How to choose a pillow

How well are you sleeping? If the answer is anything but 'great' it might be down to your pillow. But choosing a new pillow shouldn't be left to chance – in fact, it's something of a science. Find out how to choose the best pillow for you with our nine step guide

Luxury Down Surround Pair of Pillows

If you find yourself tossing and turning at night, trying to get your head in the right position, or you wake up with neck ache, it's likely you've either chosen the wrong pillow or the one you're using is worn out. Either way, it's time to choose a new pillow. But picking out a new pillow isn't just a case of whisking a matching set from a bargain bin – every family member will have different needs if they're to be comfortable, whether that's the pillow's filling  or size, or the mattress they're using. 

Use this quick guide to ensure you buy the best pillows for your family, then hop over to our guide to the best pillows to find yourself the best one (that's the upside of knowing what you're doing – you can buy your pillow safely online). 

Looking for more sleep/comfort-based advice? Go to our mattresses hub for tips, buys and deep reviews.

girl sleeping in bed with ikea floral bedding and phone beside her by getty images

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Choosing a new pillow – how you know it's time

Why you can trust Real Homes Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

Sleeping with an ideal posture is key if you don't want to wake up in the morning – or during the night – with neck or back ache. What is an ideal posture? Ideally, it means that your body will be aligned without twisting, scrunching or craning your neck or back, whatever your sleeping position (more on that later).

So if your pillow has lost its form (you can test this by folding it in half or balancing it over a bannister; if it doesn't spring back into shape or droops over the bannister, it's past its best); or if it's stained and smelly (which means it's become home not just to allergy-triggering dust mites but to all your germs, too); or if you've had it for longer than a couple of years or so, it's time to replace it.

If we've grossed you out so far... apologies, but hop over to our guides to getting rid of dust mites and to banishing household germs to put your mind at rest. We'll also tell you how to clean your pillow (below) if you're not planning to buy a new one just yet.

2. Choose a pillow to suit your sleeping position

You might have cottoned on to this when browsing our reviews (if you haven't, please do), but your sleeping position does influence which type of pillow to choose because each offers a different level of support to get the correct alignment. That said, everyone fidgets during the night, so just use these guidelines as general rules rather than strict ones, because everyone will have an individual preference:

Side sleepers generally like a fuller (taller), quite firm pillow, which matches the gap between the head and mattress caused by the shoulders. A thinner pillow for between the knees can help relieve back pain in side sleepers.

Back sleepers may prefer a flatter (lower) pillow. Memory foam pillows suit back sleepers as they match the shape of your head and allow you to sink in evenly, meaning your neck won't be strained.

Stomach sleepers might like a soft, almost flat pillow – or none at all. Placing a thin pillow beneath your stomach/pelvis area might help you avoid back pain, too.

Toss and turn sleepers will need a pillow that pitches at all these sleeping positions – a supportive one that's of medium height should just about do.

3. Choose a pillow to suit your mattress

Yup, the mattress does matter when you're choosing a pillow. 

As a general rule, you should choose a soft pillow for a firm mattress, and a firm pillow for a soft mattress. It's all about the alignment both can offer in response to the surface below, but it will also depend on your personal preference, especially if you already suffer from back ache and are a light sleeper. 

Use our guide to choosing a mattress to find out more about which type suits which sleep position.

AmazonBasics Microfiber Duvet Cover Set

4. Sleep with one pillow or two?

Side sleepers will know what we're talking about. Two thin pillows can often be much more comfortable than one large one, right? However, it's advised that you only ever sleep with one pillow – sleeping on more could strain your neck. It's just vital to ensure that the one pillow you do choose keeps your neck in perfect alignment at all times (or as near to as possible). 

However, you might like to have an extra pillow on hand for reading or (gasp) watching TV in bed.

5. How to choose a pillow filling

Which pillow filling you'll find comfortable is quite subjective, but as a rough guide, here are a few pointers to consider.

Pillows come in a choice of feather, down, latex, microfibre, memory foam and, more unusually, wool and cotton fillings. Don't just consider the filling type, but the 'fill power', too. The higher the number, the plumper the pillow; the more tightly packed it is, the longer it might last, but the firm it will feel. 'Fill weight' is another consideration: down and synthetic pillows are lighter than memory foam and latex pillows; if you like to move your pillows about at night, lighter ones may suit you better.

Feather and down pillows are supportive and comfortable, and will stay that way for longer than synthetic fillings. They can also be moulded around your neck easily – ideal if that's how you like your neck supported. Down pillows are usually filled with fibres from geese or ducks, with goose down usually softer and more expensive than duck.

If allergies have put you off these pillows in the past, quality pillows will usually have had their filling processed to remove the dander. These pillows can also be machine washed, although professional cleaning is much easier and will help extend the pillow's life (more on that later). Feather is cooler than down (worth noting if you're a sweaty sleeper).

The downsides? They'll flatten easily (although can also be restored easily), feather pillows can be somewhat spiky if not encased in a protective pillowcase, and both feather and down are more expensive than synthetic-filled pillows. 

A lantern filled with feathers

Memory foam pillows offer even, firm support. The longest lasting of fillings (up to three years), they can be a great buy for back and side sleepers who need lots of neck support. 

