Side sleepers: give your pillow reviews.
January 28, 2013 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Buckwheat, down, millet, feather, foam? Which pillows have you tried and what did you think of them? How can I make an informed decision about pillows without wasting time and money?

I'd thought for sure that this would have been asked here before, but to my surprise there is only one post from four years ago, and it didn't quite have the information I was looking for.

I am a dedicated side sleeper who is at her wits end about pillows. I have a 6 year old mattress with a memory foam layer on top and it's in okay condition. I'm tired of buying new pillows every six months because the filling goes soft and I don't get the neck support I need. I tried a (cheap) contoured memory foam pillow from BigBoxStore after sleeping on one at a relative's house and it was great... for about two weeks. Now I feel as if the foam is already breaking down, and half way through the night I feel like I'm sleeping on concrete and there's no way to "fluff" up a foam pillow. I can also tell that it's warm, which is fine in the dead of winter, but it will be impossible in the summer (I have terrible body-temperature control.)

So I'm back to my old fiber-filled pillow with somewhat better results, but I'm still waking up tired and with mild neck stiffness. Those first two weeks with that memory foam pillow, though, were so glorious and so amazing that I'd do anything to get that well-rested feeling again!

If you're a side-sleeping MeFite who has found a great solution for your pillow problems, I really want to hear your story. I'm seriously considering a buckwheat hull pillow, but I've never used one and I'm not sure I'd get that neck support I feel I need. Or, should I consider a higher-end foam pillow, or in your experience, will I have the same problem as I had with the cheap one?

I know this is a hard thing to quantify, and that each of us are special and have special snowflake solutions and blah blah blah. What I want to hear is your experience with the solution that works best for you, and even other pillows you tried that did not work for you. I want to hear your pillow reviews so I can make an informed decision about what to try next, rather than forking of $1000 to try one of everything.

I would also welcome scientific research about the best sleeping options for various positions. If you've got some good references about sleeping and head/neck support I want to read them!
posted by absquatulate to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
I was a miserable side sleeper and went through several types of pillows before I fell in love with .... Hold on to your pants... An Ikea pillow. It has held its shape and firmness for months now and I am considering buying another in case they stop making them. The label says Ikea 365 + FAST. I'm guessing it was around $15-20.
posted by HeyAllie at 7:01 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

This is the greatest pillow I've ever bought. I've had it about six weeks and it's great. The blue side stays cool and the whole thing stays firm. I sleep on my side.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:02 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I will be watching this thread with great interest, as someone with similar pillow issues.

At one point I had a water-filled pillow, which actually worked pretty well until I got tired of the sloshing sounds and the difficulty in moving the pillow once filled. Might be worth a try.

I'm currently eyeing this pillow from Brookstone--I like the memory foam pillows except for their brick-like qualities, and always wanted one with a bit more surface cushioning. Pretty expensive, though. For now, I'm sticking with the fiber pillows, like you, and madly re-fluffing every night.
posted by Kat Allison at 7:05 AM on January 28, 2013

Best answer: I stopped clenching my teeth when I started sleeping with a buckwheat pillow (regular size). I wake up without the aches I used to have too. It took a little while to get used to the sound, but I'm forever converted.

Love my pillow.
posted by mamabear at 7:08 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a side sleeper, and I have a memory foam pillow that I've had for... much longer than you're probably supposed to keep pillows. I mean, I moved six years ago, and it was with me then. Is that gross? I do wash my pillowcases (obviously), and it has a zippered cover that I also wash.
Anyway, it's still super comfortable, so it may just be that the one you got was a dud. If your mattress pad doesn't make you too hot, I don't think the pillow will make you too hot.
posted by amarynth at 7:08 AM on January 28, 2013

