Sleep soundly: how to find the perfect mattress

Posted on May 26, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Woman reading comfortably in bed

I love my bed. When I was a student I used it as a study area and occasionally now, when I feel the need for my own space, my bed becomes my office. This is not something that a sleep expert would advise; it’s just one of my little quirks. However, as a bed lover there is one thing above all that makes it the best place to be and that’s a good mattress.

We spend around one-third of our lives sleeping, so when you consider that in relation to the attention we lavish on products and comforts for our waking hours, then it is perhaps surprising how little attention we seem to give generally to mattress choice. I’d hazard a guess that in large part it’s because we aren’t sure what we should be looking for, something that the now famous “Benson’s for Beds” and “Dreams” adverts have attempted to change.

Don’t just press to test

As osteopath Rehana Kapadia pointed out in a recent Guardian article on mattresses, typically we arrive in bed shop and walk around pressing each mattress to see how it feels. However, this is not a reliable way of choosing and she suggests “you should lie down for 20 minutes on each one.” I can almost feel my cheeks turning red at the thought of having a lie down in a store while other shoppers walk around. Yet, if I just sit down on it for a minute, I will not fully appreciate how that mattress may make me feel after a night’s sleep, according to Kapadias’ advice.

Do the research

The Sleep Council is a good place to start your research. After all, a mattress should last you around 10 years and the best ones are not an inexpensive item, so it’s worth doing some homework. It points out that a bed base and mattress work together and that you should think of them as a unit.  It also suggests that you “think big” and opt for the largest bed size possible, as larger beds are more comfortable and you’re less likely to disturb your sleeping partner. All the experts agree that you should spend as much as you can afford and definitely try out a selection of beds before you make a final decision.
Man with back ache sat on a bed

Firm is not better for your back

One of the mattress myths that the experts bust is that a firm mattress is better for your back. Deane Halfpenny, a consultant in musculoskeletal pain, says that although a mattress should be supportive, it should also be comfortable. One that is too firm can cause hyperlordosis, which is an exaggerated curve of the arch in your back. It is preferable to look for one that “allows you to sink into it while also supporting you,” he says. It’s the support that is vital and the more of your body that is in contact with the mattress, the less pressure there is on your shoulders and hips during sleep.

Body repairs and your sleep posture

Another reason for having a soft but supportive mattress is that while we’re sleeping our bodies are doing repair work. Good quality sleep relaxes your muscles and improves blood flow, particularly to the spinal discs, which tend to suffer from a lack of blood flow. If your body is tense during sleep then the blood flow stays reduced and those spinal discs don’t get the blood they need.

Sleep on your side

According to osteopath Kapadia, the best sleeping position to avoid back problems and ligament strain is on your side with your knees bent. The advantage of adopting this position is that it allows the neck, spine and pelvis to align correctly. She warns those who like to sleep on their front that the neck and back will always be twisted. And, apparently, sleeping on your back with your legs straight out isn’t great either because it puts strain on your lower back. A mattress that is too firm, she says, won’t allow you to comfortably sleep in the optimum sleep position because you won’t be able to sink into it. As a result your muscles and ligaments are working all night and you wake up feeling aches all over.

There are so many bed base and mattress choices available now, not to mention different pillows for every sleeping position preference that buying a new mattress needs time for research and testing. We test-drive a car when we buy it, and with some mattresses costing the equivalent of a second-hand car, it pays to do a proper mattress-test as well, then you can be sure that your sleep is safe and sound.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.