The downsides? Sweaty sleepers might not like how hot their heads feel on warm nights, although the latest designs have built-in ventilation. They'll mould to your neck and head but can't be squished into shape, and they're too firm for some. They also give off a distinctive memory foam pillow for a few days after they come out of the packaging so don't expect to sleep on them the first night you bring them home.

Microfibre pillows are cheaper than other pillow types, come in hypoallergenic options, can be popped in the washing machine and come in a range of shapes, heights, weights and sizes so you can choose one for your sleep position. All good so far. 

The downsides? They're not as breathable as natural fillings and they won't last as long. 

Latex pillows are a great choice for allergy sufferers; they offer good, firm even support (similar to memory foam and firmer than down), are breathable, will keep you cool, and will last. 

The downsides? They're more expensive than other pillow types, and will be too firm if you prefer a softer pillow; they also hold their shape when you lie on them. If you don't love this, you won't like latex pillows. 

Wool pillows offer firm support, making them ideal for side sleepers or anyone with a soft bed. They are hypoallergenic, naturally breathable and cool to sleep on. 

The downsides? They need plumping to stop them flattening, and they're heavy; some may find them too firm. They're also more expensive than synthetic filled-pillows. 

Cotton pillows are similar to wool ones; they tend to be firm and flat.

The downsides? Not what we'd call welcoming.

Specialty pillows: we wouldn't recommend these over the pillows above, but you might like to try them if they've been recommended by a doctor or physio, or if you're desperate. Water pillows (opens in new tab) allow you to use water to create your own customised levels of density and support; and cool pillows (opens in new tab) are filled with tiny beads that absorb and whisk away heat. 

sealy activsleep pillow

(Image credit: Sealy)

6. How to choose a pillow size and shape

Again, this is down to personal preference, how much you move about at night and, to a degree, what you were introduced to as a child. If you want a professional opinion, though, consider the following:

The bed's size: the bigger the bed, the bigger the pillow size, assuming it's right for you, comfort-wise.

Solo sleeper? Go as big as you like, who's going to quibble? 

Fidget? A standard rectangular pillow, rather than a square one, will keep your head supported as you swap from side to side.

Thick or thin? That will largely depend on personal preference, your own size and your sleep position (see above), all of which lead us to mention the word 'alignment' again. 

Contoured pillows are slated to help deal with neck or back pain, but the contouring does mean they'll be quite fixed in their shape – which won't suit everyone.

V-shaped pillows might work at offering extra support for snorers and anyone who suffers from back or neck pain. They're also great to have handy if have a chest infection and need to sleep a little more upright. 

U-shaped pillows are popular during pregnancy because you can sleep on your side and hook your leg over the lower part of the 'U'. These pillow shapes are also useful for supporting side sleepers with back pain – but you'll need a big bed if you share or if two of you need these pillows. 

Anti-snore pillows (opens in new tab) are contoured and are claimed to help prevent snoring.

The Fine Bedding Company Smartdown

(Image credit: The Fine Bedding Company)

7. Choosing pillowcases to suit your pillows

Choosing pillowcases to suit your new pillows needs careful thought, too. 

You need to search for a protective pillowcase (opens in new tab) layer as well as a decorative outer pillowcase to extend your pillows' lifespans. Bear in mind, though, that a very padded protective pillowcase will add to your pillow's overall bulk and could alter its firmness.

Next, pillowcase fabrics: ensure the materials are natural and breathable fabrics for a comfortable night's sleep.

Finally, pillowcase size. Many new pillow fillings make them quite bulky, so you may find that standard pillowcases are a real squeeze which, in turn, will make your pillow feel firmer than it is. Opting for larger pillowcases to allow the pillow some elbow room is a wise move. We've found that Ikea's pillowcases (opens in new tab) are generally more generous in size. 

8. Choosing pillows to fit your budget

With pillows you most certainly get what you pay for. Cheap pillows won't last, won't feel comfortable and won't hold their shape for long (even with protective covers). So, shop for pillows that are the best that you can afford, bearing in mind that most need replacing after a year and a half or so (although, as we said above, memory foam pillows last up to three years). 

Use our guide to find the best pillows to suit your budget. Or, if you're on a budget, check out our latest bedding deals.

9. Lengthen a pillow's life with cleaning

Regular airing of pillows will help yours stay clean, as will protective covers, and spot cleaning after, say, a night time nose bleed. 

As a general rule, down, feather, latex and fibre pillows can all go in the washing machine; memory foam pillows can be hand-washed, but we'd advise against it. In all cases, check the manufacturer's care label for instructions before you commit. Otherwise, follow our guide to how to clean a pillow to keep your pillow clean of stains and musty smells. 

If in doubt, though, always have your pillows professionally cleaned.

More night time must-haves:

Lucy is Global Editor-in-Chief of Homes & Gardens having worked on numerous interiors and property titles. She was founding Editor of Channel 4’s 4Homes magazine, was Associate Editor at Ideal Home, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of in 2018 then moving to Homes & Gardens in 2021. She has also written for Huffington Post, AOL, UKTV, MSN, House Beautiful, Good Homes, and many women’s titles. Find her writing about everything from buying and selling property, self build, DIY, design and consumer issues to gardening.