Home News The best pillows for side sleepers in 2022, tried and tested

The best pillows for side sleepers in 2022, tried and tested

by Atlanta Business Journal

If you sleep on your side, you need a pillow that keeps your shoulder, neck and head in a neutral, comfortable position. For many side sleepers that means a different type of pillow from those meant for back or stomach sleeping.

Hundreds of pillows are sold specifically for side sleepers, so we set out to find the best ones, sleeping on 23 pillows ranging from those specifically sold for side sleepers to those that are intended to cover all sleep positions, many of which we examined in our search for the best pillows overall. We also spoke with doctors, sleep specialists and academic researchers that study sleep positions to find answers on the best shapes and fill for side sleepers. In the end, we came up with three great choices that should suit those who sleep on their sides.

Best pillow for side sleepers overall

The supportive Eli & Elm Side Sleeper pillow has a U-shaped cutout that makes room for your shoulder when sleeping on your side. It also cradled our necks well when we slept on our backs, so it’s great for anyone who shifts positions.

Best memory foam pillow for side sleepers

The squishy yet supportive Casper Hybrid pillow offers a better balance between softness and support than other memory foam pillows we tested, and it is well ventilated so you won’t overheat.

Best pillow for side sleepers on a budget

The affordable Beckham Hotel Collection pillow is just right — not too soft or too firm. The dense fill kept our heads and necks supported through the night. It’s also one of the least expensive pillows we tested.

$124.99 From $99.99 at Eli & Elm

The Eli & Elm Side Sleeper pillow

The supportive Eli & Elm Side Sleeper pillow has a curved cutout that creates room for your shoulder when sleeping on your side, setting this pillow apart from the rest. We found the extra room quite comfortable and also appreciated how it let us hold onto the edges of the pillow while sleeping on our side, keeping our arms and hands more comfortable too. As a bonus, we loved that we felt like we were cradled when we slept on our backs too, so it’s a great choice if you shift positions often.

The pillow is filled with a blend of latex and polyester that is adjustable and removable. Similar to other adjustable pillows, you can take out as much fill as you want to achieve the exact height and firmness level that’s most comfortable. We found the pillow came with plenty of fill for those that like a firm pillow, though we had to remove some to soften it up. If you like an extra-firm pillow, Eli & Elm offers an option to buy extra fill. It took a few nights of trial and error before we figured out the optimal amount of fill, but once we did we found the pillow very comfortable.

The Side Sleeper has two slight drawbacks. First, we found that the pillow sleeps slightly hot — not so much so it disturbed our sleep but if you are sensitive you may want to keep that in mind or plan to accessorize with some of our recommendations for hot sleepers.

Also, the odd shape doesn’t fit well in standard pillow cases. However, the cover is removable and washable so you can use it without a pillowcase (which is what we did in testing). If you absolutely need a pillowcase, Eli & Elm also sell a custom pillowcase that you can buy separately. We also appreciate the company’s 45-day return policy in case the pillow doesn’t work out.

From $99 at Casper and Amazon

The Casper Hybrid Pillow

Casper describes this pillow as “feeling like a marshmallow” and we couldn’t agree more; that’s exactly what this pillow feels like. The squishy yet supportive Casper Hybrid pillow has a synthetic fill core surrounded by an outer layer of memory foam, which offers the perfect balance between excellent support and comfortable plushness, unlike some other foam pillows which we found too firm or too soft in our testing. The ventilation holes in the foam layer also give the Casper Hybrid an advantage over other memory foam pillows — it never left us feeling overheated while sleeping, so it’s a great choice if you are a hot sleeper.

While the Hybrid Pillow is sold for general use, we liked it for sleeping on our side because of its rectangular shape and substantial side gusset, which helped keep our head elevated in a comfortable position but didn’t dig into our shoulder or neck. It also kept its shape throughout the night.

The Hybrid Pillow comes in two heights, regular with a 2-inch gusset and low loft with a 1.25-inch gusset. You can take a quiz on Casper’s website to help determine which loft height is right for you. Casper recommended a low loft pillow for our tester’s needs and we found it was the perfect size for our petite tester, so if you have a larger frame you may want to consider the regular loft size.

