Self-Help Tips From Dr Sarah Brewer

Are You Using The Right Pillow For Your Sleeping Position?

bed pillows

Did you know that the type of pillow you need depends on the position in which you tend to sleep? I recently bemoaned the fact that I’d splashed out on a pure goose down pillow – supposedly the height of luxury – but it didn’t provide the support or comfort I craved. Turns out that a goose down pillow is best for people who sleep on their front and, because I sleep on my side, I needed a pillow that provided both softness and support instead. Once I switched to a Boutique Silk pillow, which is used in many top hotels, I was in slumber heaven! So which type of pillow is best for you?

What’s the best pillow filling for you?

A good pillow is vital for a good night’s rest. While you sleep, your voluntary muscles become paralyzed to prevent you acting out your dreams. While this aids muscle relaxation, it can lead to straining of ligaments and joints if you are lying in an awkward position. To help prevent this, your pillow should cradle your head and align your neck with your spine to provide comfort and support so you wake feeling refreshed and ready to face the day.

The position in which you most frequently tend to sleep affects the type of pillow that best suits your needs – a natural pillow filling, a synthetic pillow filling or a specialist foam pillow filling.

Best pillow for sleeping on your side

Almost two out of three people sleep mainly on their side, sometimes with an arm tucked under their pillow.

If you mostly sleep on your side, you need a pillow that will support your head so it doesn’t flop into your pillow (as was happening with my goose down version). This lack of support can strain ligaments and joints in your neck, leading to aches and pains.

Synthetic pillow fillings are ideal as you want enhanced support and a pillow that retains its plumpness and cushioning throughout the night. Synthetic pillows are highly breathable and non-allergenic and help to wick moisture away.  These are ideal if you sleep on your side, or if you have an allergy to feathers or house dust mites.

boutique silk pillowYour ideal pillow is: one that offers full support, such as Boutique Silk (the one I now use), Breathe (firm support and highly breathable microfibres), or Spundown in ‘firm’.

The Boutique Silk pillow offers firm support, is non-allergenic and contains Smartfil micro cluster fibres blended with fine silk. This was a revelation for me. I can honestly say it’s the softest, most luxurious pillow I’ve every used.

Sleeping on your right side is twice as common as sleeping on your left side. While it doesn’t matter which side you sleep when it comes to selecting a pillow, lying on your right can increase the chance of indigestion and heart burn. Lying on your right side causes stomach juices to pool against the valve at the lower end of the oesophagus, and can lead to acid reflux. When you sleep on your left side however, trapped wind can roll up the curve of the stomach to escape as a satisfying ‘burp’.

When lying on your side, draw your legs up slightly to reduce nerve compression. Placing a long pillow between your knees is also comforting if you are prone to joint pain.

Best pillow for sleeping on your stomach

Around one in eight people sleep in a prone position. When you sleep flat on your stomach, your head is forced to turn to one side to avoid being smothered by your pillow. This position can compromise the natural curves of the spine, so you are more likely to wake with neck, arm, shoulder or back pain, especially if your pillow is too high, which cause your head to twist upwards, stressing the ligaments in your neck even further.

A natural pillow filling will best suit your needs, as these are known for their excellent thermal and breathable qualities. Goose down has no quills making it extremely light and soft. Natural pillow fillings tend to flatten under the weight of your head, and are ideal if you tend to lie on your front.

Your ideal pillow is one that supports the weight of your head with cushioning softness as it pushes down into the pillow, while allowing you to breathe. Choose a medium soft pillow for maximum comfort, such as a pure Goose Down pillow.

Best pillow if you sleep partially on your front, turned to one side 

One in ten people sleep partly on their front and partly on their side, with one leg tucked up. This is the natural equivalent of the Recovery Position which first aiders use to protect the airway in someone who is unconscious. This position is the least likely to lead to snoring and back or neck problems – as long as you don’t raise your top leg too far which can twist the spine.

Your ideal pillow is similar as for those who sleep on their front, to cushion the weight of your head pushes down into the pillow. You may prefer a bit more support from a feather and down pillow to provide more firmness. Choose a medium soft pillow for maximum comfort.

When lying on your side, drawing your legs up slightly will reduce nerve compression. Placing a long pillow between your knees is also comforting if you are prone to joint pain.

Best pillow for sleeping on your back

Only one in six people naturally sleep mainly on their back, but you may be advised to try this if you have neck, shoulder or back problems.

Lying flat on your back is best for your spine (especially if you place a small pillow under your knees and in the small of your back) but does mean you are more likely to snore – your tongue and throat muscles relax and can drop under the effects of gravity to partially block your upper airway.

Specialist foam or gel-filled fibre pillows are ideal if you have neck or back problems. Temperature-sensitive memory foam pillows mould to the contours of your head and neck to aid correct alignment and posture, as well as cradling your head and supporting your neck. These are perfect if you suffer from aches and pains, if you want a high level of support throughout the night. Contoured specialist pillows can help to prevent snoring.

Your ideal pillow is one that provides your neck and head with full but gentle support. Choose a medium pillow, such as Goose Feather & Down, Clusterfull pillow (filled with fluffy hollowfibre clusters) or a medium firm pillow.

Anti snore pillows

If you snore, a specialist pillow designed to help keep your airway open can help. This is especially important if your airway becomes completely obstructed, and stops you breathing during your sleep – a condition known as obstructive sleep apnoea. You may not be aware of the problem – especially if you sleep alone – but tell-tale signs include:

  • having a morning headache
  • waking up feeling drunk – even though you’ve had no alcohol
  • waking with a frightening sensation of choking or fighting for air
  • excessive daytime sleepiness and yawning
  • poor memory and difficulty concentrating.

If the problem continues, despite using an anti snore pillow, seek medical advice.

Ask your bed partner to gently turn you onto your side if you snore, or use an anti-snoring pillow designed to prop up your head without straining your neck.

Image credits: pixabay; Fine Bedding Company

author avatar
Dr Sarah Brewer ex-Medical Director (20 years)
Dr Sarah Brewer MSc (Nutr Med), MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, RNutr, MBANT, CNHC, Dip IoD qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. After working in general practice, she gained a master's degree in nutritional medicine from the University of Surrey. Sarah is a registered Medical Doctor, a registered Nutritionist and a registered Nutritional Therapist. She is an award winning author of over 70 popular self-help books and a columnist for Prima magazine. Her debut novel is White Powder Of Gold. Dr Sarah Brewer is a registered medical doctor, nutritionist, nutritional therapist and author of over 70 self-help books.

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