Side Sleeping Guide: How to Choose a Mattress that Makes You Sleep Like a Baby

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People wake up in pain every day due to inadequate support from their mattress or pillow.

To help you get a better night's sleep, we have compiled expert advice about finding the best mattresses and pillows that provide adequate support for side, back, and stomach sleepers.

After finishing this article, you'll know what to look for when shopping either in-store or online for a pillow or mattress to support your body and provide proper pressure relief to side sleepers. You will know what types of mattresses and firmness comfort ratings to look for in your new bed.

How can sleeping on your side affect your health?

Almost 70 percent of people sleep on their side, according to a recent Consumer Reports study. While sleeping on your side is the second-best position (behind sleeping on your back and ahead of sleeping on your stomach), there are a few situations where you can definitely benefit.

Sleeping on your left side is the doctor-recommended sleeping position for pregnant women and can help with snoring, sleep apnea, digestion, and heartburn.

Why does it hurt to sleep on your side?

Sleeping with a mattress or pillow that doesn't support you well enough can lead to pain in your hips, back, shoulder or arm.

Mattress Advisor explains, “The reason sleeping on your side is not as good as sleeping on your back is because it puts pressure on your hips and shoulders.” Sleepopolis clarifies, “A mattress with great support will relieve pressure points and keep your spine, neck, and back in alignment. For side sleepers, this is especially important, since your spine may be misaligned already.”

Additionally, a good mattress should contour to your body and support your spine while you sleep so that it stays in alignment and parallel to the mattress surface. When you don't get enough support, or you sink into your mattress too much, your spine is forced out of alignment, and your body will tell you.

The third thing to worry about is arm, shoulder, and neck pain due to inadequate neck support. Dr. Nate Vogan tells Mattress Advisor, “If you are a side sleeper, it's important to make sure your neck is square to your shoulders and not sagging to one side. The implications of this is a muscular issue. It can create impingements of the joints in your neck. These impingements cause pain and tightness in the neck and under the arms.”

What mattress firmness is best for side sleepers?

You need a mattress that conforms to your body and offers pressure relief.

Matt Ross from The Slumber Yard suggests, “Side sleepers generally prefer softer mattresses that are more gentle around their pressure points. Beds that are too firm tend to cause discomfort around the hips and shoulders of side sleepers. Given this, we've found that a lot of side sleepers like beds that contain memory foam top layers. Memory foam, unlike a lot of other common foams, conforms to the sleeper's body shape. As such, side sleepers feel like memory foam beds cradle their hips and shoulders extremely well.“

Andy Bloom and Shane Carey from Home Mattress Center explain, “Side sleepers will lean towards a softer surface feel in a lot of cases. This is because when you are on your side you take the same amount of pressure but condense it into a smaller surface area. In this case shoulders and hips become major pressure points that will appreciate the softer surface padding that can cradle these areas and alleviate the pressure that contributes to aches/pains and tossing/turning.“

Don't forget to consider your weight. Depending on your weight, different support levels will conform to your body differently. Sleep research site Tuck recommends medium, soft, or softer mattresses for side sleepers who weigh under 130 pounds, medium or medium-firm mattresses for those weighing 130 to 230 pounds, and medium-firm or firmer mattresses for people over 230 pounds.

What kind of mattress is best for side sleepers?

Side sleepers need a softer feeling mattress than back sleepers, but what types of mattresses are best? Should you look for a latex mattress, a memory foam mattress, a gel-infused memory foam mattress, an innerspring mattress, or a hybrid mattress?

Sleep Guide explains, "Mattresses now use layers of contouring and supporting materials to give you the soft give you need for side sleeping without sagging." Along with contouring support, Sleepopolis adds, “Foam mattresses offer many advantages for side sleepers, but well-built and well-designed innerspring mattresses can be effective also.”

You can choose any type of mattress, but choose a model with enough contouring and support to provide the pressure relief that you need for your hips and shoulder.

What kind of pillow is best for a side sleeper?

Pillows greatly impact the quality of your sleep and how you feel when you get out of bed. They can be the difference between being in pain or pain-free, but their importance is often overlooked. Experts suggest that people who sleep on their side use two pillows to avoid pain: one under your head to avoid spine, neck and shoulder pain and one between your knees to combat lower back and hip pain.

When sleeping on your side, a good goal is to try to keep your ear, shoulder, and hips in alignment. This is going to be the job of your pillow too. “Pillows made from latex, shredded foam, memory foam, or other poly foam help provide consistent and stable support by responding to the varying pressures of your head and neck. You'll want to look for a pillow that is tall enough to cradle your head and neck but not so tall that you introduce a new form of pressure,” according to Sleepopolis.

The National Sleep Foundation concurs, “Go for a firm pillow, and one with an extra-wide gusset to help bridge the distance between your ear and shoulder. (Instead of a pillow that has just a top panel sewed directly to a bottom panel, a gusseted pillow has rectangular panels along all four sides that increase its thickness.)” You can even find special anatomical pillows to help support your neck and avoid pain.

For the between-your-knees pillow, which helps preserve your spinal alignment, chiropractor Dr. Jarrett Grunstein explains what to look for in Sleep Junkies, “I recommend the width of this pillow to be approximately the width of a fist. This will serve to keep the pelvis in a neutral position, minimizing compression or torque forces on the sacroiliac joints, which are a very common source of low back pain.” You can use a purpose-made half-moon or hourglass-shaped pillow or a body pillow between your legs.

How do I avoid being stuck with a mattress I hate?

When you invest in a mattress, you can get burned by a retailer with poor return or exchange policies. Mattresses have such a wide range of comfort levels because everyone's body is different. Sleepopolis has some great advice for shoppers, “Be sure to try a wide range of firmnesses when shopping for the best mattress for you. Depending on your size, weight, and body type, you may find different firmness levels affect your body differently. When trying out a new mattress, it helps to lie on it exactly as you would sleep. Try to give it at least ten minutes. Softer mattresses for side sleepers contour and react to your body very quickly, as soon as you lie down, so it may feel different after only five minutes.”

When you are shopping for a mattress, especially when shopping online, see if a trial or exchange period is offered. You don't want to be stuck with a mattress that isn't a good fit. Most places will offer at least a 30-day exchange period. You also want to know in advance what the exchange or return shipping fee will be. Most retailers charge at least $100 for an exchange. Also, be aware that a full refund is not likely to be available.

Following these guidelines, as well as knowing how to exchange your mattress, will go a long way to helping you sleep like a baby on your new mattress.

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