How Many Pillows Should You Sleep With?

The average American lays their head on a pillow every night— this adds up to one-third of our lifetimes spent on a pillow.

Gone are the days of choosing between down feather or cotton pillows. Now, you can get buckwheat pillows, biodegradable pillows, contoured memory foam pillows, natural latex pillows, and gel or copper-infused pillows, to name a few.

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Interior designers also seem to feed this “pillow fever.” If you have a queen-sized bed, for example, a designer might recommend that you style your bed with four standard rectangular pillows, two square European pillows, and two accent pillows of your choice. Smaller accent pillows can come in handy if you need extra support for your neck, hips, or arms at night.

With so many sources recommending so many pillows, you may be wondering: what is the ideal number of pillows to sleep on? You may have four pillows on your bed, but chances are, you are not using all four of those for yourself. Nevertheless, some people may need more than one to sleep comfortably.

By understanding different reasons for using pillows, you can improve the quality of your sleep, your physical health, and even your bedroom’s appearance.

Why Sleep on More Than One Pillow?

Although design recommendations suggest that the average person should own 6 to 10 pillows just for their bed, most American sleep with just one or two pillows. The general assumption is that you only need one pillow for your head, so what are some reasons a person might need extra pillows?

  • Old pillows: Old down feather or memory foam pillows will go flat over time. Even if you use a pillow that claims to last long, it will eventually lose its structure and become thinner or lumpy. Rather than getting new pillows, many people take another old pillow and put it on top of the one they usually sleep on, creating added height.However, there are many reasons not to use old pillows, from a buildup of dust mites and mold spores to decreased neck support.
  • Wrong material: If you sleep on your side and you have a soft, thin down feather pillow, you may feel like you need a second or third pillow to support your head in a comfortable position. Sleeping on the wrong pillow type for your sleep position is a common reason people develop neck and back pain.
  • Body support: Improved support for your body is an effective use of multiple pillows. If you habitually sleep on your stomach, you are likely to develop low back pain. You can help alleviate this by placing a standard-sized pillow behind your back, with another in front of you, to prevent you from rolling over and allowing you to sleep on your side. If you sleep on your side, you may need a smaller pillow under your neck to keep your head and spine in alignment.

If the average American sleeps with 2.2 pillows, that suggests they either have them stacked on top of each other to create better support for their neck and back, or they use one to support their body as they sleep.

Keeping your spine and back in alignment is essential, especially as you get older. You can effectively reduce chronic pain in your spine and joints by keeping yourself in an ergonomic position throughout the night.

Arranging Your Pillows

Most people with multiple pillows on their beds do not sleep on all these pillows. Some of these pillows are arranged on the bed for decoration can be used to improve spinal alignment and reduce joint pain throughout your body.

Standard pillows are the larger, rectangular pillows most Americans typically purchase. Larger square pillows, or European pillows, may work well for people who sleep on their backs and or who want to prop their head and neck up while reading in bed.

Accent pillows come in all shapes and sizes. The following are a few options you can use during sleep.

  • Cylindrical pillows can be placed under the neck and above the shoulder if you sleep on your side, so your neck is kept in line with your spine.
  • Small square or rectangular pillows can be placed as a cushion between your knees to keep your hips in alignment.
  • Medium rectangle or square pillows can be placed under your arm if you sleep on your side, keeping your shoulders in alignment.
  • Body pillows are larger rectangular or cylindrical pillows that can be used to keep your whole body aligned on your back or your side.

Are Pillows Even Necessary for Good Sleep?

Modern pillows are, in essence, an extension of our mattresses. Some sleep specialists believe that a good enough mattress eliminates the need for a pillow.

Pillow loft, or height, can affect your comfort levels while you sleep. Combined with your sleeping position, pillow loft can either help or hinder comfortable sleep.

  • Stomach sleepers should choose a low-loft pillow to avoid unnatural curvature of the neck because the head is flexed forward. Some stomach sleepers might be comfortable with no pillow at all.
  • Side sleepers will find the most comfort in a medium loft pillow which allows them to sleep with their arms under their heads without the risk of paresthesia, or pins and needles. A too-firm pillow that keeps the neck upright puts pressure on the face and jaw, which can lead to head and jaw pain.
  • Back sleepers typically choose medium to high loft pillows to avoid any shoulder pain. For back sleepers, a thin pillow can cause the shoulders to rotate forward or backward.

For most people, sleeping without a pillow may make neck pain, back pain, headaches, migraines, and even snoring or other breathing disturbances worse. According to sleep experts, using one to two pillows at most is the best combination for sleeping on your back or your side.

Start With Your Mattress to Pick the Right Pillow

Pillows are undoubtedly important, but when it comes to a good night’s rest, finding the best mattress for your needs plays a bigger role. If you have trouble sleeping, you may be sleeping on a mattress that is too old or the wrong firmness for your body.

Mattresses typically last between 7 and 10 years, but experts recommend replacing them every eight years, on average. Mattresses can be a big investment, so many people wait well after that 10-year mark to get a new mattress. However, waiting too long can wreak havoc on sleep quality.

Even if your mattress is new, it may be the wrong firmness for you. Sleeping on your back, for example, has traditionally been associated with a very firm or even hard mattress. However, to keep the natural curve of your spine, you may want to try one that is slightly less firm than the standard recommendation. Medium or medium-soft mattresses are recommended for those who sleep mostly on their sides, while firm mattresses may work for people who habitually sleep on their stomachs.

Pillows can support the work of your mattress to keep your body in alignment. Think of your mattress like a full-body pillow. You want to support your natural sleeping habits without contributing to chronic back or joint pain. With that in mind, choose a pillow that enhances the support of your mattress.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Sarah Anderson, Certified Sleep Science Coach Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson is a sleep, health, and wellness writer and product reviewer. She has written articles on changing and improving your sleep schedule, choosing the right mattress for chronic pain conditions, and finding the best pillow for you. Sarah Anderson has her Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to working for Zoma, she wrote for a variety of news publications. Sarah's work has been featured on Bustle, PureWow, and other publications.

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