The Casper Hybrid Pillow comes with a removable and machine-washable cover and Casper offers a 30-night return policy on most pillows, although at time of testing the low loft version is on final sale.

The Beckham Hotel Collection Pillow

The Beckham Hotel Collection pillow has a denser fill compared to most down alternative pillows, giving it a firmer feel but enough give that it cradled our heads comfortably as we slept on our sides. The Beckham pillow’s support didn’t fade over the course of the night, as the firm fill doesn’t fall flat, unlike some other pillows we tested.

We appreciated that it could be machine-washed, however, the instructions state it should be dried flat which is less than ideal and takes at least half a day depending on the temperature inside your living space. We did machine-dry it, however, to see how it fared and it held up without any noticeable changes, but we suspect over time machine-drying could potentially cause the pillow to degrade faster.

This was one of the most budget-friendly pillows that we tested and it’s far more comfortable than you might expect given the low cost, so if you don’t want to splurge on a more expensive pillow this is a great pick.

While many brands design and market pillows tailored specifically to back, stomach or side sleepers, all of the experts we spoke to told us that pillow comfort is very personal, and just because a pillow is marketed for side sleepers doesn’t mean it will work for you. According to Dr. Andrew Varga, neuroscientist and physician at The Mount Sinai Integrative Sleep Center, “There is limited, if any, scientific evidence regarding pillow types.”

After testing dozens of pillows, we have found that the way pillows are labeled can give at least some indication of how the pillow will feel, and that makes a good starting point when shopping for side sleeper pillows (or for other sleeping positions). In general, pillows meant for side sleepers — like those for back sleepers — are often firmer and loftier than pillows for stomach sleepers, which helps keep your head elevated properly when laying on your side. And some contoured or cutout designs may provide better comfort for some side sleepers.

According to Josh Tal of Josh Tal & Associates Sleep and Health Psychotherapists, people who sleep on their sides need to look for a pillow that provides support for the shoulder, neck and head, and allows for a neutral, supportive position. Because of this, Tal says, “side sleepers usually prefer a pillow with more loft to cradle the head, paired with an indentation to comfort the shoulder and a potentially an elevated bump in the bottom of the pillow to support the neck.”

Also, keep in mind that everyone’s neck is different, so the type of contour or density of fill that achieves this will vary from individual to individual. If you’re smaller-framed, you may need a lower loft pillow; if you’re bigger, you may need a higher loft pillow to keep the neck aligned with the spine.

We found that pillows for side sleepers come in more unique shapes than other types of pillows and can offer certain benefits such as allowing more room for your shoulder or more neck support.

  • Cutout: Some pillows for side sleepers have a semi-circular cutout at the bottom. This allows more room for your shoulder when you’re laying on your side without the pillow getting in the way. We found that this design let us lay our head more comfortably on the pillow when sleeping on our side.
  • Gusset: Gussets are extra rectangular side panels sewn into the edges of the pillow; these create a more structured feel than the flat sewn edges of traditional pillows. These gussets help the pillow maintain its shape and offer extra elevation to keep the head supported, which can be more comfortable when sleeping on your side.
  • Contour: Some pillows are designed with an upper face meant to match the contour of your head, neck and shoulder. These curves and indentations they are meant to support your neck and cradle your head. Most of these pillow types are made with firm foam so they keep their shape and don’t shift.

Fill and firmness

For side sleepers, Tal recommends a medium to soft fill that allows the head, neck and shoulder to fall gracefully into the pillow, with enough balance to keep the head and spine neutral. Good fill materials to achieve this include memory foam, down and down alternatives. If you’ll be adding or removing fill, make sure to balance the amount of fill throughout the pillow to achieve the correct alignment — you don’t want a lumpy pillow.

Susan J. Gordon research professor at the Flinders University College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Adelaide, Australia, who has studied the effect of pillow types in relation to sleep quality and their effect on waking back and neck pain, recommends laying on a pillow for at least 15 minutes to try it out. That’s the time it takes for the body to fully settle so you’ll know whether or not the pillow is right for you.

