AD It Yourself

How to Shop for a Mattress

Set yourself up for the slumber of your dreams with these tips from industry insiders
How to shop for a mattress illustration showing collage of white mattress white mattress in wood bed frame hands on mattress
It’s helpful to think about whether you’re a side, stomach, or back sleeper in considering how to show for a mattress.Illustration: Ellie Schiltz/Getty Images

Even though it’s the one piece of furniture on which you’ll spend the most time throughout your life, how to shop for a mattress can be tricky—and many people have no idea what exactly to look for. The best mattress is the one that gives you a great night’s sleep, serves as your haven when you’re sick, reduces or prevents back pain, and, depending on how hot you sleep, has the kind of airflow that ensures you don’t wake up in a puddle of your own sweat every morning in August. We’re here to run down how to shop for a mattress and what to keep in mind to make sure you find the dreamiest option for you, alongside advice from experts and industry insiders.

How long does a mattress last?

On average, a mattress will last about 10 years.

Photo: Ondacaracola photography/Getty Images

A mattress has an average lifespan of 10 to 12 years. You can extend the usefulness of your mattress by flipping and rotating it regularly (once every six months to a year for latex mattresses, memory foam mattresses, and newer innerspring mattresses; for older innerspring mattresses, once every two to six months), but you’re going to need to buy a new mattress about every decade or so.

“It’s subjective, but if you notice that your bed doesn’t give you much support anymore or it’s visibly sagging, it might be time,” says sleep expert Justin Redman. “Honestly, if it’s been a while and you’re not sleeping well, it doesn’t hurt to see whether there’s anything out there.”

Know your sleeping style

The type of mattress you buy depends a lot on what kind of sleeper you are. Of course, most everyone changes positions as they sleep through the night. But people tend to have definite personal preferences. A 2017 study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and University of Southern Denmark looked at the sleeping patterns of 664 adults and found that the average participant spent 54.1% of their time as side sleeper, 37.5% of their sleep time as a back sleeper, and 7.3% of their slumber as a stomach sleeper.

In any case, knowing what your personal preference is when it comes to sleeping positions is critical to finding the best mattress for you—specifically when it comes to firmness level. “The general rule is [a mattress should be] a little more plush for side sleeping, and firmer for stomach and back sleeping,” Redman says. “Ultimately, it’s about keeping the spine aligned.”

Pete Bils, vice president of sleep science and research at Sleep Number, explains that a good mattress should distribute your weight evenly. “Hips and shoulders support the bulk of your weight and need the most support,” Bils say. “If not, you get those pins-and-needles sensations.”

What’s the best mattress for side sleepers?

As Redman explains, side sleepers should look for softer mattresses for better sleep quality. A soft mattress allows for more cushioning of the pressure points that come into play when you’re on your side, specifically your hips and shoulders. “Side sleepers need their shoulder to sink more into the mattress for their spine to be aligned,” Redman says.

What’s the best mattress for back sleepers and stomach sleepers?

A firm or medium-firm mattress usually makes more sense for back sleepers and stomach sleepers, who should be distributing their weight more evenly across the whole mattress. A too-soft mattress for dedicated back sleepers or stomach sleepers could possibly lead to lower-back pain or problems with spine alignment, meaning poor sleep quality—or worse.

What if you and your partner have different sleep styles?

Short of fully customized (but very expensive) mattresses that might be plush on one side and medium-firm on your partner’s side, a more affordable solution is to use mattress toppers to give one side of the bed more of a soft-mattress feel than the other side. (Since you’d be adding plushness, this works better on a firm or medium-firm mattress than on a softer mattress.)

For a queen size mattress or larger, this could be a combination of twin XL mattress toppers (like the Parachute down-alternative mattress topper) that you may have to adjust to fit, or a single mattress topper that comes with a plusher pillow top on just one side. (Essentia, for example, offers a split-top queen-size mattress topper.)