We bought a couple of pillows (also available at Walmart). They are very firm and keep their firmness. But, I have a very short space between my neck and the tip of my shoulder. So I don't use the mypillow because when I sleep on my side my neck will not be straight - it tilts up. They are better suited for my partner who has very wide shoulders. He loves the mypillow. I have thought about getting a mypillow in a size better suited for me. If you call them they are very helpful about choosing the right pillow. I just haven't taken the time. I was using a small decorative couch pillow that was very very firm. After two years it finally flattened so now I folded up a really fluffy large blanket and I sort of form it every night depending if I am sleeping on my side or front. That seems to be working pretty good for me actually.
posted by cda at 7:12 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Side sleeper here...What's under my head (currently, a couple of down pillows from my local big-box) is nowhere near as important to me as is my body pillow. I sleep like a baby curled-up around my supportive body pillow. It's hard to sleep anywhere else without it, and it often is up high enough to be under my head, as well.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:24 AM on January 28, 2013

Regular pillows bend my neck, probably short shoulders like cda above. The only pillows that work for me are down-filled ones that have lost some of their fullness over the years. If I ever have to get a new one I'll probably take some of the down out.
posted by mareli at 7:25 AM on January 28, 2013

You can get a down pillow with a feather core, to give it more substance. Beyond that, I've always relied on mashing it into the right shape. But if yours get flat too soon, have you considered the super-thick/firm ones? or a curved pillow like this? Lots of good reviews for this too. (I have no experience with buckwheat.)
posted by acm at 7:29 AM on January 28, 2013

On the how to test things out - stay at a couple of hotels with a pillow menu. I fell in love with my buckwheat bucky pillow at the Liaison Capitol Hill in D.C., they have all sorts of pillows you can order (ok, maybe four or five).
posted by arnicae at 7:30 AM on January 28, 2013

I'm a side sleeper. I used to sleep on a very flat pillow with my arm under it. Despite my neck and shoulder aches, I *thought* this was my most comfortable sleeping position. Then I tried a memory foam pillow (non-contoured), loved it, and bought it immediately. Then I had some doubts about it and wrote this question on Askme. 1.5 years later, I am still loving my pillow and my neck and shoulder problems are completely gone.

It took some time to get used to the firmness and not being able to put my arm under my pillow, but those are non-issues now. Note: not a cheap pillow ($150), but well worth it.

I found this pillow while mattress shopping, so might be worth it for you to try out some pillows in a mattress store before committing.
posted by yawper at 7:32 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Ikea 365+FAST. I've been using this for at least a year now and it is still going strong.
posted by crocomancer at 7:41 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

The only pillow that works for me is this one from Therapeutica. I'd err on the smaller side if you're fitting your shoulder for one, as I find the softness of the mattress positions your shoulder in a not perfectly straight way. I too wish there was a way to try before you buy.
posted by tatiana131 at 7:45 AM on January 28, 2013

Side sleeper here. I have two pillows. The bottom pillow is thick and stiff, and it almost makes no difference to me what it is. Its role is to provide the height, so that my neck stays straight.

The top pillow is an excruciatingly old all-down pillow that has been so flattened by time that it's entirely moldable to whatever shape I want it to be in. It's got absolutely no form, no loft. I squeeze it into shape around my head and neck.

This pillow is so perfect, I travel with it everywhere. No matter what's below it, if I've got my top pillow, I can sleep. My husband and daughter love this pillow so much there have been family fights over who gets to use it. They engage in trickery to get it away from me, try to sleep with their heads a millimeter away from mine so they can share it, you name it. It took years, though, to get it to the stage where we're fighting over it. Before that it was just a nice pillow. I think all the years of hair oils seeping in have destroyed all the loft in the down, and that's what it takes.

When I got it, I had no idea I was on my way to sleeping nirvana, but I was, and now that pillow is like an essential part of me.
posted by Capri at 7:46 AM on January 28, 2013

Latex pillows are generally my favorite. Currently using this one:
Z by Malouf 100% Natural Talalay Latex Zoned Pillow

I replace latex pillows roughly once year or so not because they're broken down but because they're dust mite resistant but not impervious. I have no idea if they get infested with dust mites after a year or not, but I don't want to think about it, so they get tossed and replaced.
posted by lyra4 at 7:48 AM on January 28, 2013

Nthing the Ikea 365+FAST. Like it and it holds it's shape well.

