No one pillow is right for everyone. Everyone has a unique sleep position, which influences the level of support needed in a pillow. Back and stomach sleepers don’t need very much support as their heads are close to the mattress, but side sleepers need more support — otherwise, the neck muscles strain to support the head throughout the night, resulting in a sore neck and aching head in the morning.
The best pillows for side sleepers firmly support the head and neck to align the spine. Side sleepers benefit from sleeping with more than one type of pillow, as additional pillows position their legs and arms for a good night’s rest. A knee pillow keeps the hips aligned while holding another pillow can prevent the arms from falling asleep.
We compiled a guide on the types of pillows and materials a side sleeper should consider. Additionally, we explained how to choose a pillow based on loft and how long your pillow should last.
Our Recommendation: Zoma Pillow
Our Zoma Pillow can mold into the perfect shape while maintaining firm support and contouring to the neck and head to relieve strain.
The MicroCushion™ pillow fill enhances breathability, which wards off heat retention. It resists germs and dust mites, which caters to allergy sufferers.
CertiPUR-US® has certified our MicroCushions™ as an eco-friendly material made without ozone depleters, flame retardants, and other harmful chemicals.
The polyester-spandex cover stretches for additional airflow. You can remove the pillow cover for easy cleaning, and the pillow itself is machine washable— we recommend washing it every six months.
Every Zoma Pillow comes with a 100-night trial, a 10-year warranty, free shipping, and free returns. A queen pillow costs $75.
What A Side Sleeper Needs From A Pillow
Side sleepers develop a large gap between their neck and the mattress, which can cause chronic pain if the gap isn’t filled. They need a thick, conforming, and firm pillow, as too much softness compromises the neck support.
Side sleepers benefit from breathable materials, as half of their face presses into the pillow all night. Gel memory foam or cooling microfibers can keep your face from feeling too warm.
Pillow Types Good for a Side Sleeper
Many side sleepers rest comfortably using just basic rectangular pillows. Still, pillows with different shapes or pillows designed to slip between the knees can also improve a side sleeper’s sleep quality.
The typical bed pillow. Usually, a standard pillow is 20 inches by 26 inches.
A standard pillow is most often used as a head pillow, but a side sleeper can keep a second standard pillow between their legs for pressure relief and even try hugging a third pillow to prevent arm numbness.
Also known as a cervical pillow, a contour pillow has two raised slopes on opposite sides to support a sleeper’s neck. Each side has different height options. The head rests in the recess formed between the slopes, which aligns the base of the head with the spine.
Side sleepers have a gap between their necks and the mattress, causing a lack of support that leads to neck pain. A contour pillow eliminates the divide, alleviating muscle and spinal stress.
Knee pillows stop your top leg and hips from misaligning your spine. It minimizes pressure on your hips and lower back. They come in bow-shapes or triangular designs with indents for your legs, so the pillows don’t slip from between your knees as your sleep.
A body pillow can support the back and stomach of a side sleeper, reducing muscle strain. Just rest your head at one end, while hugging the pillow with your arms and knees. A body pillow eliminates the use of multiple pillows and can make your sleep environment less chaotic.
Body pillows are usually 20 inches wide and either 48 or 54 inches long— which might be too big for a twin-size mattress.
Bolsters pillows are thin pillows that measure 18 inches long. Typically, a bolster pillow is cylindrical.
Side sleepers unsure how to position their arms might want to try hugging a bolster pillow while drifting off to sleep. Bolster pillows can also be used as knee pillows, though they lack the indents to prevent slippage.
A pregnancy pillow has a U-shape design to support a woman’s stomach and back, which limits tossing and turning. Her head rests on the curve of the “U,” while her knees squeeze one leg of the “U” for better hip alignment.
Women should sleep on their left side during pregnancy, to help maximize the blood and nutrients the baby receives. A pregnancy pillow makes the position more comfortable.
Common Types of Pillow Fills
There’s a wide variety of pillow materials. The filling in a pillow influences its feel, durability, and cost.
A down pillow contains the soft plumage from underneath a goose or duck’s feather coat. It’s a fluffy, lightweight, and moldable fill.
A down pillow is expensive and must be fluffed to keep its shape. However, a down pillow can last a sleeper for several years if maintained, making it a worthwhile investment.
