Getting a good night's sleep may be as easy as replacing your pillow.

Rest Easy
Getting a good night's sleep may be as easy as replacing your pillow.

I began to appreciate the value of a good pillow at college. The flat piece of foam in the dorm didn't do much for my neck. I adjusted by folding it in half--and sometimes in half again. This less than satisfactory sleeping situation actually made my first trips home even sweeter. Since then I've learned that a pillow is more than a place to rest the head--it can also help prevent and alleviate back and neck pain. Pillows, however, are not one-type-fits-all, so it's important to find one that's right for you. Here's how.

Diagnosis Pillow
First, find out if your current pillow is doing its job. If you prop it with your arm or bunch it up to fall asleep, you probably need to replace it.

Next, evaluate your sleeping position. If you sleep on your side, your head and neck should be level with your body so your nose lines up horizontally with your belly button. Back-sleepers' ears should be in line with their shoulders and hips, and their heads shouldn't rest at a tilt. Avoid sleeping on your stomach; it puts stress on your neck.

Your Support System
Your neck works hard to hold up your head, which weighs about 10 pounds. Poor posture can strain your neck, making the support of a good pillow that much more important. Steer clear of mushy pillows that quickly lose their shape. Instead, opt for a firm material that presses back against your head. Natural materials such as down and feathers conform easily and are quite durable. Cotton and synthetic fills (more affordable choices) work especially well for allergy sufferers.

It doesn't matter which type of pillow you choose, as long as you get the support you need. Back-sleepers need medium firmness while side-sleepers benefit from firm support. If you can't avoid sleeping on your stomach, use a soft pillow.

Make It Last
Because a quality pillow can be costly, extend its life by treating it well. Feather and down pillows should always wear a zippered protective cover as well as a pillowcase. Machine-wash the cover regularly, and either machine-wash or dry-clean the pillow once a year. Fluff synthetic pillows by running them through the dryer's air cycle. Machine-wash them in warm water on gentle, and then dry on low heat until dry.

The Right Pillow for You
Give your neck and back the support they deserve by selecting a pillow that's ideal for how you sleep. If you?

  • Sleep on your stomach
    - Feather or down pillow: This extra-soft pillow will help keep your neck in line with your spine.
  • Sleep on your back and/or snore
    - Contoured foam pillow: The shape of this type of pillow positions your head to make it easier for you to breathe.
  • Sleep on your side
    - Body pillow: Use this long pillow to help take the strain off your back by placing it between your knees.
  • Sleep while you travel
    - Neck roll: The cylinder shape of this pillow cradles your neck and head so that the motion from cars and planes does not bother you.