Pillows are not one-size-fits-all. Anyone who's ever purchased a $3 pillow from the bin at Target on the basis that it was $3 probably found that out the hard way. Sorry about your neck, pal.
For side sleepers, "I think I slept on my neck wrong" is a very real thing that could be causing neck pain in the morning — but not in the awkward, twisted, contortionist way that everyone pictures. In reality, the real offender is probably a flat pillow.
Sleeping in the lateral position takes the pressure off the mattress and puts your body weight on a single shoulder. Because your shoulder is also holding you higher off the mattress, there's now a gap between your neck and the mattress. While a flat pillow is ideal for preventing a stomach sleeper's spine from curving upward, too little loft causes a side sleeper's head to sink below the plane of the neck — causing a gnarly kink that will definitely hurt in the morning.
How high should a pillow be for side sleepers?
A loft of at least four inches is a side sleeper's best bet in maintaining neutral spine alignment. (Some extra-lofty pillows measure as tall as eight inches.) That elevation relieves pressure on the shoulders and keeps your head at a nice upward angle to prevent neck strain and maintain a healthy posture.
Firmness matters, too. Regardless of whether the stuffing is down, down alternative, gel, polyester, memory foam, or some unique combo of a few, your pillow needs to be firm enough to keep its shape throughout the night — and buoyant enough to keep your 10-pound head afloat instead of sagging down in the middle. Sturdy fill also has a way of puffing up around the area being pressed down, keeping your head still and up on its side.
PSA: Correct binge-watching posture is a thing
Take your fixation on neck support while sleeping and apply it to your time camped out on the couch. Streaming a season of Yellowjackets could have us lying on our sides for hours — potentially the same amount of time as a decent night's sleep — and we'll do the whole thing resting our head on a shitty decorative pillow.
Switching a pillow out for an arm or the couch's armrest cranes our neck even more. Chilling like this on a regular basis could end up canceling out any pain or alignment progress you've made with mattress and bed pillow upgrades. Falling asleep like that is probably likely, too, and that's just begging for a day of soreness.
It's totally fine if lying on your side is your go-to binge-watching position. We're just here to confirm that, yes, binge-watching posture is something to keep in mind, and no, using a legit side sleeper pillow to watch TV isn't "extra." Because pillows for side sleepers should already be firm and lofty, they make for the perfect head prop while watching a screen.
This is your sign to start lying with a pillow between your legs
The ol' "pillow between the knees" trick is game-changing for more than pregnant people. Not only is it comfy as hell, but it mitigates some of the awkward hip twisting that occurs when lying laterally — in bed or on the couch. Slipping some firm cushioning between your knees helps to prevent the leg on top from tugging on your spine and hips to lean on the other leg. (The same thinking suggests putting the pillow under both knees while sleeping on your back, or under your pelvis while sleeping on your stomach.) Parallel legs lead to less misalignment, and keeping your hips, pelvis, and upper back aligned can prevent irritation of the sciatic nerve.
The slight elevation also facilitates blood flow through the vena cava — a major vein that carries blood back and forth from your heart. Better blood circulation through your lower body could lessen the chance of a foot falling asleep or a muscle cramping. Sign us up for whatever narrows the possibility of a Charley horse.
The leg pillow doesn't necessarily have to be a ~leg pillow.~ The spare one in your closet could do the trick if it's relatively lofty and not ridiculously fluffy. But those who sleep on their side a majority of the time might consider opting for a more dedicated design, like an L-shaped pillow or an ergonomic pillow with special contours for your legs.
What else should side sleepers look for in a pillow?
No one is expecting you to switch pillows every time you change sleeping positions. But if you know you're a diehard side sleeper for a decent portion of your eight hours, or you're a pregnant person who must now navigate doctor's orders to sleep on your side, shopping with these features in mind could decrease your middle-of-the-night fluff and flip sessions.
Once you find a good loft and firmness, you can start shopping based on personal preference:
For people who hate the spongey feel of memory foam: The world of pillows has gotten strangely high-tech in the past five years, which is great for people who have hated all of the traditional foam pillows they've tried. Many modern ones are instead filled with shredded foam, which offers the same bouncy support while being able to spread out for a more fluffy, down feel. (Also less lumpy than cheap pillows that are stuffed with balls of cotton.) Most of these pillows are also adjustable, meaning you can literally reach inside and take foam out to adjust to any finicky preferences. Just make sure you have a vacuum handy.
For people who can't sleep if they're hot: Too sweaty to relax? A pillow with cooling gel or a copper-infused cover will keep heat away from your head for that cool, breezy sleep we all covet.
For people with broad shoulders: The wider your shoulders, the more space you'll need to fill between the mattress and your neck. A loft of at least six inches should do the trick.
For sleepers who have neck pain: If you can't take any chances on your neck not being fully supported, a non-rectangle shaped pillow could be more reliable. A U-shaped pillow allows you to slide your shoulders right into the curve, and a contoured pillow offers a higher loft under your neck to ensure minimal straining as your head lays back.
The prices listed are the starting prices for each pillow, but know that most of these will increase if you buy a bigger pillow (say, a king instead of a queen). Here are the best pillows for side sleepers and side binge-watchers in 2022: