Soft vs. Firm Mattresses

In this article, we define mattress firmness and discuss the pros and cons of soft vs firm mattresses so you understand which is right for you.

By: Rachael Harris

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Buying a mattress is a very personal decision and selecting one from the wide variety of types of mattresses available today can feel like walking through a maze. Breaking the options down can simplify your decision. One of the most important aspects to decide on early in the shopping process is firmness. This choice will depend entirely on your preferences, sleep position, size, and budget. In this article, we’re discussing mattress firmness, including what it is, the pros and cons of soft and firm mattresses, and pointers for choosing a firmness level that works well for you.

What is Mattress Firmness?

Firmness refers to the initial feel of a mattress when you lie down. Mattress companies typically designate where their products fall on a firmness scale of 1 to 10 (extra soft to extra firm). Think of it as a spectrum of softness and firmness with variability in-between. Mattress firmness can also be conveyed in three simple categories: soft, medium, and firm. 


It’s important to understand that firmness and support are not synonymous. Support refers to how the mattress encourages proper spinal alignment. Support and comfort aren’t mutually exclusive, either. A mattress can be soft while offering excellent support. A firm mattress can be counterproductive, creating too many pressure points. Firm mattresses can also prove to be extremely comfortable, with soft comfort layers resting atop a supportive, durable core construction.

What’s the Difference Between a Soft Mattress and a Firm Mattress?

Soft mattresses feel plush to the touch and sink beneath the sleeper’s body. They tend to have more comfort layers like memory foam, latex, and soft mattress covers, like a pillow top. Firmer mattresses are just that: more firm to the touch. They tend to contour to the body less on initial touch and typically provide a more even sleeping surface.

While the types of materials used in a mattress impact firmness, how the materials are created and then combined is what ultimately determines firmness level. For example, two all-foam mattresses could have entirely different firmness levels depending on how the foams are layered, the types of foam used, and the mattress cover material.

Pros of a Soft Mattresses

Soft mattresses feel comfortable to the touch. They’re what we think of when we imagine a cozy, restful night’s sleep. They’re also excellent for individuals experiencing back pain on firmer surfaces. Side sleepers also gravitate towards them as their sleeping position tends to require softer surfaces that allow for greater contouring at the shoulders and hips to alleviate pressure. 

Cons of a Soft Mattress

In some cases, soft mattresses may be less durable due to sagging. They can make aches and pains worse for stomach and back sleepers, and heavyweight individuals may find that they’re not supportive enough. Extremely soft mattresses can also cause trouble for couples. If one partner is heavier and sinks further into the mattress, the other partner can experience an uncomfortable, uneven sleeping surface. 

Pros of a Firm Mattresses

The word firm might be a turnoff for some, but firm mattresses can provide an amazingly comfortable night’s sleep. They’re great for heavier than average individuals who may experience too much sinkage on a soft mattress. Durability also tends to increase in correlation with mattress firmness, as premature sagging isn’t usually an issue. Back and stomach sleepers tend to find greater support in medium-firm and firm varieties thanks to the even sleeping surface these mattresses provide.

Cons of a Firm Mattresses

The switch from a soft mattress to a firm one can be an initial shock for some, and a firmer mattress can aggravate pre-existing issues such as arthritis and scoliosis. Side sleepers, especially those at a lighter weight, may find that firm mattresses don’t provide enough contouring, resulting in hip and shoulder pain.

Making the Best Choice for You

One of the benefits of today’s mattress market is that the options are endless. This means that both firm and soft mattresses are available at a variety of price points, so you can typically find the exact firmness you’re looking for within budget. All firmness levels are available regardless mattress type, meaning that you can find soft, medium, and firm versions of all-foam, hybrid, innerspring, and latex mattresses.

When selecting a soft or firm mattress, you’ll want to take note of several factors, including your sleeping position and areas of back pain. As we’ve mentioned, side sleepers tend to enjoy soft mattresses, while back and stomach sleepers bodies agree with firmer ones. If you’re not dedicated to one sleeping position or have a sleeping style that differs from your partner, a medium firm mattress can be a safe bet. Keep your size in mind when shopping, too. Lightweight back sleepers may do well on a soft mattress. Conversely, heavyweight side sleepers may find the contouring they need in a medium or firm mattress.

Beyond these factors, selecting a firm or soft mattress is up to your preferences. When shopping around, lay on a variety of mattresses with different firmness levels and, prior to making a decision, be sure the manufacturer offers a trial period that’s long enough for you to get a good feel for whether the bed will suit you in the long run.