From TV commercials to ads on social media, it seems like every day brings a new mattress company trying to outdo the others with technical advances and layering systems that promise better sleep. But don’t select a mattress simply because it has the newest bells and whistles. Instead, determine the features that make sense for your needs, and then look for a mattress that satisfies them. To help with that, we asked sleep expert Michael J. Breus, PhD, for his top picks in the world of mattresses, the features you should consider and which gimmicks to avoid…
THE ANATOMY OF A MATTRESS
Mattress materials have evolved over the last 150 years since the creation of the innerspring, a network of bouncy springs or coils. Memory foam, originally created by NASA, started being used for mattresses about 30 years ago to provide relief for pressure points such as shoulders and hips while contouring to your body. Some newer entries to the market have reimagined latex mattresses, which were introduced nearly a century ago. Like memory foam, latex relieves pressure but has more of the bounce of an innerspring mattress and is very durable.
The latest trend is toward hybrids—a combination of these and other materials in layers. A mattress needs to deliver two separate things—support underneath you and comfort close to your body.
Support will keep your spine aligned regardless of sleeping position. This allows for better blood flow so nutrition can be administered throughout the body, enabling muscles to rejuvenate. It also helps avoid nerve impingement. A mattress’s support comes from the bottom eight inches of structure and material. Innersprings, for instance, do a great job of providing support.
The comfort part of a mattress is the top five inches. This cushioning is very important to cradle your body’s pressure points if you’re a side or stomach sleeper. Natural latex, a material made from the sap of rubber trees, is excellent—in addition to its responsiveness and adaptability, latex helps regulate the mattress’s temperature to keep you cool. Natural latex is processed in two ways—Dunlop with a firmer feel…and Talalay with a slightly softer feel. Synthetic latex is an option but is less durable.
“Pillow top” mattresses offer an additional layer of comfort with padding sewn on top. The padding may be filled with different materials, including foam, latex, cotton, wool or some combination. You’re also likely to see mattresses described by level of firmness, on a scale of one to 10, with one as the softest. Next in order are medium-soft, medium-firm and firm at 10.
MATCHING YOUR NEEDS
You and your bed partner should start by asking yourselves what you need from the mattress beyond restful sleep.
If you sleep warm, which often happens to women after menopause, look for materials that help regulate temperature. A hybrid mattress does a better job of keeping you cool than one that’s all memory foam. Latex is naturally cooling, so it’s a good pick for hot sleepers.
If you need extra cushioning, consider a pillow-top mattress. Often the body’s subcutaneous fat layer (which also helps you regulate temperature) gets thinner with age, meaning that you have less natural cushioning of your own.
If you’re older and/or have mobility issues, look for ones with springs or a hybrid mattress but not one that’s only memory foam, which may be hard to get in and out of and to turn while sleeping. If you need to sit on the edge of a mattress before standing, you need one that has edge support, a reinforcement you can grab onto so you don’t slide off.
If you have low back pain and need better support, an innerspring mattress with coils at its core offers more firmness.Coil technology has advanced—these aren’t your parents’ innersprings. Plus, you can look for designs that feature comfortable materials in the top layer such as a mix of foam and latex.
If you snore…or your partner snores…or one of you has GERD— or if you enjoy sitting up in bed to read before sleep—an adjustable base under the mattress can form a slight incline to raise the bed. Look for a mattress specifically designed to work with this kind of base. The Purple Ascent Adjustable Base is a great one and works with mattresses other than its own, such as the Nectar.
If you want to have better sex, an innerspring or hybrid will be better than memory foam, which is less effective in supporting your body during sex.
MAKING IT TO TRYOUTS
There’s no substitute for in-person mattress shopping. This often is possible even with offerings from online companies— some have brick-and-mortar stores or sell their mattresses through furniture stores. Example: Raymour & Flanigan stocks Casper, Nectar, Purple and more.
If you don’t know what level of firmness you like, try out the choices. Be sure to wear loafers to the mattress store so you can kick off your shoes during your test. It might feel awkward to roll around on a mattress in public, but it’s important to take the time to do it correctly. When you lie down on a bed, it takes four to five minutes for your body to recalibrate from standing and for your muscles to relax. It will take a few more minutes for you to sense what the bed actually feels like to you. At that point, write down how much you like the mattress’s comfort, support and firmness on a scale of one to 10. If you have a partner, he/she should do the same. Repeat these steps with all the mattresses you’re considering, and then compare notes.
Some companies allow you to try out a bed in your home for a certain period of time. One of the biggest mistakes people make is giving up on a new mattress too soon. It can take three weeks before you’ll know if a mattress is a good fit. Some companies even insist that you keep their mattress for at least 30 days. Reason: The return rate goes down the longer a mattress is in your home. But regardless of timing, if you determine that a mattress is not a comfortable fit for you, do not hesitate to return it.
WHAT ABOUT BOX SPRINGS?
Before the popularity of the platform bed and its cousin, the futon, innerspring mattresses came with a box spring—a separate base with coils that supported the mattress and gave it more lift. Many mattresses today go directly on what’s called a “foundation,” or a “base,” some of which might be made of attractive wood or covered in upholstery. Many companies still term it a “box spring,” but there are no springs.
WHAT ABOUT PRICE?
It is hard to get a great mattress for $600 to $800—these beds-in-a-box are fine for a guest room or limited use. But expect to pay closer to $2,500 (or more) for a great queen-size mattress, topper and base. The ultimate bed comes from the Swedish company Hästens. It’s handcrafted to your needs, and most models start in the tens of thousands of dollars and can go into the hundreds of thousands for the top-of-the-line model. This product goes beyond customized— it will be tweaked in your home until the perfect balance of natural materials, including flax and horsetail hair, is achieved. Also available is an adjustable base that operates through your smartphone as well as a remote.