Ask The Experts: How To Choose The Right Mattress For A Better Sleep

Buying a new mattress is never easy. You need to factor in your sleeping style, the sleeping style of your partner, whether you prefer softness or firmness and optional features like pillowed tops and memory foam -- all within the confines of your budget. We asked an expert to answer some common customer queries ranging from back pain remedies to the best mattress for frequent nooky. Plus: the three essential principles to follow when buying a new bed.

Helix Sleep is a bedding manufacturer that specialises in bespoke mattresses. It has subsequently been researching the science of sleep and how to create the perfect mattress for specific needs. Below are their responses to frequently asked questions (FAQs) which were supplied by Lifehacker readers in the US. (Don't worry, we promise it doesn't turn into a sales pitch!)

FAQ #1: I’m a stomach sleeper and the quicksand effect is really hard on the back. What are your suggestions for a stomach sleeper that’s got achy joints?

Helix Sleep: The optimal performance characteristics of a mattress are hugely dependent on your sleeping position. As a stomach sleeper, you are going to need a more supportive mattress than a back or side sleeper with a similar body type. To that end, we recommend looking for a slightly firmer mattress (no pillowtops!) If you don’t like the quicksand effect that is often associated with memory foam, we recommend looking into latex which has more bounce than memory foam. Ultimately, the best mattress for you is also going to be specific to your body type and preferences, so we recommend trying out multiple mattresses to find one that works well for you.

FAQ #2: Mattress prices vary a great deal, especially if you're willing to buy an off-brand. When looking at $5k for a mattress vs say $2k, what makes up the gap?

Helix Sleep: There is a huge range in the quality of mattresses you see at different mattress retailers, and what’s frustrating for consumers is the products are opaque and confusing to understand these differences.

Typically the way that manufacturers cut corners is to use lower quality materials which may feel nice initially, but degrade over time, leading to body impressions that will be uncomfortable and cause soreness and aches. Even worse, there are retailers that re-sell used mattresses and returned as new products.

Our advice is to always understand the materials that go into your mattress – look for high density foams (680 grams or higher). To make sure you’re buying a trustworthy product, always look for reviews of both the retailer and the manufacturer. Read your warranty materials to make sure you’re covered for body impressions. Finally make sure you’re not getting sold on a much more expensive product that is only being upsold on marketing gimmicks – things like gel-infused foam and other wacky sounding materials tend to be more marketing than actual quality.

FAQ #3: How does one take into consideration the different sizes and weights of their significant other when picking a bed that will be shared? Will one person always be uncomfortable?

Helix Sleep: One of the biggest issues we find with couples is that there is a huge variation in needs and preferences. We saw a recent article saying that up to 25% of married couples actually sleep in different beds. One possible solution is a "split" mattress, whereby each side of the mattress is a separate piece of foam.

FAQ #4: Traditional mattress versus memory mattress, latex versus air... there are so many different options for mattresses that I have no clue what to buy. Where do I start?

Helix Sleep: To get a sense for what you like in terms of the feel of different materials, we’d recommend just trying out a few different mattresses – do you prefer a bouncier mattress or one that’s a bit more cushioning? Do you like a firmer or a more plush feel? Once you have a sense for what you like and don’t like, you should be able to narrow down your universe of options.

From there, we recommend looking into a product that’s going to work for your specific preferences and needs. If you have a higher BMI, definitely look for a mattress with a more supportive core – you can tell by asking for the ILDs (i.e., the firmnesses) of the middle layers of the mattress. If you’re a side sleeper, look for a mattress that feels like it’s able to incorporate your shoulder and hips pushing into the mattress without causing the mattress to bow in (that’s a characteristic known as point elasticity). Make sure you look for high quality materials – traditional springs or latex are very durable, or high density foams. Finally, make sure whatever you settle on has a solid return policy, it can take several weeks to adjust to a new mattress so you want plenty of time to try it out before you make your final decision. We hope that helps and good luck in your search

FAQ #5: I suffer from a sore back and suspect my pillowtop mattress could be to blame. Then again, there are a lot of factors that could lead to back soreness such as not enough exercise near enough. I don’t want to toss out my whole mattress on the hope that that fixes everything.

Helix Sleep: It's true that there are a lot of factors that can lead to back soreness, but a mattress is often one of the top culprits. Pillowtop mattresses are typically on the very soft end of the spectrum. This can be great if you love and need a soft feel, but it can also prevent you from getting the right level of support that you need in your mattress.

If you spend a good portion of the night on your stomach, you will need a higher level of support than a person of similar build who sleeps on their side. A good test is to spend a few nights on a firmer mattress (maybe a generous friend with a guest room?) to see how your back feels.

FAQ #6: Are IKEA’s lower end mattresses acceptable for a student on a budget?

Helix Sleep: The lower end IKEA models tend to be thinner and quite firm. If you are lighter weight and prefer a firmer mattress this could be OK for you, but for people with a higher BMI or who prefer a plush feel, it might not be the right option. Another big concern is about durability – the lower quality foams used in these mattresses means they can be prone to body impressions (where the foam compresses over time in the places you sleep).

If it’s just a stopgap solution then this may not be a concern, but if you’re looking for something in the longer term (7+ years), you may want to look elsewhere.