As a down pillow ages, it grows excessively soft, and clumps of down may fall out of the pillow.
A down alternative pillow uses synthetic material such as polyester to imitate the feel of down, making it an alternative choice for down allergy sufferers. It makes a good budget pillow as it costs less than real down.
Down alternative pillows have a short lifespan as the synthetic material flattens or develops lumps with use. We suggest retiring down alternative materials every two to three years to promote hygiene.
Feather pillow fills come from geese and ducks and produce a firmer feel than down. The filling is soft and conforming, although quills may poke through the cover and cause sleep disruptions. A few feather pillow owners have complained of odors after the pillow is unpackaged or washed.
Feather fill costs less than down filling and has a short lifespan, about three years.
Memory foam is one of the more responsive materials available. Responsiveness can relieve pressure and pain by molding to your neck for extra support. If you often wake up with neck pain or headaches, you might want to try a memory foam pillow.
Memory foam pillows are allergen resistant. The foam’s density doesn’t allow allergens and dust to penetrate the surface, making it difficult to accumulate inside the pillow.
There are two types of memory foam fillings: a solid block of foam and shredded foam. Of the two, shredded memory foam creates a cooler pillow as the space between memory foam pieces encourages more airflow. A solid pillow, however, requires less maintenance.
Latex pillows mold themselves to a sleeper, much like memory foam does, reducing the pressure in the head and neck muscles. It’s a more durable material than memory foam, snapping back into shape even after extended use.
Latex is a dense material, which makes for a heavy, firm pillow.
These pillows contain the hulls of buckwheat seeds, which contour to the head and neck for pressure relief. The fill is adjustable, though the hulls do rustle as you shift in your sleep.
Buckwheat pillows are a hypoallergenic choice as air circulation makes it difficult for allergens and dust mites to settle. However, if you’re sensitive to plants, talk to your doctor before using a buckwheat pillow.
A buckwheat pillow is not machine washable, although you can sprinkle baking soda on the pillow or leave it in the sun for a few hours to freshen it up.
Pillows filled with polyester are inexpensive and easy to find —look in the bedding section of your local department store, and you should find one for $20 or less.
Polyester is lightweight and shapeable, but it can quickly grow lumpy and may lose its support in less than a year. Polyester also does not breathe well, and it may feel uncomfortably warm on a hot night.
Pillow loft describes the height or thickness of a pillow, with three lofts available —low, medium, and high. Side sleepers should look for a high loft pillow to keep the head and neck aligned with the spine.
|Sleep Style||Recommended Loft|
|Side Sleepers||4 to 6 inches|
|Back Sleepers||3 to 5 inches|
|Stomach Sleepers||Less than 3 inches|
Your mattress’s materials influence what pillow loft is right for you. A mattress with a surface you sink into minimizes the distance between your body and the mattress — so a lower loft pillow may sufficiently support your head and neck. If your mattress keeps you more on top, a thicker pillow is needed.
How Much Should a Pillow Cost?
Pillows span a large price range, from less than $5 to more than $100. The pillow’s fill influences its price, with natural materials carrying a higher price tag than synthetic materials. Extra features such as cooling gels, hypoallergenic properties, and adjustable thickness also drive the price up.
So much should you pay for a side sleeper pillow? We recommend a budget of $20 to $100 for a queen pillow. If you want to purchase a knee pillow as well, look for one between $15 to $40.
How Long Does a Pillow Last?
The expected lifespan of a pillow depends on its materials, but a great pillow should last between two to five years.
A few years may not seem long, but there are a couple of reasons to replace a pillow often:
- Daily use of a pillow flattens it, negating its support for your neck and head. An adjustable pillow lets you stretch out its use by fluffing it as it starts to go flat.
- Pillows absorb dead skin, hair, and sweat; all of these attract dust mites, pests that act as an allergen for many sleepers. Washing a pillow eliminates pests and cleans out body cast-offs.
Is It Time for a New Pillow?
