Some of us prefer huge cloudy-like pillows, while others like to sleep on a slim, firm alternative. At the end of the day, it’s all based on our personal preferences.
We put so much time and effort into looking for a perfect mattress that would benefit us in all the possible ways, but we often forget about a pillow. When sleeping on a bad pillow, we experience spine and neck pain - the uncomfortable pillow is associated with bad sleep. All these unpleasant sensations tempt us to throw the pillow away and sleep without it. But the question is - is sleeping without a pillow better?
While it might seem that the answer is simple and it should be either yes or no, it all boils down to your sleeping position.
That’s why I will introduce you to each of the sleeping positions and the reasons why you should and shouldn’t sleep without pillow. But first, a brief history of how the pillows came into our lives and how it all expanded.
Table of Contents
Sleeping Without a Pillow: History
Have you ever thought about the very beginning of the pillows and how they looked like back then? Believe it or not but the very first pillows date back to 7000 B.C.E. Differently from the pillows that we have today, they were literally rock hard - made from rock.
As uncomfortable as it sounds, such pillows were actually a sign of wealth - the more pillows you had, the higher you ranked in society. Egyptians, for example, used stone pillows to elevate their heads from the ground, preventing insects from crawling into their ears. In Ancient China, there was this superstition that a puffy pillow can suck out their energy, that’s why they rather slept on stone, wood, and ceramic pillows.
As I mentioned, pillows were a sign of wealth, so they weren’t widely used back then. People from the middle layers and the poor ones preferred sleeping without a pillow. During the middle ages in England, women in labor were the only ones using pillows. They weren’t popular between men as pillows were perceived as a sign of weakness.
So, when sleeping without a pillow became unpopular? During the Industrial Revolution, in Europe and the United States, they were produced massively in large textile factories. Pillows became less expensive and were used not only for sleeping but also for decorative purposes.
Today you can pick from such a wide range of pillows based on your wants, needs and sleeping position. While some options can be pretty expensive, the majority of them are highly affordable. Thus, it might seem strange that in the world of luxury, people want to get back to ancients-old habit and sleep without a pillow.
Sleeping in the Neutral Position
All the sleep experts agree that finding the neutral position is the most important factor to focus on. But what does it mean exactly? Your spine and neck should be in one line, without any curves or tilting that can lead to aching back. So, you should pick the right mattress, that wouldn't be too plush and give you enough support, and, of course, a pillow that would keep everything in one line.
So, if sleeping without a pillow is beneficial for you completely depends on your sleeping position. And, while the majority of us toss and turn during the night while changing our sleeping position, the right pillow should contour the most problematic areas and keep your spine in a healthy position.
Sleep Without Pillow for Different Sleepers
Let’s look into the reasons why you should and shouldn’t sleep without pillow based on your sleeping position.
Sleeping without a pillow for back sleepers is not the best option. When you lay down on a firm mattress (more support usually provide innerspring beds), you can see the small gap under your lower back.
Softer and more contouring beds, such as memory foam, can fill that space, hug your hips and let them sink deeper. However, even if you fix a problem in your lower back and hips, it won’t do any difference for the gap between your neck and the mattress. If you try to fill this gap with the unsuitable pillow, you can do even more harm.
You should find a pillow that’s holding your neck in the same position as the rest of the spine and, of course, fill in that space between your neck and the mattress. So, if you thought that sleeping without a pillow will be beneficial for you, think again.
For back sleepers, doctors recommend choosing thinner and contouring pillows rather than the thick options that can tilt your head way too much. Also, if you feel the unwanted pressure on your hips, some chiropractors recommend putting a slim pillow underneath your knees. This way your spine will stay in a healthy position.
Therefore, if you’re a back sleeper and constantly wake up with back and neck pain, you shouldn’t even consider sleeping without a pillow. Most likely the problem is in your mattress or your pillow. Maybe it's time to make some changes?
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Side sleeping is the most popular and some doctors claim that the healthiest sleeping position of them all. Sleeping on your side can be beneficial for digestion and can minimize acid reflux. It’s also the most recommended position for pregnant women.
If you’re a side sleeper and look for the benefits of sleeping without a pillow, I will have to disappoint you. Sleeping without additional support that pillow can provide you with is highly unrecommended. When you sleep without a pillow, the gap between your neck and shoulders appear and create a curve in your spine.
You actually need a thicker and more supportive pillow than back sleepers. Thus, you should pick a pillow that will tilt your head up enough to keep your spine in the neutral position. But don’t overdo it - a pillow that’s too thick will do more harm than it will actually help you.
All things considered, it’s evident that side sleepers shouldn’t even consider sleeping without a pillow. If you want to get even more comfort, put a thin pillow between your knees to provide support for the hips and spine.