Standards for firmness aren’t necessarily consistent across brands

Just because you liked the medium-firm mattress offered by, say, Nectar, doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically like a medium-firm mattress from Tempur-Pedic or Purple. Companies don’t even necessarily use the same terms to describe their levels of firmness.

In other words, you’re going to have to try out each mattress individually.

“I find firmness to be highly inconsistent between companies, but you’ll usually see mattresses range somewhere from plush to medium to medium-firm to firm,” Redman says. “By far, the greatest number of mattresses are likely to be marketed as medium-firm.”

What material should your mattress be made of?

Modern mattresses are made from a variety of materials, including layers of foam (usually latex or memory foam), innersprings, and hybrid mattresses that combine elements of both a foam mattress and an innerspring mattress.

As a rule of thumb, foam mattresses are better for body contouring and motion isolation but sleep hotter, while innersprings have more bounce and sleep cooler but also need to be flipped and rotated more often.

As opposed to latex mattresses, memory foam mattresses are made from a kind of polyurethane (sometimes called viscoelastic) that conforms to the body, offering better pressure relief. They have a reputation, however, for trapping heat and sometimes giving off an unpleasant odor. They also tend to be heavier and more expensive.

If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of your foam mattress, you may want to consider the foam density; denser foams are more durable and body contouring (and thus relieve more pressure on the body), while lower-density foams spring back into their original shape more quickly and have better airflow for temperature control.

What is the best mattress for hot sleepers?

Natural body temperature should self-regulate without your mattress heating you up. “The best style [of mattress] will promote airflow and not insulate heat,” says Christopher Steyskal, a former retail channel manager of mattress company Airweave.

“Generally, foam is much warmer and innersprings are much cooler to sleep in,” Redman says, though these days many mattresses are designed with coil support systems that allow air to pass through.

How much edge support do you need?

Edge support is important for people who tend to roll around while sleeping.

Photo: Liudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Edge support is how well mattresses hold up at their very edges so you don’t (or don’t feel like) you’re about to roll off when you near their borders. Edge support is always good to have, but it’s a greats factor for some people than others.

“Mattresses should have good edge support,” Redman says. “I would think that would be very important when sleeping with a partner and you have limited bed space—it’s never great to fall off the edge!”

What is motion isolation?

A mattress that boasts motion isolation is advertising that it limits motion transfer from one part of the bed to another, which can be important if one partner in a couple is prone to thrashing about in their sleep while the other is a sensitive sleeper who’s awoken by the slightest movement.

“Think about the classic wine glass test: If a mattress has good motion isolation, you can roll across the bed and the wine glass in the corner won’t fall, and vice versa,” Redman says. “Innersprings are very bouncy and tend to not have great motion isolation, whereas the very dense memory foam mattresses will have great motion isolation.”

Know what mattress size you need

Mattress sizes don’t necessarily scale up in an intuitive way. For example, the difference in area between a full-size bed and a queen-size bed is 750 square inches (4,050 square inches vs. 4,800 square inches). But when you go from a queen-size bed to a king-size bed, you’re looking at a jump of nearly twice that.

And though a twin XL has that “XL” that makes it sound like a truly jumbo sleep experience, keep in mind that a twin XL is the same width as a regular twin (38 inches) and merely tacks on 5 inches of length (80 inches for a twin XL compared to 75 inches for a regular twin). So if your teen needs more lateral space because she tends to roll around from side to side a lot, a twin XL isn’t necessarily going to be the right mattress to solve her problems. (In fact, she should probably be looking into a new mattress with more edge support.)

Are California king beds bigger than typical king beds?

Though many people are under the impression that California kings are merely extra-large kings, they actually offer a smaller overall sleeping area than a regular king (6,048 square inches for a California king vs. 6,080 square inches for a regular king). The difference is in the dimensions: A California king is longer but narrower (84 inches by 72 inches) than a regular king (80 inches by 76 inches), which is essentially the same as shoving two twin beds together. A California king is a good choice for sleepers who are especially tall.

