How to Find the Perfect Mattress | Practical & Science-Backed Tips for Picking the Perfect Mattress

Most of us have been there: Tossing and turning, wishing we could fall asleep but failing miserably before spending our days in a sleep-deprived haze only to repeat the process again the next day.

While there are many factors that can lead to insomnia or contribute to poor-quality sleep that leaves us feeling anything but rested, a worn-out mattress is often among the chief culprits. Is your mattress due to be replaced?

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The importance of a good mattress

You might be wondering whether mattress quality really makes a difference. As it turns out, most people agree that having a comfortable mattress is vital to enjoying restful sleep. In a National Sleep Foundation poll, about nine of every ten respondents placed mattress comfort as one of the key factors in achieving healthy sleep, with comfortable pillows taking a close second and comfortable-feeling sheets and bedding taking third place.

Just like a great mattress can help improve sleep, the wrong mattress can cause quite a bit of trouble. Some common mattress-related issues include:

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Persistent discomfort overall
  • Unpleasant chemical odors
  • Insomnia
  • Slow metabolism linked to insomnia
  • Insomnia-related stress
  • Drowsy driving
  • Depression
  • Poor performance at work
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Moodiness
  • Low sex drive
  • Impaired immune function

Getting plenty of restful sleep should be a priority. In fact, we humans are designed to spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, and a comfortable bed can truly make a difference. The question is, how to choose the best mattress in a world where the market is jam-packed with options?

There’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding the subject of which mattress is best for your back, which is best for keeping allergies at bay, and which is best overall. The answers to these questions are highly subjective as different people have different needs. Here are some common marketing messages that you might have heard in the past:

  • Foam mattress are good (or bad) for people with back pain.
  • Only organic cotton (or wool, or latex) mattresses are truly healthy.
  • Mattresses with coils are more (or less) supportive than those without.
  • You have to have a mattress with special cooling gel, different comfort zones, or a pillowtop if you really want to enjoy a good night’s sleep.
  • Air mattresses are the only way to go.
  • A certain company’s mattress is the very best for dealing with back and neck pain.

These claims and many others are simply that: Marketing lingo. The same memory foam mattress that sends your next-door neighbor happily off to dreamland every night might leave you feeling absolutely wretched. The expensive organic mattress that your colleague purchased might be perfect for them, but not so great for you, and the list goes on.

So, what’s the most important factor to consider when choosing the best mattress for your own needs? As it turns out, personal comfort tops the list.

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Tips for choosing the best mattress

With your own comfort and perhaps that of a sleeping partner as your guiding star, you’ll find these fact-based tips for picking the best mattress useful.

1. Don’t be fooled by brand names.

Gimmicks are everywhere. In fact, the mattress business is all about marketing, and big names pay massive sums for advertising aimed at convincing consumers that their mattresses are the very best, worth thousands of dollars, and guaranteed to make all of your sleep woes evaporate.

The truth is that mattresses are consumer commodities. Most are built in similar factories, with different colored covers, slightly different fabrics, identical spring systems with coils built by Leggett and Platt, similar comfort layers, and of course, different labels and names designed to entice purchasers to plunk down as much cash as possible.

2. Watch out for common allergens.

Allergic to latex? Stay away from mattresses that contain it. Have an issue with dust mites, which are known to inhabit mattresses? Consider picking a mattress with dust mite prevention built in, or add a protective cover to your new mattress when it arrives. Add a cover to your pillows while you’re at it, since they’re dust mite havens.

Why worry about allergens? As it turns out, allergic rhinitis can have a negative impact on sleep quality. In one study, researchers found that the severity of symptoms were linked with the degree of sleep impairment and a corresponding reduction in overall quality of life.

If you know that you have allergies, keeping your sensitivities in mind can set yourself up for better sleep. If you tend to wake up feeling stuffy but you don’t know why, then see your doctor for testing. A little knowledge goes a long way toward helping you make a decision you can comfortably live with.

3. Learn more about mattresses.

The average mattress life is about eight years, so don’t feel bad if it’s been a while since you last shopped for a new mattress.