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Finally, the type of sleepers who can get away with sleeping without a pillow. Even though the majority of doctors will tell you that sleeping on your stomach is one of the most unhealthy positions, some people like to bury their heady in a huge, puffy, cloudy-like pillow and have the sleep of their lives.
Sleeping on your stomach will force you to turn your head one way or another and it will, most likely, lead to the stiff neck. If you still decide to sleep on your stomach without considering the recommendations from doctors, then the healthiest way is either sleeping without a pillow or choosing a very thin option.
Thus, stomach sleepers are the only ones who get the benefits of sleeping without a pillow. This is the only way to keep your spine as straight as possible.
How to Choose a Pillow?
If sleeping without a pillow is not recommended for your position, you should know how to choose the right support to keep your body in a healthy position.
There are many factors that are crucial when deciding which pillow to pick. The most crucial factors include:
All providers can offer you different pillows’ measures. Usually, you can pick from at least one of the following options:
- Standard. As the name says, the most preferred size option. They are the least options and are the best options for twin- and full-size mattresses. Of course, they will work for other size beds as well.
- Super standard. A little bit longer than the standard pillow.
- Queen. Great for people who prefer to have additional space on the pillow. It’s perfect for queen-size mattresses.
- King. Just like choosing a queen-size pillow, you will have additional space for your head. It’s perfect for sleepers who toss and turn a lot throughout the night. Also, if you like to watch movies or play games in bed, it will serve perfectly as a backrest.
- Euro. Not all people prefer these pillows for sleeping, they can be way too big for some. In most cases, they’re used as backrests for people who either watch movies, play games or read in bed. So, if you prefer sleeping without a pillow, I highly doubt you could ever get used to it.
- Body. Most commonly used by pregnant women or people who like to hold on to something while sleeping.
Pillows are also made of different materials, such as:
- Memory foam. Just like memory foam mattresses, such pillows are designed to mimic your head shape. If you have been suffering from back pain, such a pillow can relieve pain and pressure. You can find a variety of memory foam pillows and options for all types of sleepers.
- Latex. Such pillows are the most popular among people who look for natural alternatives. They offer both pain and pressure relief and also great support. If you’re experiencing heat waves during the night, there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about. Latex pillows do not trap heat and will allow you to sleep much cooler than on memory foam pillow. Sleeping without a pillow is not an option when you can choose a latex pillow.
- Feather. They’re usually almost entirely made of goose or duck feathers, and an insignificant part of dawn. Such pillows are soft and lightweight, they tend to serve the longest of all pillow types. On the other hand, you might need to shake them regularly to maintain the original shape. Also, you can feel some poking through the cover that might be super unpleasant to some sleepers.
- Down. Such pillows contain at least 75% down, they are very lightweight and provide you with extreme comfort. They tend to have a longer-than-average lifespan and doesn’t absorb as much heat as many other pillow types. Down pillows are quite expensive, and while you can find many down alternatives, they won’t provide you with such great characteristics.
- Buckwheat. Many sleepers say that buckwheat pillows provide good pain and pressure relief. They also sleep relatively cool and offer better than average support. Such pillows are not good options for side sleepers as they require more cushioning, and they’re relatively heavy compared to other pillow types.
- Polyester. The cheapest pillows are usually made from polyester. It’s an alternative for allergic people due to the polyester fibers that are hypoallergenic. They tend to maintain their original shape and produce very little odor. However, such pillows also have downsides. They are not as conforming and pressure relieving as memory foam or latex pillows, and are way less durable than all the options provided above.
Before deciding to sleep without a pillow, you should get a pillow of perfect size and characteristics. In most cases, people who experience back or neck pain, sleep on an unsuitable pillow. So, choosing the right alternative can make a major difference. If you’re tired of searching, you can check some of the most evaluated pillows here.
Therefore, you asked - "is it better to sleep without a pillow?". The answer to this question in most cases is NO.
If you wake up with a sore neck or back, then most likely you use an uncomfortable mattress or pillow. Back and side sleepers should never sleep without a pillow and rather find a comfortable option that would fit their needs.
If you're a stomach sleeper, which is actually the unhealthiest sleeping position, then you can consider sleeping without a pillow, or using a very slim option.
And while there are some benefits of sleeping without a pillow, you should rather pick the right alternative based on your weight, sleeping position, size and firmness preferences.
Therefore, consider all the aspects and choose the perfect pillow for yourself.
Scientific References Contributed by Brittany Ferri, Occupational Therapist, CPRP
1. Susan J. Gordon and Karen Grimmer-Somers: 'Your Pillow May Not Guarantee a Good Night's Sleep or Symptom-Free Waking'
2. Danisa M. Clarrett, Christine Hachem: 'Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)'