How to find the right mattress to ensure you get a good night's sleep

Try to find a mattress with a good returns policy, so you can try it for longer than five minutes in a showroom
Try to find a mattress with a good returns policy, so you can try it for longer than five minutes in a showroom

In front of you are 20 different mattresses in a showroom, of varying size and colour, made by multiple manufacturers with various different materials. Over the next few years, you'll spend the best part of a third of your life (or more, or less, depending on how well you sleep) on one of these mattresses. So, which one do you choose?

Arguably, it's never been harder to answer that question. Sleep health brands have proliferated in recent years, and in doing so they've shined a bedside light on how obsessed we've become with getting a good night's sleep. The wrong mattress, we're told, can hurt your spine, make you overheat, and generally result in you walking around in a daze. Often, it seems the answer is to pay double the amount you expected.

Before we get to the matter of working out whether that's the best course of action, it's worth asking: when is the right time to buy a new bed? According to sleep consultant Dr Neil Stanley, "you should buy a new bed when you start noticing your old one." This might be in the form of waking up with aches and pains, not sleeping as well as you did, your mattress creaking when you move, and/or finding yourself rolling into the middle of the bed. 

Perhaps wisely, Dr Stanley doesn't mention the oft-repeated claim that a mattress should be replaced every eight years (it's hard to find the original source for that information, which seems almost too-good-to-be-true for mattress salesmen across the land). Instead, he uses more open ended language: "Remember that each night you sweat a significant amount of moisture and shed a good amount of dead skin into your mattress, so for hygiene reason it would be good to change your bed regularly." Safe to say, if your bed has started to smell, you've already left it too long.

OK, back to that salesroom. You're in the Mecca of Mattresses, and you have to choose a new mattress. What do you do?

Eve: one of the many start-ups selling sleep health products Credit: Eve

Focus on the side

The vast majority of us sleep on our sides, so when you test a mattress in-store you need to make sure you try lying on it on your side. This is where checking the support for your spine will be imperative, as unlike lying on your back, your spine isn’t designed to bend laterally. 

So how do you check the support? “When you're on your side and someone looks at you from the side of the bed, your spine should be straight," explains Jeff Chapin, head of product at sleep brand Casper, who spends much of his working life reviewing materials, surveying consumers, speaking to sleep experts, and, of course, testing mattresses. "It shouldn't have curvature to it," adds Chapin, who says the only tilt should be high up the spine, from your pillow.

In short, you want to make sure that your weight is distributed evenly and that no parts of you are sinking into the mattress. 

If you do sleep on your back, it can be more difficult to see whether or not your spine is being supported. “On the back, your spine won't be straight because we have a natural lumbar curvature, so that's a little harder to sense," says Chapin. Instead, he suggests you look towards your hips, which should be supported because that's where we carry most of our weight. "The one thing you can look for when you're on your back is: am I sinking down in the centre of my body? Kind of like making a taco shape with your arms coming over your chest. You want your hips supported and lifted so you're not in that taco position.”

Consider the materials

A few years ago, memory foam mattresses were all the rage, but they’ve lost a bit of their luster since then. These days many mattress designers are returning to springs, or hybrids, which have springs and foam. 

A hybrid could be considered a best-of-both-worlds option. Foam, says Chapin, “is very good at pressure release. When you lie on it, the foam is pretty firm then it starts to 'melt' as it warms up, and it distributes your weight quite well so you don't get pressure points, meaning your arms don't fall asleep.” 

Foam is also much better than springs at motion isolation, which is why you've probably seen that advert or in-store demonstration where a glass of red wine is balanced on one half of a foam mattress, and someone jumps up and down on the other half, without the glass toppling. It means you'll be less disturbed when your partner gets out of bed, or if they’re tossing and turning in their sleep. 

Casper, and many of the newer mattress brands, use a hybrid formula with both springs and foam Credit: Casper

But there’s some significant downsides to all this. “Foam is not breathable,” says Chapin. “If you tried to blow through it, no air would move. So it sleeps very hot. And because it contours to your body, there's no air channels between your body and the mattress to allow air to move.” 

The supportive ‘melting’ around your body has its pitfalls too. Literally. “As it melts and you sink into it, it creates a cavity where it's very hard to change positions if you want to move from your back to your side. You have to essentially move up and out of this hole your body has created, and next to you the foam is kind of hard, so you have to re-melt that and then sink into it.” 

Finally, it’s worth considering that pure memory foam might not be so good for… the other things you do in bed. “Because it's so good at motion isolation, if you drop a bowling ball on that kind of mattress, it doesn't bounce at all," says Chapin. "It just hits and gets stuck. And because of that, those mattresses are really bad for sex because there's no bounce for them.”

As for firmness, Stanley offers a simple technique for working out whether a mattress is right or not: "Lie on your back and place your hand between your back and the mattress. If this is easy and it feels as if your hand is in a space, then the mattress is too hard. If on the other hand you can hardly get your hand in, then the bed is too soft."

Be wary of tech claims

While mattress design has evolved over the years, not all new innovation is worth splashing out for. “I'll be very candid," says Chapin. "I look across the industry and there's not a lot of new tech. On temperature there's a lot of "tech" around copper infusion, and titanium infusion, and gel beads. And we've studied it all and they don't really do anything. The most useful thing is a very breathable foam, which you can do either with the foam itself and it's cellular structure or you can add perforations through the foam to get more airflow through it.”

Even with traditional mattresses, Stanley advises shoppers to be careful. "The ‘technical specifications’ of a bed provide little helpful data to allow you to judge the comfort of a bed. It is not as simple as saying, 'more springs equals a better bed'."

Get a mattress with a solid returns policy

No one likes to return things, especially big things like mattresses, but part of the problem with buying a mattress is that you can’t know for sure whether you’ll like it until you’ve slept on it for a while.

“The value of the in-store experience is not as great as one might think,” notes Chapin. “You can't go in a store and know within five or ten minutes of trying it out whether you're going to like the mattress or not. The true value is having it inside your house and sleeping on it for a while. I guess 30 days seems like a reasonable amount of time to try out a mattress.” 

With that in mind, it’s worth making sure you can get a generous returns policy so that you can give it a proper test run with confidence.