Selecting a mattress can be a time consuming process, mainly because deciding which mattress works for you is probably the most subjective of all furniture buying decisions. There are a tremendous amount of options to choose from, each type with different reasons to recommend it. In this guide I will break down some of the common types of mattresses to give you a better frame of reference that will help you pick what you prefer.
The first thing to understand is that all mattresses, regardless of price, construction, or features, are designed to do two things - allow you to sleep comfortably, and provide support to your body while you do so. While a mattress may contain several layers of different material, these can be broadly divided into the comfort layer, which relieves pressure, and the support layer, which keeps your spine aligned during sleep. Now that we've got the main functions described, asking yourself a few questions can considerably narrow the field of mattresses for you to pick from.
- What position does the person(s) who will be sleeping on this mattress typically sleep in? (I have a Sleeping Positions Guide explaining why exactly this is important.)
- Will my needs be better served by a firm mattress or a plush one?
- Will my needs be better served by a hard mattress or a soft one?
- Will my needs be better served by a foam mattress or one with coil springs?
Sleeping positions can basically be divided into three types. Again, view my Sleeping Positions Guide for more details, but here's a simple breakdown:
- Side sleepers need a deep comfort layer (about three inches) to alleviate a variety of pressure points.
- Back sleepers need good support for the lower back/lumbar area and should consider a medium thickness comfort layer (about two inches).
- Stomach sleepers need strong, firm support and a thinner comfort layer (about an inch) to keep from sinking down too far into the mattress, which can negatively impact the back.
The second and third questions above look the same, don't they? Well, they're not. Basically, the first question is a technical one and it has more to do with support. Plush mattresses tend to be better for side or back sleepers because they're all about combating pressure points. Firm mattresses are better for back or stomach sleepers because they dispense with unnecessarily thick comfort layers and allow the needed support to come through.
The question of soft versus hard is a more subjective one and has more to do with comfort. The simplest way to explain this distinction is that mattresses which contain a pillow top or memory foam tend to be perceived as more comfortable, but remember that you can have a mattress with these features that still has a firmer support layer.
To answer the question of foam versus spring mattresses, we need to break each category down a bit further. Let's divide popular types of mattresses into four interior composition categories:
- Conventional polyurethane foam. This would refer to any foam mattress which is not made with memory foam. These can offer better support across a wide area than some spring mattresses (particularly lower end ones), and they tend to be more economical than memory foam. What they lack is the more specific pinpoint support of memory foam.
- Memory foam. Because this type of foam moulds to your individual contours over time, you can get more support in very specific areas than you can with either a spring or a PO foam mattress. Memory foam can however cause the user to get very hot during sleep - you can combat this somewhat with the newer cooling gel enhanced foams on the market - and some grades can be quite expensive.
- Continuous coil. These are spring mattresses where all the coils inside are joined together. These spring mattresses tend to be quite economical, they don't produce the heat that foam mattresses can, and they do not require you to wait for the mattress to mould to your contours in order to be comfortable. However, these mattresses are not as good at relieving pressure at individual points as foam mattresses, and they can lead to more motion transfer than a pocket coil mattress.
- Pocket coil. These are spring mattresses where there is, as the name suggests, a protective 'pocket' of fabric around each coil. This reduces motion transfer and is therefore very handy for couples. These mattresses also give better support than a continuous coil mattress because the separate coils can spread out your weight. The main potential drawbacks are weight - some pocket coil mattresses can be heavy to move - and price - upper end models can get up there in price.
You can also consider additional features such as:
- Pillow tops. These built in mattress toppers can add to the comfort layer of the main mattress below and are great for side and back sleepers. They will however detract from the support stomach sleepers need.
- Cooling gel layers. These represent technology created to combat the heat that is often produced when memory foam is used. Such layers can add a bit to the price of the mattress, but people who prefer to be cool when they sleep often consider this extra expense to be worth it.
Weighing the factors listed here will help you to pick the mattress most suitable to the sleeper. But before you head out shopping, take note of the very important tip below.
The most important tip I can offer is that the best way to tell if a mattress is right for you is to lay on it in the store. It's highly recommended that you try different grades of mattress, laying down in the position you would at home, with a pillow, for about 15 minutes on each model. Don't allow the sales staff to rush you (we sure won't) and make sure the person who will be sleeping on the mattress is there to try it out. In all honesty, you really can't buy a mattress on someone else's behalf.
Now go get yourself that perfect mattress!