Can You Sleep Without a Pillow?

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You might be thinking “Why would I want to?”. However, many sleepers report that ditching their pillows has actually helped them get better sleep, reduce neck pain, and even improve their skin. 

This isn’t just anecdotal either; research shows that, depending on sleeping position, your choice of pillow could be hurting your posture and sleep quality. All that said, before you go full anti-pillow, it’s worth making sure that you’re not just sleeping with the wrong kind of pillow. Read on to see if you’re team pillow or team no-pillow, plus if your current pillow is hurting your sleep and how.

Picking the Right Pillow

You can’t always judge a pillow by its case. In fact, knowing the best pillow material and size for you can make all the difference if you’re struggling with (or want to avoid) neck pain and headaches. 

Since each pillow material and size offers different firmness levels and loft (or height), knowing your sleeping position, whether you’re a back, stomach, or side sleeper, is especially important for choosing the best pillow for you.

Pillow Firmness

Sort of like mattresses, pillows come in a huge variety of firmness levels, and no two of them feel exactly the same. For example, down pillows (made from bird feathers) are on the softer side, while memory foam pillows tend to feel thicker and more substantial.

If you’re a side sleeper, then you’ll likely do best with a pillow that’s somewhere in between, like a down alternative pillow. This medium-soft amount of firmness will feel cushy enough, while still keeping your back aligned with your head. Next, if you’re a back sleeper, you’ll typically need more firmness, enough to keep your head from sinking lower than the rest of your body, but not so firm that it forces your head upward.

And lastly, for stomach sleepers, more firmness is better. In fact, many stomach sleepers can get away with no pillow at all. The reason why is that stomach sleepers are most comfortable with a firm surface supporting their hips. So, if you’re a stomach sleeper looking for a pillow, thinner and firmer materials best, like buckwheat pillows.

Pillow Loft and Size

In addition to how soft a pillow is, it’s important to make sure your choice pillow (or lack thereof) is providing you with as much or as little size and loft as you need. Essentially, if a pillow has more loft, it’s more lifted and puffy. On the other hand, if your pillow has little loft, then it’ll feel thinner and have less “give.”

Going back to sleep positions, back sleepers and stomach sleepers will prefer loftier pillows that let you sink down more like ones made out of feathers or down. On the other hand, less is more for stomach sleepers. Since they need to sleep on something solid, stomach sleepers often prefer as little loft as possible, if any at all.

Lastly, it’s not just the loft and material of the pillow that’s key, but also how much literal pillow you’re getting. Size doesn’t really change how the pillow itself feels, but you might benefit from a bigger pillow, depending on your sleep habits.

Combination Sleepers: The average sleeper shouldn’t have any issues with standard-sized pillows, but combination sleepers who move and change positions throughout the night can benefit from having more pillow to work with. If you find yourself tossing and turning at night, it might be worth the extra cash to grab a super standard, Queen, or even King pillow to make sure you’re not losing your back and neck support at night.

Side Sleepers: Side sleepers don’t necessarily need a bigger pillow to put under their head, but many do benefit from having an extra pillow at their side. If you’re a side sleeper, part of maintaining your spine’s alignment isn’t just keeping your head level, but also keeping your back straight and not slouching. And, having some soft support between your hips can do just that.

Pillow TypePillow Size
Standard20” x 26”
Super Standard20” x 28”
Queen20” x 30”
King20” x 36”
Euro Square26” x 26”
Body20” x 54”

Want to learn more about which pillow size is best for you? Check out our full Pillow Size Guide.

Why Sleep With a Pillow?

Muscle Pain, Strain, and Stiffness

One of the primary reasons a pillow will or won’t work for you is how it affects your spine alignment. You want a pillow that keeps your back straight and your head level. While some sleepers report reduced neck and back pain after going pillowless, that isn’t always the case for all types of sleepers.

For many sleepers, skipping the pillow can hurt their posture, lead to further back pain and neck pain, and even cause chronic headaches or exacerbate migraines. This is because having no support under your head causes the neck to crane downwards for the entire night, which causes tension and uneven muscle strain in that area—especially for back sleepers and side sleepers.

Back and Side Sleepers

While pillow type is a matter of preference, the best pillows for back sleepers work by keeping the tip of your chin and your chest on the same level. These pillows have enough loft to keep your head supported without forcing your neck to bend upward.

For side sleepers, it’s a similar story. The best pillows for side sleepers also keep your head level and your neck parallel with the rest of the body. So, without any kind of pillow, many side sleepers will feel their neck bending at an awkward angle toward the mattress. 

Along with the right pillow under their head, many sleepers, especially side sleepers, will also opt for a body pillow along their side too. This kind of pillow, longer than the typical one, goes between your hips and keeps your back straightened and from slouching.

Why Pass on a Pillow?

It’s easy to imagine why sleeping without a pillow could be uncomfortable or even painful, but there’s plenty of reasons to go pillowless too. Here’s a couple that might surprise you.

Allergies and Sleep Apnea

Sometimes you really can judge a pillow by its case, especially for sleepers with allergies. It may sound weird, but you can really be allergic to your pillow, or at least what’s on it. Bacteria, mold, dust mite debris, and even viruses can gather on the cover and stuffing of your pillow, especially if your pillow is made of organic materials and isn’t frequently washed. For children and sleepers with asthma, this can contribute to allergic reactions and can aggravate respiratory issues.

Also, for sleepers with sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes irregular breathing, having a pillow that is too loftier or soft can further obstruct their breathing. Even worse, side sleepers with this condition who use a CPAP machine may find that their pillow is pushing their breathing mask off of their face.

Stomach Sleepers

People who claim to sleep without a pillow aren’t necessarily crazy—they might just be stomach sleepers. While not all stomach sleepers benefit from putting away their pillows, many, including heavier sleepers, do find that they don’t need anything softer than the mattress itself. And, many stomach sleepers also find that sleeping with too lofty of a pillow under their head angles their neck upward at an uncomfortable angle. 

Making the Switch

Even if you’re ready to say goodbye to your pillow, your body might not be as ready to make the adjustment. To ease your body into sleeping without a pillow under your head, you can try temporarily substituting your current pillow or pillows for a thinner one, for a folded blanket, or you can even use a body pillow instead for extra back support.

TLDR: Should You Say No to Your Pillow?

Yes, but just because your current pillow set-up is giving you pain and stiffness, going no-pillow isn’t necessarily the answer. For many sleepers, changing the loft and firmness of their pillow can reduce stiffness, and, for some side sleepers, incorporating a body pillow can improve posture. So, here’s a quick breakdown of who would benefit the most from tossing their pillows:

You should try going no-pillow if

  • You’re a stomach sleeper.
  • You’re a plus size sleeper.
  • Most pillows feel too lofty, fluffy, or soft.

You should try a different pillow if

  • You’re a back sleeper, side sleeper, or combination sleeper.
  • You’re a lightweight sleeper.
  • Your current pillow doesn’t feel fluffy or soft enough.