In search of the just-firm-enough side sleeper pillow.
Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
If you’re one of the estimated 70 percent of people who sleep on their sides, you’re likely familiar with the toss-fluff-repeat cycle of a fitful rest. Unlike stomach and back sleepers, side sleepers need extra support, making it near impossible for basic pillows to get the job done. “Because of the greater distance between their heads and the mattress, side sleepers often need a thicker pillow to keep their head and neck in a neutral position,” says Heather Turgeon, the author of The Happy Sleeper. As someone who’s needed at least two pillows my entire life (lately a rigid Tempur-Pedic padded by a rotation of filling-challenged Ikea pillows), I’ve consulted Turgeon for her august opinion on better side sleeper pillows. After testing each for a night — it’s like One Thousand and One Nights around my apartment — I’ve come away with a few favorites. Spoiler: Price has (in most cases) very little to do with what I ended up liking.
at Bed Bath & Beyond
Turgeon recommended the Wamsutta Extra-Firm, but I wasn’t so sure. Next to every other pillow I was meant to test, the Wamsutta Extra-Firm was the least “luxurious”: it was lightweight, its filling wasn’t down or cotton but — hm — polyester, and, well, it was the cheapest. But as soon as I rested my head on it, I understood. Unlike other pillows that mistake plushness or fluffiness for support, the WEF didn’t sink as soon as I rested my head. Instead, it had a firm, satisfying spring — it’s a different sensation, but one I took to right away. And even though I didn’t do any measuring, my head felt more propped up from the mattress and sheets than any other pillow, save the Tempur-Pedic (more on that later).
Brookstone BioSense Luxe Pillow
at Bed Bath & Beyond
Another lofty entry, the BioSense created a more elegant firmness than the WEF. On its own, a down filling is too soft for me, but the BioSense Luxe’s higher-tech combination of memory foam wrapped in a down cover translated to a cushier resistance, much like an unripe avocado with just the slightest give. Imagine the downy hotel experience, only with much more structure. Over the long haul, actually, the BioSense is probably a better bet than the Wamsutta — its memory foam contains green tea and charcoal to combat microbes and prevent odor. There aren’t many reviews of it to peruse (probably because it’s so expensive), but there are some amateurs who complain that it’s too firm, to which I say, “Um, isn’t that the point?”
Tempur-Pedic Contour Side to Side Breeze
A caveat up front: If you don’t like the sensation of sleeping on a spongy piece of Styrofoam, you won’t like this pillow. Maybe because I’ve gotten used to my old Tempur-Pedic, but I really loved the hardness of the Side to Side Breeze, which is just like the regular Side to Side, only with a cooling gel layer for hot-headed sleepers (yes, please). Like Tempur-Pedic pillows you may be familiar with, this one features the brand’s signature viscoelastic — which I’m guessing means viscous and elastic — foam, but it wasn’t sink-y the way Tempur-Pedic beds can be. There are different curves on the top and bottom of the Breeze, one that slopes more for higher neck support and one that slopes less for lower. The pillow feels expensive — sleeping on the higher-sloping side was like a cushy, luxe embrace. I’m not a fan of regular Tempur-Pedic pillows because they’re too squishy and the angles aren’t right, but this one feels tailored for side sleepers. My only complaint is that it was a little too wide for the bed (even the queen size), and that, unless you’re Blue Ivy or Larry Ellison, it’s almost unjustifiably expensive.
Sleep for Success!™ Side Sleeper Pillow
at Bed Bath & Beyond
Developed by Dr. James Maas, a Cornell sleep doctor who’s built an entire industry around sleep health and its accoutrements (a book, several pillows — even, puzzlingly, a comforter), the Sleep for Success!™ pillow was the first one I tried, and after a lifetime of Ikea welterweights, I liked it! After going back to it at the end of the experiment, though, I found its padding only okay. Dr. Maas puts a lot of stock in temperature regulation for a good night’s rest — his pillow has synthetic fibers produced from eucalyptus for moisture wicking and temperature regulation. Important, sure, but not my primary concern. Its gel fiber and eucalyptus filling was certainly cool (I guess?), but not quite supportive enough for my now-spoiled tastes.
