Should You Be Sleeping Without a Pillow?

Do you toss and turn at night, waking up with neck pain, headaches, or body aches? Sleeping without a pillow might help, but it all depends on your sleeping position.

By Nicole Gleichmann

May 31st, 2022

By clicking on the product links in this article, Mattress Advisor may receive a commission fee at no cost to you, the reader. Read full disclosure statement.

Do you ever wake up with a sore neck or headache for no apparent reason? If so, there is a chance that your pillow might be the cause. Some experts believe that sleeping without a pillow may be more beneficial for your comfort and health than sleeping with a pillow.

Imagine our ancestors many thousands of years ago, moving from one place to another as they followed herds of animals and good weather for ample food. Do you think that they carried pillows with them? When you think of it in from an evolutionary standpoint, it should come as no surprise that humans might benefit from sleeping without a pillow.

Why Sleeping with a Pillow Can Be Detrimental for Your Health

If you sleep with the wrong pillow, or with any pillow in certain positions, you alter the natural resting position of your spine. This can lead to surprising consequences, including:

  • Head and neck pain
  • Back pain
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty sleeping throughout the night
  • Daytime fatigue

Take, for instance, sleeping with a large, firm pillow while laying on your back. When you do so, your neck is kinked upwards and your spinal column position is deformed. This can cause strain on your neck and even on the rest of your back.

So, what about a soft pillow? Unfortunately, that sleeping situation isn’t much better. When you sleep with a pillow that is too soft, the position of your neck can reduce blood flow to your head and increase neck strain.

Should You Sleep Without a Pillow? That Depends on How You Sleep

While sleeping with the wrong pillow can be bad for your sleep quality and health, that doesn’t mean that no one can benefit from using a pillow at night. It all comes down to alignment; you want to sleep in a position that allows for a straight spine from bottom to top, including your neck.

Whether you might benefit from sleeping without a pillow largely depends on your sleeping style. People tend to fall into one of three categories of sleeping position: side sleepers, back sleepers, or stomach sleepers. Because each of these sleep positions is met with varying spinal and neck positioning, they each require different pillow arrangements.

Side Sleepers: Always Use a Pillow

If you’re a side sleeper, sleeping without a pillow will lead to lateral flexing of your neck, meaning that it will tilt to the side rather than rest in neutral position. This can lead to compression, so if you find yourself sleeping on your side, you will want to use a firm pillow to keep your head level with your spine.

Try to find a pillow that’s roughly the same thickness as the distance between your shoulder and your neck, allowing your spine to stay straight from your hips all the way through to your neck.

Do not use a thick pillow and try to find a contouring pillow that provides more support than your neck than head. Two great pillow options for side sleepers are memory foam and cervical pillows, particularly those that are a bit thicker underneath the neck and thinner underneath the head.

Back Sleepers: Experiment to See What’s Best for You

You’ll find sources that recommend back sleepers to sleep without a pillow and others that recommend a thin pillow. Which is best for you is likely to depend on your mattress and your body. If you have a mattress that allows for your body to sink into it while still being supported, such as a memory foam mattress, you are likely to do well without a pillow. However, if you have a firm mattress, there is likely to be a gap between your bed and your neck, and it’s best for this gap to be supported with a thin, supportive pillow.

Stomach Sleepers: Get Rid of Your Pillow or Use a Thin Pillow

Sleeping on your stomach with a pillow puts your neck in an uncomfortable position where it is out of proper alignment. Try sleeping without a pillow and see how you do. If you don’t like sleeping without a pillow, use a very thin pillow for minimal support.

What About Babies?

If you’re a new parent, you might be wondering what’s the best way for your baby to sleep. It’s much better for their alignment to sleep without a pillow. In fact, when a baby sleeps with a pillow, it increases their chances of experiencing flat head syndrome, which occurs when one side of the head becomes flat due to sleeping on one side of their body.

Transitioning to Sleeping Without a Pillow

If you’ve been sleeping with pillows throughout your life, like most of us, it can feel uncomfortable to simply stop using a pillow. On your quest for quality sleep, try experimenting with no pillow and pillows designed for your sleep position while keeping a sleep journal. Use trial and error to determine which results in better sleep with fewer aches and pains to find the option that’s best for you.