Ever wondered if you really need a pillow to sleep? You may have lived your entire life resting your head on a pillow to sleep without much thought as to why and whether they’re really necessary.
In this article, I’ll be going over the pros and cons of sleeping without a pillow, as well as some tips on what to do if you decide to ditch the pillow altogether.
Is it Safe to Sleep Without a Pillow?
The answer is… it depends. As with most questions about sleep, your sleeping position is a major determinant of whether or not you could sleep without a pillow risk-free.
Dr. Grant Radermacher, a chiropractor based in Wisconsin, told Sleepopolis, “The goal with a pillow should be to keep your neck and shoulders in as neutral a position as possible.” Therefore, side and back sleepers (which is the majority of adults) should generally use a pillow to maintain that neutral position.
“Using a pillow is essential for side sleepers, as laying on your side leaves the largest gap between your head and the pillow,” Radermacher said. “It’s slightly less important for back sleepers, but laying on your back does leave a small gap between your neck and the mattress.”
That’s why here at Sleepopolis we recommend a firm pillow with a high loft for side sleepers, to fill that larger gap and provide support. And for back sleepers, we recommend a medium loft and medium firmness pillow to fill that smaller gap.
While sleeping without a pillow as a side or back sleeper may not be a life-or-death risk, it can definitely cause a lot of neck pain over time, which is no fun. There’s a reason we call things a “real pain in the neck!”
However, if you are a stomach sleeper, it could actually be beneficial to go no-pillow. Sleeping on your stomach is generally considered to be the least healthy sleeping position, as stomach sleepers must twist their neck to avoid lying face down and because the position can lead to your spine being out of alignment, particularly on a too-soft mattress.
Still, a chunk of the adult population (between seven percent and 16 percent, according to different studies) persists with stomach sleeping. Radermacher said that because stomach sleeping already puts stress on the neck, “Adding a pillow adds even more stress by putting your head and neck at an angle, which is why many stomach sleepers do better sleeping without a pillow.”
For the best stomach sleeper pillows, we recommend a very soft and low loft pillow, for this same reason — to prevent the neck from being strained. But it can be challenging to find a pillow that fits the bill, so you may want to go no-pillow altogether.
How to Sleep Without a Pillow
If you’re interested in forging ahead without your pillow, Radermacher suggests taking baby steps. “Transitioning to a thin pillow for a few weeks before totally abandoning pillows allows your body to adapt to a flatter surface and can minimize the discomfort changing your sleep setup can cause,” he said.
Keep in mind this advice is primarily for stomach sleepers. To protect your neck and spine, it’s best for side and back sleepers to stick with a pillow. If your current pillow is so uncomfortable or unsupportive that you’ve been considering ditching it, take a look at our best pillows for side sleepers and best pillows for back sleepers to find a more suitable option.
To learn more about sleep health, check out our Sleep A-Z resources.