Snowe Down Alternative Pillow
At first appraisal, the alternative down pillow from the direct-to-consumer houseware brand looked fluffier than I thought I would like, but once I rested my head on it, it settled to a nice thickness that “held.” I’ve found actually that for side sleepers who crave firmness, a polyester filling (like the kind that down alternative pillows use) generally outperforms real down — actual feathers tend to be too soft (pesky nature!) and don’t lift and prop my head the way it really needs to be cradled. The Snowe regular down pillow had that problem for me; side by side, it was less billowy than the down alternative, and less supportive, too.
Parachute Down Alternative Pillow (Firm)
at Parachute Home
Off the bat (and as you can see in the photos), the loft on these pillows is insane — they’re probably seven inches high just resting on your mattress. The pillows are filled with microfiber (which is a fancier way to describe a blend of polyester and various other man-made poly-prefixed materials) that didn’t collapse the way that something like cotton or down would, but didn’t provide the stiff support of the Wamsutta Extra Firm or Tempur-Contour either. Interestingly, the Parachute was one of the only pillows that didn’t have a gusset — that two-to-three inch panel along the perimeter of the pillow that, according to Turgeon, creates extra height for side sleepers. I didn’t notice a huge difference because of it (the Parachute was actually firmer than a few gusseted pillows), but that may be why the pillow seems almost overfilled. Much of that fill is air, though. Sleeping on it felt like sleeping on a solider, more permanently fluffed hotel pillow — nice, but not my, er, dream scenario. If you’re in the market for a plush mattress topper, though, my colleague Lauren slept like a baby on Parachute’s.
If you’re looking for more options in the side-sleeper-pillow category, here are some highly reviewed options from Amazon, according to hyperenthusiastic sleepers.
Sable Hypoallergenic CertiPUR-US Shredded Memory Foam
“Best pillow ever. The feature that allows for the removal of the shredded memory foam made this perfect for me, especially when buying something that can be hard to buy online without really feeling for myself. Perfect for all sleepers. I’m a side sleeper and totally happy with the purchase! Not lumpy at all when I removed some of the fill.”
DreamNorth PREMIUM Gel Pillow Loft (Pack of 2)
“These pillows are by far the best we have ever used. Perfect for back and side sleepers. The pillows provide the perfect amount of support, and at the same time, are soft and very comfortable. If you are looking for perfect pillows, you will not be disappointed!”
Sable Registered FDA Goose Down Alternative Bed Pillow (2 Pack)
“I loved my soft pillows, but it wasn’t until I really strained my neck one night that I realized that they weren’t good for my head or neck. I decided it was time to branch out and these pillows did the trick. They stay puffy, they’re soft yet firm and within a day, my severe neck pain was gone. I would definitely recommend these to anyone who is a side sleeper and struggles to get the proper head and neck support.”
The Scrumptious Side Sleeper Pillow
“This is a very comfortable pillow. I am predominantly a side sleeper and this works very well for me. I’ve tried Tempur-Pedic and many other brands and this one by far is the best. The memory foam pieces inside breathe better than solid foam so heat buildup is not as much of a problem. I was surprised that the shape is as comfortable as it is, but once you use the pillow it will make perfect sense.”
AERIS Contour Pillow,Premium Side Sleeper
“Love this pillow. Some of the things I like best about it is the memory foam and the contour of the pillow for neck support. I also like that although it states a side sleeper pillow, because of the many different positions I sleep in (some nights back, others side) Love the way it conforms to my shoulders and neck. I found myself falling asleep faster and for longer periods of time.”
Z Gel Memory Foam L-Shape Pillow for Side Sleeping Comfort
“I’m in my early 60s, pretty active, and have had chronic shoulder pain for years. I often felt it at night, in bed. I researched pillows designed for side sleepers like me. This one has been wonderful. The pillow is soft without being squishy; it maintains its height, which I need. The cover is soft and stays dry. Together, they have given me the best sleep of my life.”
The Womfy Ear & Neck Pain Relief | Back & Side Sleeper Pillow
“Our daughter had outer ear reconstructive surgery. She is seven months post-op and reports scalp tenderness after a night of sleeping on her implant (which is her preferred side to sleep). The Womfy is the only pillow to relieve the pressure from her ear. It is the perfect height (without the provided insert) for proper head/neck/shoulder alignment during side sleeping. It is incredibly soft, stays cool and has a silky, machine washable bamboo cover.”
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