Pillow talk

Last time, I put out my advice regarding purchasing a mattress, so I thought that I would now do a little bit about pillows.  I actually think that the pillow set-up you have is often more significant than the mattress, particularly in cases of neck and shoulder pain.

There are a few main things to think about with pillows:

  1. What position do I sleep in? The depth and type of pillow you should use varies according to whether you sleep on your side or your back. You will note I don’t mention sleeping on your front – this sleeping position potentially causes myriad problems whatever pillow you use, and is the only way of sleeping that I thoroughly do NOT recommend.  If you sleep on your side you will need a fairly deep height of pillows, whether this is achieved through a big, firm pillow or several smaller, squashier ones.  When you are settled and comfortable lying on your side, your head should remain in a straight line with the rest of your body, not tilting towards or away from the mattress.  If you sleep on your back, then in theory you don’t need anything at all behind your neck, just a small roll behind your neck for a bit of added support there.  Most people, however, find this very uncomfortable, so a thin pillow is acceptable, but you certainly don’t need anything deep.
  2. I move around a lot – what should I use? If you switch from side to your back, and generally fidget all around then there are two ways to approach this. If you spend most of your time flipping from side to side and only occasionally go onto your back, or vice versa, then choose a pillow to suit the position you are most often in.  If you really are an active all-over-the-place sleeper, then perhaps something like a feather pillow would be best – they tend to squash fairly flat if you have them on the bed in a normal arrangement (good for the time spent on your back), but can be pummelled into all sorts of shapes to keep your head in a neutral alignment with your body, whatever attitude you end up in!
  3. What should my pillow be made from? This is a personal preference issue, for the most part. If you have a dust allergy, feather pillows clearly aren’t the way to go; on the other hand, you might hate the feeling of memory foam.  There’s no point having the “right” pillow if you can’t stand to rest your head on it!  Don’t be afraid to mix it up as well – it could be that an artificial fibre pillow mixes well with a feather pillow to give you the support you need while also being flexible.
  4. What about orthopaedic pillows? Ah, where there’s an opinion on the “right” way to have something, there will be someone making money out of it. Don’t get me wrong – many people swear by orthopaedic pillows and wouldn’t use anything else.  But they are often expensive, and if you’re willing to put a bit more thought into things like the position you sleep in, you can probably find something just as suitable for a lot less money.
  5. I travel a lot – do I have to take my pillows with me?! This is another reason I tend to steer away from special pillows like those claiming to be orthopaedic. If you understand the idea behind a good pillow set-up, you can usually arrange the most horrific hotel pillows into a pretty good approximation of what you have at home.  Ok, if the hotel supplies feather pillows and you prefer memory foam there’s not much I can do about that, but you can at least make sure you don’t end up with a crick neck from having them too high, too low or generally in the wrong place.

Hope that helps a little bit – sweet dreams!


We all use them, but how often do you think about whether your mattress is right for you?  Or how much it can affect your life – both in terms of quality of sleep, and the potential for causing pain or other physical problems.

Most people are aware of how important posture is to your overall health.  If you’ve experienced a full day sat at a poorly set-up work station, and felt the aches and pains after you’ve been there, then it can quickly prompt you to change things so that the computer is the right position, your chair suits you or your desk is the right height.

But let’s take the average-Joe office worker.  Let’s say, they work a 9-5 day, Monday to Friday, with maybe an hour off for lunch in the middle of the day.  They have had the Occupational Health team in, so everything is set up in the optimum position.  That’s a total of 35 hours a week, supposedly sat in the right way, doing all the right things as far as their work will allow.  But they are still getting headaches. Or low back pain.  Or a stabbing pain through their chest every time they take a deep breath.

It’s entirely possible any of these problems are to do with their bed.  35 hours a week of being in the correct, well-supported posture is nothing when you consider an average 8-hours-a-night sleeping pattern means you are spending 56 hours a week in your bed, rarely getting up for a tea break, or to go and check the printer, or for lunch.  Just lying there, relatively still, in whatever position you fall asleep in.

Add to that how rarely most people renew their mattress and we start to see just how important the health of your bed can be.

But what sort of mattress should you be going for?  There are articles and studies and “expert” opinions all over the internet on this topic, but my personal opinion is this: whatever is comfortable for you.  Now, I add the caveat of “nothing too soft” to that – you do need a certain level of support from the surface you are sleeping on, so something that just lets you sink in to it is not going to be any good – but should you go for medium-firm? Hard? Memory foam? Pocket sprung? With a topper or without? It’s all down to personal preference, and sleeping position.

A few tips, though.  First, never test a mattress when you’re tired.  If you are about ready to drop, then you could fall asleep at a bus shelter and think it’s comfortable.  You need to be able to get a comfortable, good night’s sleep even when your mind is tending to overdrive, so if you think you could drop off on something even though you’re awake and ready to go, it’s probably going to be a good bet.

Second, make sure you give it a good long test run.  This is where buying over the internet can be harder – you have no idea what you’re getting until it arrives, and then many of us will settle for not-quite-right rather than get into the hassle of returning it, even if there is a money back guarantee in place.  Go to the store, kick your shoes off and settle in for long enough that you can be sure you are getting something which will be a lasting investment for you.

Finally, consider what position you normally sleep in.  If you are a side-sleeper, you are likely to want a slightly softer mattress than someone who sleeps on their back.  If you sleep one way but your partner sleeps another, consider a split-support mattress so that each of you has the level of comfort you need.