While mattresses usually get the blame when you don’t sleep well or when you wake up with a sore back, a pillow is as (or more) important, says Philip Schneider, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Chevy Chase, Md. “Without a comfortable, appropriate pillow, you’re likely not to have a good night’s sleep.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Gil Kentof, a chiropractor in Franklin, Tenn., who specializes in neck and shoulder pain. “The problem is not your head, but your neck, and finding something to fill the gap between your head and shoulders so your head and spine are aligned.” He and Schneider agree that side sleepers are the most likely to benefit from a customizable pillow.
Adjustable pillows typically fall into two types: fill or insert. Those sold by Layla, Coop Home Goods and Snuggle-Pedic are stuffed with small chunks of shredded memory foam and microfibers. Unzip the cover, remove the fill to suit and store the excess in a zip-lock bag. Others, such as the ones made by Leesa, Helix and Brookstone (sold through Bed Bath & Beyond), offer removable inserts. Either style allows you to increase or decrease the loft (thickness) and/or firmness. Expect to pay between $50 and $125, or about the same as a premium down or memory foam pillow.
A stiff, sore neck sent Julie Ward hunting for a new pillow. The Nashville-based public relations consultant was convinced that she could find the perfect one at a bargain price from a big-box retailer. Complicating matters: She wanted king-size pillows, which are not only larger, but also thicker.
“I scrutinized all the regular pillows, bought the one that seemed best and brought it home. What seemed perfect in the store would be too thick when I went to bed,” she recalls. “I would return to the store, find another promising pillow, lay it on a flat surface, awkwardly rest my head against it and leave full of optimism.” None worked. After three shopping trips, Ward had nothing to show for her efforts except three new pillows for overnight guests.
At that point, she turned to online retailers for customizable options and found a Snuggle-Pedic adjustable model. Ward unzipped the cover and removed some of the stuffing, repeating the process several times until it was her preferred height. “You can’t go wrong with a pillow that is totally adjustable. It’s a foolproof option,” she says.
Think an adjustable pillow will fill your needs? Here are some things to consider.
Take your sleep position into account. According to Schneider, side sleepers need a fuller pillow to prevent the neck from tilting. Stomach sleepers need a thinner pillow, so the head doesn’t hyperextend backward. Back sleepers should opt for a thin to midsize pillow so as not to flex the head forward. Consider body size as well. Those with really big shoulders or chests may have to adjust accordingly to find a pillow that supports the nape of the neck and keeps the head aligned with the body.
Do you prefer inserts. . . A chambered insert pillow has one or more layers that you can rearrange, rather like a pillow within a pillow. If the pillow is too thick, you can remove a component to lower the height. Some are even two-sided with an insert in between. A Leesa pillow, for example, fills one side bookending the insert with a down alternative and the other side with memory foam with cooling gel. The disadvantage to inserts is you may have limited options for height adjustment.
. . . or removable fill? Adjustable pillows filled with pieces of microfiber and/or memory foam let you truly dial in to your sleep specifications. Kentof favors pillows with loose fill over inserts because you can manipulate them better, he says. And, as your sleep habits change, you can simply add or remove fill. The only downside is that loose filling can be messy, and you have to store it. Some users say they stuff the excess fill into a travel-pillow cover for when they fly.
Be prepared for a trial run. Multiple factors affect sleep, including temperature, noise, light, what you ate for dinner and even the day’s news. If you are restless that first night, give your pillow a chance. You may have to play with it a bit. Expect a break-in period of a week or so as your body adjusts.
Ensure it is washable. While it’s important to wash your pillowcase on a regular basis, if you are investing in an adjustable pillow, which is likely to last several years, experts advise that you get one that is machine washable or at minimum has a removable cover that you can wash.
Check the return policy. A reputable pillow manufacturer will allow you to return your purchase for 100 to 120 nights, no questions asked, if you try it for 14 to 30 days. Odds are you won’t.