I assume you’re reading this guide because you decided you need a new mattress (and not because you’re just curious about what’s going on in the world of mattresses these days). Perhaps your current mattress is hurting you, or you wake up tired. Maybe you just want a bigger size. Maybe you’re moving and don’t want to lug your old mattress from place to place. Whichever is the case, my goal is to help you select the right mattress so you don’t make a mistake and so you don’t pay a penny more than you have to.
A mattress is perhaps the most important piece of furniture in your home. If you get the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night, you will spend at least 1/3rd of your life in that mattress. That means if you keep that mattress for 9 years (which is about the average), 3 of those years will be spent on it. However, many of us don’t think about our mattresses and how it impacts our lives every day.
In this post, I will go over the basics on selecting the correct mattress. In future posts, I will cover more “advanced” topics, but this should be enough to get you started. There are two main factors in selecting the right mattress, and a few minor factors. The major factors are:
- SUPPORT – You want the mattress to hold you in proper alignment from head to toe, so you don’t wake up with a back ache.
- COMFORT – You don’t want the mattress to cause pressure to your body, which causes tossing and turning, which means you wake up tired.
If you can find a mattress that keeps you in proper alignment while not causing any pressure to your body, you’ve found a good mattress for you. There are some other minor factors to look for. They include:
Motion separation – You don’t want to be disturbed by your partner moving around, or getting into or out of bed.
Temperature – You want the surface of the bed to be similar to your skin temperature. If a mattress is too warm (or sometimes even too cold), that can interrupt your sleep. This is called thermoneutrality.
Edge support – You don’t want to feel like you’re rolling off the bed if you sleep near the edge.
Let’s look at all of these in a little more detail.
The most important factor in finding the correct mattress is proper support. You need the mattress to push up on your body to counteract your body weight. So that means get a hard, firm, stone-like mattress, right? WRONG. Your body isn’t a straight line. Whether you sleep on your back, side, or stomach, your body has curves, and a mattress must come up to support the curves and arches of your body (similar to how a good shoe will have arch support). Consider the following image to illustrate:
You’ll notice that the mattress dips down around her shoulders and hips, but her spine is in proper alignment. If the mattress were too hard, her hips would be pushed up and her shoulders would be pushed up, and her spine would not be straight. If you’re in this position for too long, you can wake up with a back ache. Additionally if you keep changing positions to try to keep your back in alignment, you’re not getting into the deeper stages of sleep, which causes you to wake up tired. The same exact consequences occur if a mattress is too soft, and you’re in it like a hammock. You want a mattress to contour to the shape of your body to hold it in its neutral alignment.
The second most important criteria to selecting the right mattress is comfort (or as you may hear it called, pressure relief). If a mattress is too hard, it can cause pressure to your body. This cuts off circulation and pinches nerves (ever wake up with a “pins and needles” feeling in your hand?), and will cause you to change positions frequently. If you’re frequently changing positions, your sleep is fragmented and you don’t get into the deeper stages of sleep (such as REM sleep). This means you’ll wake up tired, even if you thought you got 8 hours of sleep. When you’re trying out the mattress, you should be able to lie in one position without moving around for at least a few minutes. If you can do that, you’ve found a good mattress.
Those are the two main criteria. If you find a mattress that keeps you in proper alignment which doesn’t cause pressure to your body, you’ve found a great mattress for you. To help fine-tune it from there, there are a few other things to consider.
If you share your bed, you want to minimize motion transfer. If your partner gets in or out of bed, or changes positions, you run the risk of being woken up if the mattress transfers too much of that motion to your side of the bed. Try the mattress in the store with your partner, and have your partner switch positions while your back is turned to see how much motion you feel.
Another issue some people have is heat retention of the mattress. Most mattresses these days have features to help mitigate this (gel or latex foam, ventilation, etc); the biggest risk here is with cheap memory foam mattresses. There are also mattress covers which are designed to wick away heat, so keep this in mind as well.
Lastly, you want a strong edge support on your mattress, particularly if you sleep near the edge of the bed, or sit on the edge of the bed often. Most of the average or better mattresses use the upgraded foam encasement around the edge, but some of the very cheapest mattresses just use a steel rod on the side. Foam encasement is better.
That’s all it takes to find a good mattress. It’s worth noting that I did not go into specs of mattresses. I didn’t say a word about coil counts, gauges of steel, layers of foam, ticking, or anything of the sort. You just need to try the mattresses, look for proper support and comfort, and fine tune it with the other criteria.
In my next post I will go over specifics on how to actually shop for the mattress and the overall retail experience. No matter where you go to buy the mattress, keep these basics in mind as you shop: support and comfort.
Click here for part 2: The Retail Experience.
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