How to Choose a Pillow (And Why the Right One Matters)

May 12, 2021 | Casper Editorial Team

Fact checked by Vincent Wang, MS CPE

how to choose a pillow bed and pillows illustration bed and pillows illustration

Have you ever spent the night at a hotel and wondered what it was that caused your neck and back to ache so much the next day? Or maybe it was reversed — you had the best sleep of your life and can’t quite pinpoint why. While the mattress may have been a contributing factor, a big part of your experience could have been the result of your pillow. Knowing how to choose a pillow that’s right for you will help you either avoid or relish that hotel experience every night. 

Having the correct pillow height and firmness can do wonders for your beauty sleep. Depending on your normal sleeping position, your pillow can either help or hinder your spinal alignment. Knowing how to choose the right pillow will help you avoid sleeping in unnatural and uncomfortable positions — thus eliminating aches and pains.  

How Do You Know What Pillow Is Right for You? 

Many times when we think of “the right pillow” we think of something soft and fluffy that feels like a cloud when laying your head on it. However, the right pillow is actually one that will keep your head, neck, and spine neutrally aligned while supporting your spine’s natural curvature. For some, this can still be that soft, fluffy pillow — but others may want a firmer pillow that holds its shape better.

Before deciding on the right pillow, you’ll need to determine what your go-to sleeping position is. Back, stomach, and side sleepers will all have different things to look for in their perfect pillow, so be aware that you may be on the lookout for different qualities than your partner or friends are.  

When shopping around for pillows, there are a few key things to keep in mind: 

  • Pillow Loft: This is the compressed height of the pillow when your head is resting on it. You’ll typically find low, medium, or high loft options.
  • Firmness of pillow material: Different materials will vary in firmness. How firm you prefer your pillow can play a role in your personal comfort level. 
  • The firmness of your mattress: This is a very important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. The softer your mattress is, the lower your pillow should be. 
  • Your normal sleeping position: Your go-to sleeping position will determine the ideal pillow loft for you. Typically, you will need a higher loft pillow when you sleep more on your side compared to on your back. . 
  • Your weight and shoulder width: The width of your shoulders and your weight can help you determine the pillow loft you should be looking for. The wider your shoulders, the higher your pillow should be. Likewise, the heavier you are, the more likely you are to sink into the mattress which will leave you needing a lower pillow.

Side Sleeper Needs

When sleeping on your side, your shoulder bears most of the support — which is why having a mattress designed to be softer in this area is beneficial, like our Nova Hybrid. Depending on certain factors like your mattress firmness and shoulder width, a low, medium, or high pillow loft can be best. For many side sleepers, a firmer pillow can also be both comfortable and supportive enough to sleep comfortably, however, this can vary from sleeper to sleeper. 

Here’s what to think about if you’re prone to side sleeping: 

  • Firmer fill and material: Having a pillow with soft fill will make your head sink in and put pressure back on your shoulder — giving you a stiff neck in the morning. Firm material can be anything from foam to a heavy-duty down alternative. 
  • Low, medium, or high loft: The most important thing for side sleepers to look for is a pillow loft that will align your head, neck, and spine, and take some pressure off the shoulder. Any range of pillow loft can be a good fit depending on the width of your shoulders and how heavy you are. The wider your shoulders, the taller your pillow should be. Likewise, the heavier you weigh, the lower the pillow should be.  
  • The firmness of your mattress: The firmer your mattress, the higher your pillow should be. If you have a softer mattress that you tend to sink into, a medium or low loft pillow should do the trick. 
side sleepers on different pillow lofts

Back Sleeper Needs

While not the most popular sleeping position, back sleepers tend to reap the most benefits — especially when using a mattress designed for support. If your mattress doesn’t provide enough support for your spine’s natural curve, it can be beneficial to tuck a small pillow underneath your lower back and knees. 

Because many mattresses don’t provide that specific support, we’ve designed our Zoned Support™ foam to be firmer around the waist and lower back area, while being softer around the shoulders. This helps with ergonomic spinal alignment so you don’t need to use extra pillows under your lower back and knees. The Zoned Support™ foam is found in the Casper Original Mattress, the Nova Hybrid, and the Wave Hybrid

Here’s what to look for in a pillow if you’re prone to back sleeping: 

  • Low or Medium loft: Medium-firm material paired with a low or medium loft is perfect for back sleepers. One important thing to keep in mind is sleeping high enough on the pillow to support your neck fully. 
  • The firmness of your mattress: If you sleep on a soft mattress, you may find that a low pillow loft or no pillow at all will keep you neutrally aligned just fine. However, using a firm mattress may require you to use a pillow to support your neck.
back sleepers on different pillow lofts

Stomach Sleeper Needs

Despite experts recommending sleepers avoid snoozing on the stomach due to short-term and long-term spinal problems that may arise, many find this a comfortable position. Because sleeping on your stomach with the wrong pillow leaves you at risk for neck strains and low back pressure, use a pillow that will help your body avoid this pain. It’s also a good idea to use your pillow more towards your chest to reduce neck bend if you regularly sleep in this position. 

Here’s what to look for in a pillow if you’re prone to stomach sleeping: 

  • Soft & compressible fill: Feather or down pillows will give you a cushy feel while not being too firm. Sleeping on a foam or other firm pillow will prop your head higher than it should be, which can lead to aches. 
  • Low loft: The higher loft you have, the more craned your head can become which also pushes the rest of your body out of a neutral alignment.
  • The firmness of your mattress: If you have a soft mattress that you tend to sink into already, it may be best to opt for no pillow, as any pillow you use can prop your head up more unnaturally. Your body isn’t likely to sink into a firm mattress, so a low loft pillow is still something to use if you don’t find yourself sinking into your mattress material. 
Stomach sleepers on different pillow lofts

You may want to consider putting a low loft pillow underneath your stomach and pelvis to help your body stay in a neutral position and your spine maintain its natural curvature.

Other Things to Consider When Choosing a Pillow

While the key points we mentioned are important to look for in a pillow depending on your go-to sleeping position, there are also a few general things everyone should keep an eye on. No matter how you sleep, referencing the following points will help you know how to choose a pillow that’s right for you. 

  • Cooling qualities: Hot sleepers will especially benefit from having a pillow that provides specific cooling features.
  • Breathability: Similar to the above, you should make sure the pillow materials used don’t hold onto heat, particularly with foam pillows. 
  • Social responsibility: Depending on your values, you may consider looking at brands with certifications that strive to use ethically sourced materials for various products.
  • Size: Pillows come in a variety of sizes, from your typical standard to body length. Knowing what pillow size you’re looking for will lessen your stress when shopping for a new one. 

Our Casper Pillows

Here at Casper, we offer a mix of different pillow fills and materials. Each pillow comes in either a standard or king size, and you have the option of choosing a low or medium loft. 

Check out our Original Casper Pillow, Foam Pillow, and Down Pillow to find the best one for you. 

Using a pillow not conducive to keeping your head, neck, and spine in alignment will inevitably leave your body with some discomfort. However, knowing how to choose a pillow for your needs can dramatically change how you feel when you wake up in the morning. And if you’re still unsure what pillow loft is best for your normal sleeping position, take the pillow height quiz on any of the Casper pillow pages next to “Select your pillow height.”