Why do adults sleep with pillows?

Pillows have become such an integral part of our sleep that it’s hard to imagine going to bed without one. However, pillows weren’t always a staple in bedrooms around the world. The use of pillows and the reasons behind why we sleep with them have evolved over time. In this article, we’ll explore the history of pillows, the benefits pillows provide, and why the vast majority of adults today choose to sleep with a pillow every night.

The history of pillows

There is evidence that pillows of various forms have been used dating back to ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt. People filled pillows with materials found in nature like feathers, straw, wooden blocks, and stones. However, these primitive pillows were more like headrests rather than soft, cushiony pillows we know today.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that pillows started to become more mainstream and resemble modern pillows. Europeans started filling pillowcases with feathers, down, and straw for a softer texture. Pillows were considered a luxury at this time, so only the wealthy and royal class had access to them. As trade routes expanded and textile capabilities improved, materials like cotton became more accessible. This allowed more pillows to be produced at lower costs, making them available to the masses.

By the 19th century, pillows were common household items across Europe, Asia, and North America. Goose feathers and down became the preferred fill materials due to their softness and ability to conform to the head and neck. The Industrial Revolution enabled mass production of textiles, further increasing availability of affordable pillows in the 20th century. Today, pillows are ubiquitous in most households and available in a wide range of sizes, shapes, materials, and levels of firmness to suit individual comfort and support needs.

Benefits of sleeping with a pillow

There are many potential benefits that can come from using a pillow while sleeping at night. Here are some of the main advantages:

Supports the head and neck

One of the primary functions of a pillow is to keep the head, neck, and spine aligned correctly while lying down. Pillows help fill the gap between the mattress and head so that the head, neck, and upper back are supported in a neutral position. This helps reduce stress and tension on the muscles, joints, ligaments, and nerves in this sensitive area during sleep. Proper alignment in the neck and spine is also important for back health.

Eases breathing

Sleeping completely flat can sometimes cause nasal congestion, snoring, and even sleep apnea for those prone to these issues. Having the head slightly elevated with a pillow opens up the airways to allow for better breathing and oxygen flow during sleep. This may help prevent complications like snoring and sleep apnea.

Reduces pressure points

Lying with the side or back of the head directly on a mattress for hours can create excessive pressure on those areas of the head. This may cause pain or numbness. A soft pillow between the head and mattress cushions the head to help minimize pressure points that can build up overnight.

Provides comfort and relaxation

Pillows are simply comfortable, which is key for being able to fully relax into sleep. Adjusting pillow height, thickness, and shape allows you to customize support and comfort. The soft, cushy texture can have a calming effect and the familiar presence of a pillow can bring a sense of relaxation.

Absorbs moisture

We shed skin cells and perspire slightly while sleeping. A pillow provides a protective barrier between our heads and the mattress to absorb this moisture. Pillowcases can also be easily washed to keep the pillow clean for hygienic sleep.

Minimizes noise

Some movement and noise while sleeping is normal. Having a pillow between the head and any solid, noise-conducting surface like a headboard helps muffle and dampen these sounds so they are less likely to disturb or disrupt sleep.

Provides insulation

Pillows provide an extra layer of insulation for the head, keeping it warmer in cold temperatures. This helps regulate body temperature overnight for more sound, uninterrupted sleep.

Aids in side sleeping

Side sleeping is the most common sleep position, especially for those with neck and back pain. An added pillow between the knees and ankles can help keep the spine neutral and aligned properly when sleeping on the side. Pillows under the head and between limbs provide excellent support and comfort for side sleepers.

Assists pregnant women

Pregnancy can make resting and sleeping uncomfortable as the body changes shape and extra weight is carried in the abdominal area. Using pillows under the knees, along the back, and for head and neck support can take pressure off and provide better alignment for expectant mothers during sleep.

