they cost more than the other varieties, adjustable mattresses are ideal for couples who have drastically different firmness preferences since you can typically adjust the air of the two sides independently. Also, as your body and sleep preferences change, the feel of your mattress can change with you, making this an ideal long-term solution.
What firmness is best for side sleepers?
Dr. Luis Javier Peña-Hernández, a lung and sleep health specialist at the Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Disorders Institute of South Florida, recommends mattresses that are not too firm. “Vast research exists to support side sleepers benefit from medium-firm mattresses to support pressure point relief,” said Peña-Hernández.
Robbins agreed. “You are trying to support your spinal column as your body is on its side. So you want to think about something that’s not going to be super firm,” she said. “So, a rock-hard mattress isn’t going to be ideal for a side sleeper. If you imagine the body, all of its curves, as a side sleeper, your hips, your spinal column, your cervical spine, all of those points ideally need a little bit of support. So, if you have something that’s more cushiony supportive but has a little bit of a plush top, that might be a better option for a side sleeper.”
Only one of our picks is firmer than average, the Tempur-Pedic Cloud, but I found the mattress’ foam did an excellent job of contouring to my side-sleeping body and offering pressure relief, support, and spinal alignment.
What if I’m a side sleeper and my partner is not?
“There are mattress pads you can get if you have a mattress and one partner is not particularly comfortable and the other is,” said Robbins. “It is one stopgap measure if you’re not in the market for a new mattress.”
However, she added, “There’s actually a huge proportion of couples that sleep apart. If you think about it, it’s nice to have some time to cuddle before bedtime, but when you’re asleep, you’re not going to be able to spend quality time with your spouse. So, if it means sleeping in different bedrooms, either because one partner snores or one partner isn’t happy with the mattress, then that’s absolutely okay. Furthermore, a good night’s rest will allow you to be a better partner to that person you share your life with. So, prioritizing sleep is really critical for couples.”
If separate beds or bedrooms isn’t an option for you, we suggest an adjustable air bed that allows you to independently customize the firmness of each side of the bed. Our top pick for customization in this guide and our best mattress guide is the Sleep Number 360 i8 Smart Bed, which has 20 firmness options.
For more answers to your mattress questions, check out our guide to the best mattresses.