Looking for the best mattress for comfort and support? Then one thing you need to take into account is how firm it is. For example, you'll often hear that foam mattresses are on the softer side, while sprung mattresses are on the firmer side. But what does that actually mean?
Firmness is usually described by mattress manufacturers as somewhere on a spectrum between 1 and 10, where one is the softest and 10 is the firmest. On a soft mattress, you expect to sink into it, while on a firm mattress you’ll feel more like you’re lying on top.
In truth, you’re never likely to encounter either a 1 or 10 mattress because both would be super-uncomfortable. The softest mattresses that are actually available fall between 3 and 5, and a person of average weight would expect to sink around 1.5-3 inches into them.
A medium mattress is between 6 and 7, and an average person would expect to sink around 1-2 inches into one. And a firm mattress is between 7.5 and 9, where you’re basically lying on top and not sinking in very much at all.
Please note, though, that this system is not as precise as, say, shoe sizes. Different companies have different idea of what, say, a 6.5 level of firmness feels like, which can be frustrating for both consumers and mattress reviewers alike. But it does give you a broad idea that a mattress is, for example, closer to medium-firm than very soft, or very firm.
With all that in mind, how do you determine which level of firmness is right for you?
Mattress firmness: Things to consider
The level of firmness you require in a mattress will vary according to a number of factors. The first is your sleeping position. If you’re a back sleeper, you’ll want to avoid a very soft mattress. That’s because your shoulders and legs will sink into it, creating a curved spine that is likely to cause you pain and discomfort over time (this is known as anterior pelvic tilt).
If you’re a stomach sleeper, you’ll have a similar problem on a soft mattress. In this case your core will sink in relation to your arms, neck and head, leading to the same kind of spinal misalignment.
Conversely, if you’re a side sleeper, you’ll want to avoid a very firm mattress, as it will put too much pressure on your hips and shoulders. You’re better off with a softer mattress that allows these parts of your body to sink into the mattress a little more. (This is what mattress experts mean when they talk about “good pressure relief”.) That said, you still don’t want to go too soft, because then you run the risk of poor spinal alignment, which can be just as bad for your health.
Besides sleeping position, another important factor is your body weight. The heavier you are, the firmer you'll need your mattress to be to support you properly, and vice-versa.
That’s why mattress firmness is so subjective: a 6.5 can feel medium-firm to someone of average weight, medium to a heavy person, and firm to a light person! Certainly, if you weigh more than 250 pounds, you’ll want a very firm mattress: check out our roundup of the best mattresses for heavy people to learn more.
Also consider whether you are a hot sleeper. If you tend to overheat on a warm night, then a soft mattress might be a bad idea. These mattresses tend to be less cooling because you sink more into them, compacting the material and reducing airflow. Soft mattresses are also usually made with memory foam, which is notoriously for trapping body heat and reflecting it back at you.
Another reason to opt for a firmer mattress is if you move around a lot at night, as a firmer mattress makes to change positions, or get out of bed, without feeling stuck. For similar reasons, couples may prefer a firmer mattress, as it means you’re less likely to wake each other when you shift about during your sleep.
Individual and cultural habits
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that manufacturers would be able to take all these variables, enter them into an app, and give you a clear result for your ideal level of firmness, right? Unfortunately that’s not really possible, for two main reasons.
Firstly, because everyone’s body is unique. And secondly, because we’ve all spent a lifetime learning mattress habits that are very difficult to unlearn.
Quite simply, if you’ve spend your entire life sleeping on a soft mattress, then your body may not be able to cope with suddenly switching to a firm one, however logical it may seem based on the factors discussed above.
There are also regional, national and cultural differences at play here. Europeans, for example, tend to go for mattresses on the firmer side, while North Americans tend towards to softer ones. Most Japanese people, meanwhile, sleep on the floor on futons: 3in-thick ‘mattresses’ that are in truth are more like mats. Sadly, Westerners who gamely spend months trying to conform to said social norm (this writer included) usually end up with nothing but back pain and misery as a result.
The benefit of experience
In short, the most important guide to what kind of mattress you should choose is what you’ve enjoyed before. Do, however, be careful on that score.
For example, it’s easy to think back to that wonderful night you spend on a cloud-like hotel bed during a great holiday, and assume that’s the kind of mattress you should use full-time. But be honest: was the mattress the reason for your good night’s sleep? Or was it all that sea air, alcohol, relaxation and absence of work emails?
A far better guide is the kind of mattress you’ve been using for the last 10 years. So if you’ve enjoying a good night’s sleep, don’t have any problems with your joints or back, and haven’t recently altered your lifestyle (such as moving in with a partner, or adopting a new sleeping position to stop snoring), you should probably just stick to what works.
Even if you are having problems sleeping, don’t rush to change your mattress, but first check out whether other remedies can help. (Begin by reading our guide to How to sleep better at night.) Or, if you’re experiencing back or joint pain then consult a GP or qualified chiropractor, before making uninformed changes to your mattress that might make things worse.
Changing things up
Still think a change in firmness levels is necessary? Then it's worth experimenting first, just to confirm your suspicions. For example, you could make your existing your mattress firmer by temporarily placing it on the floor, or putting a wooden board underneath it. Or if you want to make a firm mattress softer, you could try adding a mattress topper.
Ultimately, of course, the only way to really know if a softer or firmer mattress will work for you is to try it out. Thankfully, most mattress companies nowadays offer free trials that last for several months; some even let you keep it for a whole year. Just be careful to read the small print because some companies (though no means all) charge you an extra fee for returning your mattress.
If they don’t, though, then you’ll have plenty of opportunities to find the mattress firmness level that’s right for you. And don’t feel guilty for doing so, because ultimately staff at mattress companies want you to have a good night’s sleep. Both because they’re people too, and because once you find the right fit, you’re more likely to be a customer for life.