Just a quick tip. As a side sleeper, I also sleep with a big foam pillow between my knees, not for my back, but because it helps me keep the proper side position while sleeping. Without it, I have a tendency to roll slightly more onto my stomach, which when combined with a side-sleep's pillow gives me hangover-like headaches in the morning.
posted by guy72277 at 8:01 AM on January 28, 2013

Are the pillows you're getting from BigBoxStore feather/down or some kind of polyester fill? In my experience feather or down last much longer--they don't get flat like the polyester fill ones do.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:03 AM on January 28, 2013

Best answer: I'm seriously considering a buckwheat hull pillow, but I've never used one and I'm not sure I'd get that neck support I feel I need.

I am a buckwheat hull pillow convert. I don't plan on using anything else. I'm a side-sleeper, and used to wake up with a sore neck way too often. I tried several different pillows and nothing worked. About 10 or 15 years ago, buckwheat-hull pillows were advertised on TV all the time. I saw one in a local department store, and decided to give it a try, despite its $30 price tag. The difference was immediate. In addition to eliminating the sore neck in the morning, I loved that I never woke up in a puddle of sweat, or got too hot in the middle of the night.

A few observations:

Buckwheat hull pillows seem like they would be too hard, and too noisy! You can hear those hulls moving around against your ear as you adjust the pillow. But, once in place, I don't have to adjust the pillow nearly as often; the weight of your head on the pillow keeps it formed. So noise has never been an issue. And I don't miss a "soft" pillow at all. I'd rather have my head and neck supported properly. It's hard to explain, but even though the pillow is not soft, it doesn't feel hard or harsh. It just feels natural.

Buckwheat hull pillows are usually smaller than other pillows. The one I use is about half the size of a normal pillow. But, it doesn't matter. I would end up folding a regular pillow in half to make it usable anyway.

Buckwheat hull pillows are not cheap, and they do need to be replaced on occasion. After a year or two of use, the hulls start to flatten somewhat, changing the characteristics. I've replaced mine every couple years. I have seen places that sell just the hulls (online) so maybe next time I'll see if it's worthwhile to just empty it, wash the cloth, and refill it myself.

(PS: My wife is also a convert. We got married a couple years ago, and after about 6 months she started stealing my pillow after I left for work. So I bought her her own and she loves it too.)
posted by The Deej at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a side sleeper and I bought a cheap-ish memory foam pillow after waking up with a stiff neck for weeks. It's not a contoured one though, it's a flat, normal pillow shaped one. I wouldn't say its super comfortable or anything when I first lie down, actually, but I sleep really well and don't have neck problems any more. And I do still sleep with my arm under the pillow. I get cold when I sleep though, so heat isn't an issue for me
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:12 AM on January 28, 2013

You're not the only one with memory foam troubles. I have an expensive Tempurpedic pillow and it just flattens under my head. Been that way since day one. From everything I've heard from other memory foam users I seem to be in the minority; maybe my head is just exceptionally heavy.

Double-pillowing usually works decently for me, with a flatter firmer pillow on the bottom and a squishy pillow on the top. It's probably not the best solution, but if works okay if you're a cheapskate and need to make do with a couple lesser-quality pillows.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:14 AM on January 28, 2013

I didn't like my buckwheat pillow until I re-made it. The case it was in originally was too big and wide and didn't offer much support. So I fixed it. Now it's narrow and long and there's less room for the hulls to slide all over the place.