Types of pillows

With so many options available, selecting the right pillow is an important decision. Here are some of the main types of pillows and their key characteristics:

Memory foam pillows

– Often contoured shape

– Moldable memory foam material

– Retains shape for continuous support

– Good for neck pain sufferers

Down and feather pillows

– Soft and comfortable

– Filled with duck or goose down and feathers

– Moldable and compressible

– Retains heat

– Needs regular fluffing to retain shape

Polyester pillows

– hypoallergenic polyester fill

– Affordable price point

– Easy to wash and care for

– Less moldable than other fills

– Often have heavier, denser feel

Latex pillows

– Natural material

– Responsive support

– Hypoallergenic and antimicrobial

– Contouring shape

– Retains shape well

– Heavy and not as compressible

Microbead pillows

– Filled with microbeads

– Conform closely to head and neck shape

– Retain body heat

– Make noise when moving head

– Prone to flattening

Water pillows

– Filled with water

– Heavy, firm support

– Fully adjustable by adding or removing water

– Some noise when moving

– Risk of leakage

Buckwheat pillows

– Filled with buckwheat hulls

– Provides firm support

– Naturally airflow through fill

– Adjustable support

– Makes noise when moving

– Heavy, dense feel

Choosing the right pillow

With the wide range of pillow types and materials available, it’s important to find the right one customized to your sleep needs and preferences. Here are some tips for selecting the best pillow for you:

Consider your sleep position

Your sleep position determines the alignment your neck needs. Side sleepers need a thicker pillow to fill the gap between shoulder and head. Back sleepers need a thinner pillow for neck support. Stomach sleepers may prefer a very thin or no pillow at all.

Evaluate your pillow loft and thickness

Loft refers to pillow height or thickness. The loft you need depends on your body frame and sleep position. In general, thinner pillows work better for back sleepers while side sleepers need thicker pillows. You want a pillow that adequately supports your neck without craning it upwards or downwards.

Assess support and firmness preference

Do you prefer a soft, cushy pillow or a firmer supportive pillow? This comes down to personal comfort. If you change positions, a medium density pillow with some conforming may suit you best.

Consider any special needs

If you have allergies, a hypoallergenic fill like polyester or latex is best. If you sleep hot, choose a breathable fill like cotton or bamboo. If you have neck pain, memory foam or water may provide the right contour and support.

Read reviews

Checking out reviews from other customers can provide insight into pros/cons, quality, comfort, and how different pillows hold up over time. This can help you make a better-informed decision.

Know when to replace your pillow

Pillows should be replaced every 1-2 years, or sooner if they become lumpy or flat. Switching to a new pillow can provide fresh support for your best sleep.

Health risks of the wrong pillow

While pillows provide many benefits for sleep, choosing the wrong pillow or using one past its prime can actually detract from restful sleep and create or exacerbate health issues. Here are some potential risks:

Neck pain

A pillow that is too thick or too thin will tilt the head and neck at an odd, strained angle for hours. This can lead to pain, stiffness, and soreness in the neck that makes it difficult to get comfortable at night.


The incorrect pillow loft and density fails to support the head properly, causing the muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders to constrict and tense up. This can cause morning headaches and migraines.

Shoulder pain

Ill-aligned posture from an unsuitable pillow can create torque in the spine that strains muscles in the upper back and shoulders as you sleep.

Numbness or tingling

A pillow providing insufficient support in certain sleep positions can lead to nerves in the neck, arms, and hands being compressed overnight. This results in temporary numbness or tingling in the morning.

Back pain

Supporting the head and neck properly helps keep the spine in alignment as you sleep. A pillow mismatch that strains the neck and upper spine all night can worsen back pain.

Poor sleep quality

An uncomfortable pillow that does not correctly support your needs makes it harder to fully relax into deep, restorative stages of sleep.

Sleep apnea

The wrong pillow choice could narrow airways in those with sleep apnea. This can worsen breathing pauses and low oxygen levels overnight.


Pillow materials like down and feather that you may be allergic to can cause congestion, sneezing, and other allergy issues disrupting sleep.


Pillows play an important role in providing comfort, support, and health benefits that improve sleep quality and prevent pain. While primitive headrests date far back in history, pillows have evolved to become an essential item for most adults’ beds thanks to their customizability for individual needs. As our understanding of sleep health and neck mechanics expands, pillow designs and materials continue advancing as well. There are now many excellent options available for adjustable support whether you sleep on your back, side, or stomach. Taking the time to assess your sleep position, support needs, and material preferences allows you to select just the right pillow for your best night’s rest.

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