FAQ #7: I own an empurpedic memory foam mattress and I find it, uh, difficult to...perform certain active bedtime activities with a friend on. Is this a common thing? Short version: Does memory foam make sexy time difficult?

Helix Sleep: This is actually not an uncommon complaint about memory foam mattresses, because that material does not have much (if any) bounce. We won’t get into the details, but you catch our drift...

FAQ #8: I frequently wake up with a sore neck. I've changed mattresses and it didn't help. What can I do to fix this?

Helix Sleep: First, try a different pillow that holds the neck in a more natural position, with the goal an aligned spine. The pillow you choose, much like the mattress, should be designed based on the position you sleep in (i.e. - a very thick, firm pillow for a stomach sleeper will give neck pain). The second concern would be to make sure to use proper pre-sleep “hygiene” before bed - avoid cell phones in bed, give yourself time to wind down after a stressful day, etc. Finally, there may be something else in play that could be remedied with proper medical help - snoring, sleep apnea, etc. Hope that’s helpful!

FAQ #9: I’m a back sleeper that’s on the heavy side. What kinds of mattress foam should I look for?

Helix Sleep: In terms of your specific needs, we recommend really focusing on higher quality materials for people who are a bit heavier, as you are especially prone to body impressions. Latex in particular is known for being a very durable material. Another good approach is a hybrid construction – a mattress that has foam in the top layers and springs in the middle and core layers. This can combine some of the best characteristics of both types and will help alleviate some of the durability concerns from lower quality foams used in those layers. Best of luck in your search!

FAQ #10: How useful are box springs? Are they better for one type of mattress then another? Better for a certain type of sleeper? Or just useful if you don’t want as firm of a bed?

Helix Sleep: Box springs don’t have an enormous impact on the performance of your mattress, but they do have a few benefits. The first is that they can make your mattress more breathable by promoting airflow through the bed, so we definitely recommend them for people who sleep hot. The second is to add height to your bed set up, which some people prefer to make it easier to get in and out of bed. Because a box spring sits so far down the “mattress stack’, it typically doesn’t significantly impact the feel of the mattress, but a super rigid box spring will make the mattress feel somewhat harder and vice versa.

FAQ #11: Does anyone have mattress suggestions for people who aren’t “side sleepers” or “back sleepers”? I rotate like a chicken on a spit all night; I don’t have one position. I’m in awe of people who are motionless in their sleep.

Helix Sleep: A lot of people move all night long, but most actually have a dominate position which is the position you tend to wake up in. If you still find yourself waking up in various positions, we’d suggest you get a mattress that can cater to the more pronounced needs of a stomach sleeper as this position tends to be most associated with neck/back pain in the AM.

FAQ #12: I have a mild case of sleep apnea. Is it possible to buy a bed that is like hospital ones, where you can incline your back and/or legs? Or, perhaps, a recliner that is created for sleeping in?

Helix Sleep: You can absolutely buy those types of beds, known as adjustable bases which can be used with many types of beds. A few words of advice:

1) Make sure your mattress can be used on those type of bases (you’re generally okay if the mattress is foam/latex).

2) These bases can get VERY expensive. You can get adjustable bases that are wireless even...

3) Be wary because some of these adjustable bases will only have head incline/decline (sounds like you want both head and foot).

FAQ #13: Is an 8 year life expectancy correct or is that marketing magic?

Helix Sleep: A good quality mattress should last at least 7-10 years with normal use. That means no sagging or degradation of the materials. When you go to buy your next mattress, we suggest checking out the warranty.

FAQ #14: The problem with buying a mattress is all the contradictory information online. What would you say are three principles to stick to when searching for a new mattress?

Helix Sleep: We’re acutely aware of the pain associated with contradictory information and advice in the industry. Back pain can be helped by a firmer mattress, but that won’t necessarily do the trick. We all have nuances that need to be addressed. At a high level, we’d follow these 3 principles:

1. Make sure you get the right bed FOR YOU! You’re sleeping in it, so regardless of whether or not literature says firmer is better it doesn’t matter. You can very well find out that a softer mattress is more comfortable and better for you specifically.

2. Test it. Lying on a mattress in a store for 5 minutes and deciding it will work for the next 10 years is like deciding you like a restaurant after they pour the water. Make sure you get a bed that you can return, and sleep on it for at least 2 weeks. It takes that long to get used to any new sleep system.

3. Buy comfort/quality, not bells and whistles. Buzzwords don’t equal comfort. It’s VERY easy to overpay on a mattress, but cost is not linear to quality at all times.

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Comments

    All these tips are great, I would only like to add regarding stomach sleepers with back and low back pain - for those, I would recommend mattress with springs, as the body weight is distributed in various points in an optimal way.

    Hello!

    Could you please help me with the following questions about latex mattresses:
    There are two mattresses from 100% natural latex: one is a bit more hard, latex has denser structure, ventilation channels are not going through the mattress. Another mattress is softer, with lighter latex, ventilation channels are going from one side to another.

    The questions are as follows:
    (1) My baby prefers sleeping on her side, which mattress is better in this case – harder or softer?
    (2) Does the fact that ventilation channels are not going through I one of the mattresses has an impact on the characteristics of the mattress? Is it better when they are going from one side to another?
    (3) Based on the technology, which mattress would contain more additions (stabilizers, etc) – more hard or more soft?

    Thank you upfront for your answers and advice.

    Kind regards,
    Tatiana

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