If you can sew then you can buy the hulls on Amazon for cheap.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:55 AM on January 28, 2013

I use the contoured memory foam pillow and that works great for me. I've had it forever and it's held the shape quite well. Maybe try a different brand or slightly better quality?
posted by Eicats at 9:05 AM on January 28, 2013

Body pillow. Wrap arms around pillow, then place pillow between shoulder and head. Nothing else needed for me.
posted by bac at 9:12 AM on January 28, 2013

Best answer: I lurve my buckwheat pillow. The best part is that it quickly conforms to my desired shape. I can mash it thin and sleep on the edge of the pillow when I'm on my stomach, or I can mash it into a thick mound that gives lots of support when I'm on my side.
posted by gnutron at 9:29 AM on January 28, 2013

I use a down pillow (from Ikea) that I wad into the shape needed to support my neck
posted by kbuxton at 9:49 AM on January 28, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Some clarification since you've asked:
I've been a double pillower for years and years. I'm just getting tired of buying new pillows because they get flat so quickly. When I discovered gusseted pillows I switched to one of those. Yes, they were synthetic fill. Work great for a few months, then I get the stiff neck back. Down pillows keep their fluff longer? I've never had a down pillow. The ones I've used as relative's houses are so soft and floppy I need three for any kind of neck support, but I see now they come in different configurations.

I cannot sew, do not have a sewing machine, and no time to learn, so that's out (but thanks for the suggestion, and I wish I could do that for the savings).

The memory foam pillow is contoured, and for the first two weeks it was great! Now, I wake up in the middle of the night, the foam is flat and very hard. It makes me feel like my head is very heavy, and when it's 2am, I want to sleep, not rotate out pillows so that the foam can take shape again. It cost me $17, so it's not a super-expensive one. And I know the foam will be problematic in the summer, because even the foam padding on the mattress is too hot in the summer for me (I will never buy a mattress like that again!)

Thank you for your personal experiences! They are really helping me get a sense for the different options that are out there: keep them coming!
posted by absquatulate at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2013

Best answer: Okay, your clarificaion came in while I was typing my response. I really recommend you try a buckwheat pillow. I don't think there's any kind of pillow that will last a lifetime so yes, you will need to replenish/replace the hulls every year or two, but you keep the same casing and just buy more hulls for cheap. If you can pour, you can refresh your buckwheat pillow!

I slept on down pillows of one kind or another for years, but I had a lot of shoulder and neck problems until I tried a buckwheat pillow. Buckwheat is amazing stuff because you can mash it into different shapes, but then it somehow holds that shape while you sleep until you mash it again. I sleep 80% on my side, but I like to lay on my back for awhile before I really settle down to sleep, and then a couple times a night I wind up mostly on my tummy with my arm under the pillow. The buckwheat pillow perfectly accommodates each position so I'm always comfy. Mmmm. Seriously, after two and a half years I still get a little happy thinking about my pillow.

I don't think anyone else has mentioned it, but I do find it to be cool in summer without being cold in winter. How does it do it?!

As others have said, the hulls make a little noise, but not once you put your head down. It's certaily never bothered me. It's kind of tinkly and sounds a little like rain.

Oh, Buckwheat Pillow, I Looove you! You are the best of all pillow worlds!!1!
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 10:43 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tempurpedic ergonomic pillow. I've tried other, cheaper brands and they all wore out far too soon. I've had this one for a few years and it's holding up well.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:57 AM on January 28, 2013

If I'm sleeping with a pillow that's too thin, I fold up a blanket or towel or some clothes under it. Firm, free, and easy to fine-tune.
posted by pont at 12:27 PM on January 28, 2013

I'm not sure about the distinction between down & feathers--I think feathers are firmer than down, but firmness may also be about how much filling is used so maybe there are all-down firm pillows? There is definitely variety in firmness of down/feather pillows, though. Also--I know so little about pillow purchase because the feather pillows I've used came from my *grandmother's* house and have been passed down. Seriously, good ones can last. I know that in comparison, the polyester fill big-box pillows I've had go bad after a few years.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:34 PM on January 28, 2013

I'm primarily a side sleeper, and I've never been able to sleep comfortably on just one pillow. Right now, my bottom pillow is the IKEA 365 + FAST, but I use the flatter side meant for back-sleeping because I've got a pretty basic firm-but-thin pillow on top of it. It seems to work fine, though sometimes I wonder if there's a little TOO much height--my neck feels tilted when I'm on my back. Plus, after reading the replies here, I see there are lots of things I might want to try instead!

