Advise Me

Are You A Starfish, a Log or a Free Faller? How to Pick the Perfect Pillow

Do you toss and turn at night and feel exhausted in the morning? Do you often wake up with neck, shoulder or lower back pain? These may be a sign that it’s time for a new pillow.

While most of us spend a significant amount of time testing out mattresses before we purchase a new one, we might not give as much thought about what we put under our heads.  But, sleeping on the right pillow can make the difference between a good night’s rest and a fitful one. We spend at least one-third of our lives with our head on a pillow, so shouldn’t you get a good one suited for you?

If you’ve ever spent time in a Bed, Bath & Beyond or Home Goods store, however, you know  there are a boatload of pillows out there—and some can be surprisingly expensive. Who knew those fluffy things could cost so much?!

“There’s a lot of factors that come into play with a favored pillow, but really there is no ‘perfect’ pillow,” said Joyce Lee-Iannotti, MD, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist with Banner Brain & Spine. “Don’t buy into the hype of some companies that claim their products are amazing. Sleep and sleep products are highly marketed and advertised. It really comes down to personal preference and what is right for you.”

To help cut through the fluff, Dr. Lee-Iannotti breaks down the four things you’ll want to consider when finding a pillow that is right for you. They are:

  1. Your sleep position
  2. Your budget
  3. The loft and hardness of the pillow
  4. What the pillow is made out of

1. What type of sleeper are you?

When you sleep at night, do you resemble a starfish, a skydiver or a log? Or maybe you’re a combination of all three? Whether a stomach, back or side sleeper, the right pillow (just like the right mattress) can make all the difference in how you feel in the morning. Here are some suggestions based on the way you sleep in bed.

Side sleepers (whether in the log, fetal or yearner sleep positions) need a firmer, thicker pillow that keep their head up and spine aligned. If you are a side sleeper, you may want to also consider a smaller, flatter pillow between your knees to help ease lower back discomfort.

Stomach sleepers (free faller or skydiver positions) should choose softer, flatter pillows, since thicker pillows tend to prop the head too high and can lead to neck and lower back pain. You may also want to place another flat pillow under your hips to help with lower back alignment.

Back sleepers (soldier or starfish positions) may have one of the best sleeping positions for your body and health—even doctors recommend infants sleep on their backs. Back sleepers should opt for medium thickness pillows that offer support but also comfort to the head and neck. You may also want to place a pillow underneath your knees to alleviate strain on your back.

Combination sleepers (those who move all over at night) should look for pillows where the fill (the stuff inside) can be adjusted to help when you toss and turn at night.

Pregnant sleepers have limited options for sleep positions—especially when they’re further along—but side sleeping is best. Look for pregnancy pillows to give you added comfort and support. Dr. Lee-Iannotti recommends the Leachco Snoogle chic jersey total body pillow, the AngQi pregnancy pillow or the bbhugme pregnancy pillow.

2. How much should I spend?

There are a lot of companies out there touting their pillows as the best, and they can come at a hefty price. But don’t let cost be your driving factor.

“Price loosely correlates with quality, although there are plenty of decent pillows at affordable prices,” Dr. Lee-Iannotti said. “Typically, a good, long-lasting pillow will run you between $25 to $100.”

3. What’s the firmness and loft?

A pillow’s loft refers to its height as it lays flat on the bed. People with different sleep positions generally prefer different lofts. A pillow’s firmness refers to how it feels as well as how high it holds your head up. Combined loft and firmness determine a pillow’s height when weight is put on it.

“For example, a pillow with a high loft might not hold your head up as high as you’d expect if it is extremely soft and sinks under your weight,” Dr. Lee-Iannotti said.

When it comes to picking the loft and firmness of your pillow, you’ll want to consider the firmness of your mattress. For softer mattresses, a firmer pillow may be better to keep your head and neck aligned. For harder mattresses, a softer pillow may be better to help you adapt the pressure.

4. What’s the pillow made out of?

There is no single pillow cover or fill material that stands out as being the highest quality. Varying qualities exist within each material type. From down and buckwheat to water and memory foam, pillows are constructed with a variety of materials. Here’s a quick breakdown of a few:

  • Down or down alternatives (for allergy sufferers) pillows are the fluffiest and tend to be machine-washable – but check the label to make sure.
  • Buckwheat isn’t used just in breakfast cereal; it’s also used in pillows. Buckwheat pillows are firm and contour to your body. Many buckwheat pillows are vegan and organic, making them appealing to those who are eco-conscious.
  • Water pillows typically contain water along with another fill material like memory foam or polyfill and require you to fill them with water to adjust firmness levels. They are known to be cooling and supportive.
  • Memory foam offer a soft, conforming feel and come in two styles: shredded or solid memory foam. Shredded memory foam pillows tend to be easier to adjust for a plushier feel. One downside is that it can trap heat, although some manufacturers add cooling agents or construct the pillow to encourage airflow.
  • Latex pillows are pressure relieving and extremely durable. They tend to have a high loft and are denser, so they’re better for side and back sleepers than stomach sleepers. Like memory foam, they can come solid or shredded. Latex feels similar to foam, but it is more cooling, especially when aerated.

And while it’s what’s in the inside that counts, let’s not forget about pillow covers. Most pillow covers are made of cotton, polyester or a cotton-poly blend. Some are made of other materials, such as bamboo-derived fabric or satin, but cotton covers tend to be the most breathable.

When should you toss your pillows?

“A good rule of thumb is when your pillow starts to feel uncomfortable, lumpy or saggy,” Dr. Lee-Iannotti said.

To extend the life of your pillows, especially if you’ve paid a pretty penny, use pillow protectors and wash your pillows every four to six months—but check the label to make sure the pillow is machine washable.

What if I’m still struggling with good sleep?

There are a number of reasons you may not be getting good sleep, including some medical conditions like sleep apnea, sleep hygiene issues, insomnia, restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement disorders. If the pillow or mattress isn’t the problem, seek help. Your doctor can help you identify the problem. They may require a sleep study to further investigate the cause of your sleep issues.

To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit, or contact the Banner Sleep Disorder Center. Our sleep exerts can help you rest easier with a comprehensive evaluation and the latest treatments for sleep disorders.

Also Read:

Product information in this article is provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; it does not constitute an endorsement or an approval by Banner Health of any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual.

Sleep Brain and Spine