Is Sleeping With Pillows Unnatural?

Every human spends around a third of his or her life sleeping. We all know that a good night’s sleep is necessary if you want to perform well the next day. This makes it very important to try to make the most out of those nightly hours spent snoozing. And what better way to get comfortable than to use a soft, fluffy pillow?

A short history of pillows

Pillows have actually been used since ancient times. Mesopotamians used stone blocks to raise their heads while sleeping, as did the Egyptians who used stone pillows to prevent bugs from crawling into the body cavities. While these first pillows don’t sound very comfy, they served their purpose. The Greeks and Romans were the first to use pillows very similar to ours; cloth stuffed with straw or feathers.

With or without a pillow?

Many people find that pillows increase the comfort of sleep, but lately, the question has been raised if sleeping without a pillow altogether would be better for your posture and counteract back- and neck pains.  However, experts don’t seem to agree, and so far, research hasn’t been able to prove this claim. Still, a lot of people say sleeping without a pillow actually helps them, meaning it’s worth trying out if your current sleeping method leaves you not as well rested as you should be.

The notion that sleeping without a pillow would be better comes from the idea that your spine (including your neck) and surrounding muscles should be able to relax and recover completely during the night. The position of both your head and body do matter a lot in this aspect. For this reason, manufacturers created a whole range of pillows that are beneficiary to your method of sleeping. Unfortunately, these claims often lack scientific support. Plus, there are no clear instructions available on how to find a pillow best suitable for you.  So when you’re seriously looking for the perfect pillow, you’ll just have to try each one out.

Sleeping style and pillows

Whatever kind of sleeper you are–stomach sleeper, side sleeper or whatever-position-feels-good-at-the-moment sleeper–there may be a pillow that serves your needs. The problem is finding it. Pillows filled with feathers, polyester, memory foam, even with adjustable height; everything is possible! Since poor pillow design does not adequately support the cervical spine, it often results in discomfort and pain. Because of this, one should really try to make a well-thought-out choice regarding their pillow.

Research does prove, however, that pillow height affects sleeping quality and comfort, and thus significantly affects spinal alignment. But it can be difficult to select the correct pillow height as this varies among individuals. Soft pillows are often perceived as very comfortable, but a more firm pillow is more helpful to stabilize the spine and reduce unwanted spinal rotation. Your sleeping style can be a guideline to what kind of pillow you’ll need, allowing your cervical spine to remain in its natural position, meaning the pillow support should be just right.

Generally speaking, if you’re a stomach sleeper, you’ll need a very thin and soft pillow or no pillow at all to prevent your head from bending too far backward. A back sleeper would do better with a medium height pillow, which does not push your head too much forward and can support your neck more by having a pillow that is a bit firmer on the bottom. Side sleepers do need sufficient support for the neck and need a pillow that will fill the space between ear and shoulder. This could be accomplished by using a fairly thick firm pillow.

Memory foam pillows offer a lot of support at the right places. However, the problem is that if you change positions a lot, these pillows may be uncomfortable because of the fixed shape they develop because of your weigh. Thus, it may take the pillow a while to adjust its shape to the new head placement. Special health pillows, such as cervical pillows, may give the right support for you, but these are often expensive and not much research and evidence is available to support their claims.

In summary, using no pillow may be a good preference over using the wrong kind of pillow for your posture. Although research has not given a definite answer yet on what kind of pillow is ideal or whether to use a pillow at all, experts agree that one should follow his or her personal preferences when choosing a pillow (or not using one!). But when you do use a pillow, make sure you use the right one. So it all comes down to personal preference. And if you wake up with back or neck pain, it may be time to try out a different pillow strategy.



  2. Ren et al. (2016), Effect of pillow height on the biomechanics of the head-neck complex: investigation of the cranio-cervical pressure and cervical spine alignment. PeerJ 4:e2397; DOI 10.7717/peerj.2397