Nine in 10 respondents in a sleep survey cited their mattress as an important factor in getting that coveted good night’s rest. Americans love their beds so much, in fact, that they're willing to shell out thousands of dollars for a single mattress. But the word is still out on whether this expense is really justified, since mattresses can affect our sleep in both positive and negative ways. Make sense of the bedding madness with this primer on choosing the right mattress for you.
Mattress Matters—The Need-to-Know
The first “mattresses” (read: piles of leaves, grass, or straw covered in animal skins) were invented by cave men and women. Thousands of years later, the Egyptian pharaohs discovered the luxury of raising the bedding off the ground (though "common folk" continued to sleep on piles of palm bows). Today, many Americans enjoy mattress-induced rest.
A bad mattress can contribute to poor sleep quality, while a good mattress can improve it.
But mattresses don't always help people obtain a good night's sleep. Low-quality, uncomfortable mattresses have been linked to sleep discomfort and pain, and chronic pain can prevent quality sleep  . Those who struggle with sleep deprivation may suffer from a sour mood, slower metabolism, and impaired immune function     .
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. While mattresses can hinder sleep quality, they can also improve it. Better “bedding systems” (a fancy way of saying “things you sleep on”) have been linked to decreased pain and discomfort, especially in women  . Quality sleep on a good mattress may also help decrease stress .
The long and short of it? A bad mattress can contribute to poor sleep quality, while a good mattress can improve it. Given that the average person spends about one third of her or his life sleeping, it's worth investing the time (and money) to find the right mattress for you.
Better Bedding — Your Action Plan
When it comes to purchasing the perfect mattress, it turns out there are a lot of mixed messages out there. Some research suggests foam mattresses create backaches; others say foam helps pain. Some studies advocate for regular cotton mattresses while others say coils create backaches and that airbeds are the way to go  . There’s even disagreement over whether a firm mattress really is better for lower back pain  .
The reason for all this controversy is that sleep quality and comfort are so darn subjective . In fact, when buying a mattress, the most important consideration is probably personal comfort. (That also means that if something besides a mattress proves more comfortable to sleep on, we should go for it ).
If you find yourself in the market for a new mattress, follow these guidelines for a better shot at getting that elusive good night’s sleep.
- Replace a mattress approximately every eight years.
Keep it longer than that and the materials may start to degrade, which might make the mattress less comfortable to sleep on. If you’re waking up in pain every day, sleeping poorly, or feeling disgruntled all the time, consider upgrading sooner .
- Replace the box spring along with the mattress.
Over time, the compression of the springs (which results from having a mattress and human bodies on top of it) will start to change the structure of the spring box. To retain proper structure, replace it every eight years or so—or just ditch the box spring altogether.
- Make comfort your goal.
Purchasing a mattress is all about finding the best one for you. Some people like a firm mattress; some like a soft one; others, like Goldilocks, prefer somewhere in between. The experts we spoke to said it basically comes down to personal preference. If you're comfortable, you have a better chance of sleeping well.
- Try before you buy.
Test “sleep” on a mattress for at least 20 minutes in a normal sleep position before making a decision.
- Look for a mattress that fits your body.
Chiropractors advocate finding a mattress that’s designed to conform to the spine’s natural curve and distribute pressure evenly across the body. This can be tricky, because the surface curve on the mattress doesn’t necessarily represent the way your spine will curve while sleeping on it . Everyone’s pressure points are different, so the best way to figure out if a mattress correctly supports the body is to bring a friend along to the store. Lie on the mattress in your normal sleeping position and ask your friend to observe whether your spine remains fairly neutral. If your spine is obviously sagging or curved exaggeratedly in any given direction, then keep searching for a mattress that helps maintain neutral spine alignment.
- Avoid the sag.
While researchers are challenging the idea that a firm mattress is essential for anyone with back pain, most experts still agree a saggy mattress isn’t the way to go . To determine if a mattress has too much sag, perform the same spine alignment observation outlined above.
- Don’t buy vintage.
Not only is the mattress likely to have lost its proper structure, but this ruIe’s especially important if you’re worried about your bed catching on fire. Only mattresses made after July 2007 must meet regulations for fire resistance.
- Ignore brand names.
Virtually all mattress coils are made by the same manufacturer. Likewise, don’t be duped by dollar signs: A higher price doesn’t necessarily mean better quality.
- Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Thickness is often just a visual ploy designed to get people to think they’re buying a comfier mattress. Listen to your body and find the bed that feels the most comfortable (not the one that just looks that way).
- Beware of allergens.
If you have allergies (particularly to dust mites, mold, and certain bacteria), read the mattress’ label to make sure that the materials don’t contain any sneaky allergens—or, better yet, look for a hypoallergenic mattress (natural latex and wool are both decent options) or a mattress cover. Worried about allergies but don’t want to pay for an expensive mattress cover? Daily vacuuming might help .
- Do not disturb… your partner.
If you share a bed, look for a mattress that allows two people to adjust the firmness on their respective sides. That way, neither one of you will have to sacrifice comfort or spine alignment.
- Give peace a chance.
Even if you loved your new mattress in the store, you might not sleep better on it the first night you bring it home. It can take a couple of days to adjust to a new sleeping surface . If the first night on a new mattress doesn’t transform your sleep quality, give it a few more nights before giving in to buyer’s remorse.
- Look for a return policy.
This way, you won’t be stuck with an expensive mattress that doesn’t provide the sleep of your dreams.
Originally published September 2012. Updated July 2014.