Like other products, mattresses have evolved by leaps and bounds in the past few years and this means that you have more options. You might want to do some deeper digging but here’s a quick guide to the most common mattress types:

  • Innerspring: The “old-fashioned” mattresses most of us grew up with are innerspring models, with interconnected springs that lend a bouncy feel that appeals to many people. Some have pillow tops, and there are different levels of firmness available. These mattresses typically offer a shorter lifespan than other types, often developing sagging that can be felt before it’s visible.
  • Pocketed coil: Sometimes referred to as Marshall coil mattresses, pocketed coil mattresses feature individually wrapped springs that work independently from one another. The main advantage of pocketed coils vs. traditional innerspring coils is that there’s better motion isolation, so when one sleeping partner moves, the other is less likely to be disturbed.
  • If you like the idea of a pocketed coil mattress, look for one with a higher coil count since this is a good indicator of quality. Higher coil gauges indicate softer mattresses, while lower coil gauges are indicative of a firmer feel.
  • Memory foam: Memory foam mattresses come at different price points, and many people like the feel of being cradled gently, with no pressure points. These mattresses tend to offer excellent motion isolation, plus they’re associated with superior resistance to allergens when compared with most innerspring mattresses.
  • According to the sleep experts at Bedroom Critic, “If you tend to sleep hot, a standard memory foam mattress probably won’t work well for you. The good news is that if you like everything about memory foam mattresses but the heat retention, there are solutions available. Quite a few manufacturers use cooling gel to disperse body heat, and others build in special airflow features that help keep sleepers cooler, too.”
  • Organic mattresses: Let’s face it: Mattresses aren’t great for the environment and many people are sensitive to the chemicals used in manufacturing traditional and memory foam mattresses. There are quite a few companies that offer organic mattresses including cotton and latex options, as well as a few wool and wool-blend options.
  • Organic mattresses tend to be of excellent quality overall. They come in different configurations and some are surprisingly affordable. If you’re sensitive to chemicals and you love the idea of reducing your environmental impact, then you might want to see if there’s a suitable option available. Be sure to take your own physical needs into consideration when shopping for an organic mattress. If it’s not comfortable, it won’t do you any good.
  • Hybrid mattresses: Hybrid mattresses typically feature a supportive layer of individually pocketed coils beneath a few different layers of memory foam. While hybrid mattresses have come down in price since the technology was first introduced, they’re often pricier than simpler options. Different companies offer unique comfort features such as built-in cooling, special support zones, and more.

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4. Get a sense of what feels most comfortable to you.

Simply listening to mattress store sales staff or paying attention to doctors who receive funding from mattress companies for recommending a specific make and/or model isn’t enough to clue you in to which mattress will be the ideal match for your needs. It’s beyond important to take plenty of time to familiarize yourself with different mattresses so you don’t end up with a lemon.

In an article published in Slate, Seth Stevenson recalls interviewing an orthopedic surgeon from the National Foundation for Spinal Health (NFSH). The surgeon told him that anyone with back pain should choose a mattress that offered support in “the position of function,” i.e. a sleep position that mimics the normal curve of the spine when standing. (This is the same principal with recliner chairs, which mimic your body shape and recline according to your needs, relieving stress from your back and hips.)

The surgeon recommended the Simmons Back Care Mattress, but Seth soon discovered that NFSH was partly funded by Simmons, which led him to interview another surgeon in search of a second opinion.

The second surgeon was not funded by any mattress company, and he was quick to mention that firm mattresses are often great for people with back spasms, but that they aren’t likely to help people with other types of back pain. Instead, he recommended getting a mattress that feels good to you overall. Firm or soft, the choice is yours.

You probably have some idea about what level of firmness feels best to you. If not, it’s a good idea to spend some time testing out different mattresses before you invest in a new one.

Spend at least 20 minutes per mattress in your preferred sleep position, and preferably with your sleeping partner if you have one. Notice if you’re able to fully relax, or if you feel like you’re on a too-soft or too-firm surface.

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5. Pick a mattress that comes with a sleep trial.

There are tons of mattresses available online these days. Many of them are built by familiar companies, others come in funky colors as part of the manufacturer’s marketing plan, and a few can be custom-built with different comfort levels for sleeping partners who have different needs. Many others offer nothing more than a low price, quick delivery, and some vague promises about good back support and restful sleep.

If you’re among the millions who prefer shopping online to the often-agonizing process of trying mattresses in stores while eager sales professionals look on and provide you with an endless stream of mattress “facts,” take your time. Be sure to read lots of reviews and take a very good look at the fine print that accompanies the marketing lingo. This is where you can usually separate the wheat from the chaff.

Many of the best mattresses sold online come with sleep trials. Some last for 30 days, some last for 60 days, and a few last for several months or even for a full year. These trials are intended to allow you to become accustomed to the mattress and decide whether it’s the right one.

Most mattress companies that offer generous trial periods also offer delivery and pickup, making it easier to replace the mattress if it ends up being all wrong for your sleeping style.

Conclusion

Comfort is highly subjective. No one else can tell you for sure which mattress will be best for your sleep style, your body type and size, or even your temperature preference. While sleep experts and mattress reviews will certainly point you in the right direction, be sure to keep an open mind while researching.

Whether you opt to shop the traditional way or look for a mattress online, protect yourself by ensuring that you have plenty of time to familiarize your body with your new mattress and return it if it ends up being the wrong one. With so many options available, there truly is a perfect mattress for everyone.

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