What to know before mattress shopping

Read mattress reviews and consult mattress buying guides

There’s a lot of material out there about the many mattresses you can buy these days, and doing your research online can help you winnow down your final choices so you don’t have to spend a whole week trying out hundreds of different beds at dozens of showrooms.

Keeping in the mind the general guidelines we’ve talked about for finding the best mattress for you, read what people say about their mattress purchases—with a grain of salt, of course, as you would with any other online reviews. See if there’s a consensus about a particular product that interests you, then try to narrow down your choices to a final list of products you can check out in person at a local retailer or nearby showroom.

Go to a showroom in person and ask questions

When you arrive at a showroom, come prepared with questions. “If you find a mattress you like, ask how long it’s been on the retail floor,” says Bils. “Many other people will have tested the bed, and a new one will feel much different.”

“Ask yourself: How do you feel when you wake up in the morning?” Steyskal adds. “Relay that to the salesperson and take the conversation from there.” If your back is always sore after a night’s sleep, for instance, you should prioritize a more supportive model that will keep your spine in alignment, cushion your body, and relieve pressure as you sleep.

Focus on support

Look for a bed with high rebound ability. “No matter what position you fall asleep in, you naturally move around and will need support in all positions,” Steyskal says.

Test it in the showroom

When trying out a bed, do more than the sit test. Bils and Steyskal agree that you should spend at least 15 to 30 minutes with the product to get a good feel for it, including lying on it, getting in and out of the bed, and rolling over.

“Certain comfort materials like foam need time to react to your body,” Bils says.

In the end, you’ll have to accept that you may not be making your final call on a new mattress until you actually take it home for a trial period. “Trying something for two minutes is a lot different than sleeping on it for a month. Some things you just can’t notice in a short time,” Redman says.

Check the return policy

As always, check the fine print—including the return policy, the warranty, and whether you can get a full refund if you decide you don’t want the bed within a certain period of time after your purchase. “Especially with foam mattresses you buy online, I would only purchase if I had at least a 30-night free trial,” Redman says.

Most well-known online mattress companies offer at least a 90-night trial period, and some, like Nectar and Saatva, even offer a full 365 nights for their trial periods.

Naturally, there are always conditions to a mattress return policy. Don’t expect to companies to take mattresses back if they’re stained, ripped, stink, or are otherwise in bad shape. But most mattress companies try to make returns as painless as possible. Casper, for instance, allows returns after 100 days that don’t cost the customer anything; a courier will come to your home to pack up the mattress so you don’t have to move it yourself.

Ask if they’ll take away your old mattress

California requires mattress companies to remove your old mattress free of charge when delivering a new one.

Photo: Adriana Duduleanu/Getty Images

So now you’ve got a new mattress—and, in most cases, an old one that you don’t know what to do with.

Some states, like California, require mattresses companies to take away your old mattress for free when delivering a new mattress, but in others you have to specifically request the service (and companies tack on a haul-away charge) or haul-away simply isn’t offered. Bed-in-a-box online mattress companies are far less likely to offer to take away your old mattress than local retailers.

In short, be sure you know what you’re going to do with your old mattress before your new mattress arrives.

Keep testing it at home

"Ultimately, you’ll be making the decision at home, not the showroom,” Bils says. “A mattress needs to be slept on to access the firmness and support you want.”

Give yourself up to two weeks to see if a product is the right mattress for you.

“If by this time your body doesn’t adjust, it’s not you. The mattress isn’t a match,” says Steyskal.

Consider online mattress shopping instead of buying in-store

While nothing beats testing a mattress IRL, many mattress companies have made it very easy to buy online without regrets and sales promotions, like on Black Friday, can be enticing, so make sure you check the return policy.

So if you have done plenty of online research and feel ready to take the plunge, consider going the bed-in-a-box route.