No matter how much care you invest in your pillow, you will need to replace it one day. Common signs it’s time to start shopping for a new pillow include:
- It’s uncomfortable to lie on
- It has lumps, sags, or lost its shape
- It’s permanently stained or yellowed
- You wake up with shoulder or neck pain
- You wake up with headaches or experience more headaches than normal
- Your allergy symptoms are worse after you wake up
- Your face is breaking out in acne
Taking Care of Your Pillow
You can get the most out of your pillow with just a couple minutes of daily fluffing and frequent washing.
Keeping your pillow in a cover is the simplest way to maintain your pillow. Covers protect a pillow from allergens and pests that might work their way inside, which can cause symptoms to flare up and change the pillow’s feel.
If your pillow has an adjustable fill such as down, feather, or shredded foam, fluff it every morning to maintain its shape. To fluff, hold both ends and push inward.
Wash your pillowcase and pillow cover with your bedding every week. Run your bedding through a hot water cycle to kill any lingering dust mites or bacteria.
If your pillow is machine washable, wash it every six months. Certain pillow fills might smell musty after a wash (such as down and feather pillows); if that happens, leave your pillow in the sun for a few hours to freshen up.
If your pillow is not washable, freshen it up with regular vacuuming (you can use a vacuum extension for this), spot cleaning, and an occasional sprinkling of baking soda.
Sleeping on the Right Mattress
The right pillow isn’t all you need for a good night’s sleep. A plush, cushioning mattress maintains a side sleeper’s spinal alignment by molding to their body for support. Side sleepers need to sink into their bed, as lying on top of the mattress raises the spine out of alignment.
Consider a mattress with zoned support, as side sleeping creates pressure points in the hips and shoulders, which builds up into hip and shoulder pain if the pressure is not reduced. Zoned support sections the mattress into firmer and softer areas — typically, there’s extra support in the head, waist, and knees areas and added cushioning in the shoulders and hips area.
The best mattress for a side sleeper contains pressure-relieving, contouring materials such as memory foam or latex. If you’re not ready to buy a new mattress yet, purchasing an inexpensive mattress topper will add 2 or 3 inches of conforming material to sink into.
Sleep Trial and Warranty
Before you purchase a pillow, read through any attached sleep trial and warranty policies. We strongly recommend a pillow with both, as they are a mark of a company’s faith in its product.
Sleep trials let you test out a pillow at home. Not every pillow comes with a sleep trial, although many online pillows include one as a way for a customer to determine its comfort.
Some pillow sleep trials are as short as 45 days, while others span 90 to 120 days.
A warranty is a contract between the company and the consumer. Under a warranty, a company will repair or replace a defective pillow.
Pillow warranties cover manufacturing defects such as tears or cracks in the material. Some warranties may compensate for damage to an included cover’s fabric or zipper.
The length of the warranty can give you an idea of how long a pillow will last. We suggest a pillow with warranty coverage for the first five years. Side sleepers should look for a pillow 4 to 6 inches tall. A pillow with an adjustable loft lets you find your ideal height. Sleeping on your right side may be better for your heart. A 2003 study found patients with congestive heart failure avoided sleeping on their left side. Side sleeping also promotes blood flow to your head by decreasing flow resistance, which researchers hypothesize helps prevent neurodegeneration. Neurodegeneration can cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease to develop. Try to keep your shoulders off of your pillow. Resting your shoulders on the pillow creates gaps between your neck and the pillow, compromising its support and leaving you with a stiff, sore neck in the morning.
Frequently Asked Questions
Side sleepers should look for a pillow 4 to 6 inches tall. A pillow with an adjustable loft lets you find your ideal height.
Sleeping on your right side may be better for your heart. A 2003 study found patients with congestive heart failure avoided sleeping on their left side.
Side sleeping also promotes blood flow to your head by decreasing flow resistance, which researchers hypothesize helps prevent neurodegeneration. Neurodegeneration can cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease to develop.
Try to keep your shoulders off of your pillow. Resting your shoulders on the pillow creates gaps between your neck and the pillow, compromising its support and leaving you with a stiff, sore neck in the morning.
Did We Help?
A high loft pillow with a firm feel can keep a side sleeper’s head and neck supported. Too soft or too short, and the head may dip too low, leaving a sleeper with morning neck pain.
Side sleepers should consider not only the standard head pillow but also a knee pillow to keep their hips aligned with their spine.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.