Since one pillow will not work for everyone, make sure to check the brand’s return policy. Many brands offer a trial period or returns, but some brands do not allow you to return the pillow. You’ll want to choose a pillow with a good return policy in case the pillow does not work for you, unless you’re willing to take the risk of not being able to return it.

After narrowing down our list to the most popular pillows and brands, we slept on each for a minimum of two nights, noting factors like construction quality and comfort. We evaluated each using the following criteria.

  • Comfort: After sleeping on each pillow for a few nights, we judged how comfortable each pillow was to sleep on, noting if we had to make adjustments throughout the night, the pillow fell flat or retained a lot of heat.
  • Durability: In order to assess the durability of each pillow, we washed and dried each pillow twice, if applicable, according to the manufacturer’s care instructions. If the pillow indicated it was not machine-washable, we washed the cover where possible. We evaluated each pillow for how much it flattened or changed shape after washing and sleeping on it. We also looked at the overall appearance of the pillow after wash and use and noted if anything broke in the process.
  • Ease of cleaning: For each pillow, we scored it on how easily and if it could be cleaned, taking into account if it’s machine-washable, dry clean, spot clean or not washable at all.
  • Firmness options: We looked at how many firmness options are available for each pillow or if it can be adjusted to anyone’s fill preference, which makes it more likely you’ll be able to find the right fit for you.
  • Trial and return policy: Since pillows are highly personal, we also scored each pillow brand on its trial policy, whether or not you could test it out and how many days you had to return it.

We loved the Garnet Hill Heirloom European White Goose Down Pillow, so it’s no surprise we also liked their down-alternative pillow as well. It’s more plush and supportive than most other synthetic fill pillows we tested and keeps its shape throughout the night. It’s washable and comes in three firmness levels. Garnet Hill also has a 90-day return policy.

Down pillows can fall flat throughout the night, but the Parachute down side sleeper pillow has a side gusset, and when we tested this pillow it kept its shape fairly well. It contains some feathers as opposed to 100% down, which is not ideal, but we found the feathers didn’t poke through the material or make too much noise. It also comes in a down alternative version for those that are allergic to down or prefer synthetic fill.

The Saatva latex pillow has two components: an inner core filled with shredded latex that’s removable and a surrounding outer layer that’s filled with down alternative. This allows for some adjustability in how high and firm you want the pillow and makes it easier to adjust than other pillows, where you’re taking out bits and pieces of fill, but it’s limited to two options. All of our testers found the pillow most comfortable without the inner core.

Like many other adjustable pillows, the Layla Kapok pillow can be adjusted by adding or removing fill to achieve a personalized height and firmness level. It’s filled with a combination of shredded memory foam and kapok fibers that come from a kapok tree and feel similar to a mix between cotton and wool. The honeycomb-patterned cover adds an extra layer of plushness and it can be removed and washed. One of our testers noticed a slight musty smell, though it seemed to get better over time as the pillow aired out. Another tester didn’t notice a smell at all on their pillow, so keep in mind this pillow may need to air out for a while if it has a smell.

The Brooklinen Marlow pillow immediately caught our attention with its side zippers that allow you to adjust the firmness by opening or closing the zippers. We were intrigued by this unique system, however, we found only a slight difference in firmness when the zippers were closed versus open. We found it too firm for side sleeping; it may be better-suited for a larger-framed side sleeper, as our petite sider sleeper found it too high. It only comes in one firmness level but does come in standard and king sizes.

Tempur-Pedic recommends this pillow for back and side sleepers, saying its molded contoured design follows the curve of your body, supporting your head and neck. It comes in small, medium and large sizes and has a guide on its website to help you choose the correct size based on your body measurements. While we found the contour pillow supported our neck and allowed our head to lay in the dip, it was also extremely firm, much more so than most Tempur-Pedic beds and pillows we’ve tried, with little to no give. This is great for someone who wants an extra-firm pillow that won’t change shape at all, but it’s likely too firm for most.

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