One thing I tried once but did NOT work was putting a cervical roll pillow inside a pillowcase with a fairly firm pillow. I think I used two pillows and had the roll inside the bottom pillowcase. It actually made my neck problems worse, so I quit doing that ... but maybe I was doing it wrong.
posted by eleanor_of_aquitaine at 12:42 PM on January 28, 2013

Down (100%). I've been using the same down pillow for about 20 years, and it's still as good as new. Every now and then I put it in the dryer with a tennis ball to get it seriously fluffed up. For side sleeping, I put another pillow underneath for height -- it doesn't much matter what that is. The down pillow was one of the best investments I ever made.

"Feathers" are totally different -- feathers will pack together and get lumpy and hard. Down stays fluffable forever.
posted by Corvid at 12:49 PM on January 28, 2013

I have a crappy pillow but what saved my neck is using a neck roll. There are tons of fancy ones out there but I actually just roll up a hand towel.
posted by radioamy at 5:05 PM on January 28, 2013

I'm a side sleeper, and I too could not find a pillow that worked for me, so I use a cotton quilt as my pillow. I like it because it doesn't get hot and is completely mold-able to whatever configuration I want. I also like that it isn't 'cushy.' I hate soft pillows and this has been great for me.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:28 PM on January 28, 2013

Side sleeper: I like this one.
posted by lalochezia at 7:07 PM on January 28, 2013

Recently purchased a pillow from Kohls (sorry, online only and can't find in on the site now) that has a memory foam layer topped with a standard fill layer. I love it! Stays fluffed up but always has the underlying support.
posted by Kalatraz at 1:46 AM on January 29, 2013


I had one as a boy growing up in the 70's but had not used one since that time.

Bought a down pillow from Costco for about $30 about 5 years ago. It brought back memories of that down pillow from my boyhood. I'll never go back to a synthetic.
posted by qsysopr at 6:35 AM on January 29, 2013

Try some out from Bed, Bath and Beyond. They have an awesome return policy! (We've used it over and over and they have earned our loyalty because of it)

That being said, I have a Tempur-pedic pillow. (They don't sell those at BB&B I don't think) We also have various down alternative pillows. It just kind of depends what I feel like.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:29 PM on January 29, 2013

Coming in late to the party because I have similar pillow needs and have been going through every pillow known to man in an attempt to find the One Pillow To Rule Them All. Some notes:

-Buckwheat: I ordered my buckwheat pillow from an online seller and, not knowing any better, got a standard-size pillow. It is REALLY HEAVY, like, actually hard to lift with one hand heavy. If I had it to do again I would get the "Japanese size" which is much smaller but would probably be just about right. As it is the buckwheat pillow is comfy by itself but it takes a lot of getting used to; it isn't soft like you expect a pillow to be, it's more like a beanbag. I use it a lot for things like propping myself up in bed to read, but at it's current size it's too big and heavy to really work well for me as my only bed pillow.
-Sobakawa cloud pillow: it's got little plastic beads inside, kind of like a beanbag chair. Can be smooshed around to suit your needs but doesn't have as much give as down.
-Down: feels amazing at first but I wake up having sunk all the way through it. Beautiful smooshy comfort but just not enough support.
-Memory foam: decent comfort but too hot, and you can't squash it around; if the default shape doesn't work for you, tough.
-Latex foam: you might think this would be the same as memory foam but it's very different. A latex pillow is soft and springy but it doesn't collapse. Possible trouble spot: if the latex pillow is too high for you, you can't squash it down. My mom has a Mythical Awesome Pillow that she takes everywhere and that everyone wants to steal because it is the best pillow in the house; it is a latex pillow.

My current pillow is a latex foam one and I like it a lot but fear it may be a skootch too high. I am considering trying, but have not yet tried, a shredded latex foam pillow, which I feel might provide the springy awesomeness of latex but with added scrunchability.

I have heard and wondered about the "MyPillow" as seen on TV pillows. They now sell them at Bed Bath and Beyond and they had one out to look at; the tag says that the stuffing is shredded polyurethane foam.
posted by oblique red at 12:29 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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