A Guide to Bed Pillow Fills, Sizes and Support

All about different pillow fills, sizes and support.

The right pillow helps you sleep better.
The right pillow helps you sleep better. Eric McNatt/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In the quest for a good night’s sleep, your pillow is one of the key players. Along with the right mattress, the best pillow for your needs helps keep your body in alignment throughout the night: head aligned with your spine, shoulders and upper body comfortably supported, and not too much pressure on any one area. Taking the time to learn about the different types of pillows available is time well spent, as it will aid you in making the right choice. After all, you spend around a third of your life in bed: shouldn’t that time be as comfortable as possible? Here’s what you need to know about different types of pillow fills, pillow sizes and pillows for different sleep positions.

Fill and Pillow Types

  1. A natural fill pillow is stuffed with feathers, down (fluffy insulation under feathers), or a combination of both. These types of pillows are super-soft, and offer comfort by conforming to your head and neck. The fill power, which indicates how much filling is included within the pillow, is listed on high-end down pillows. The higher the fill power, the more loft the pillow will have, and therefore, the more durable and supportive. (Note: when a natural fill pillow is labeled “allergy free,” it means the fill has been sanitized of all impurities. These pillows can still cause allergy symptoms in the most sensitive allergy sufferers, however.)
  2. A synthetic fill pillow contains a man-made fill, customarily polyester. Synthetic pillows are the inexpensive $5 pillows typically found in discount department stores. They have shorter life spans and do not conform to the head and neck as well as natural fill pillows. However, synthetic fill pillows are generally hypoallergenic and machine washable.
  1. A poly-cluster fill pillow is stuffed with polyester clusters that are coated with silicone to feel and move like down. These pillows give allergy sufferers the best of both worlds: a pillow that is hypoallergenic, yet soft and moldable like down, and without down’s hefty price tag.  
  2. Foam pillows are made of solid pieces or chunks of foam. These pillows are an inexpensive alternative to memory foam but are more often used as the pillow form for throw pillows.  
  3. A memory foam pillow is a dense, sponge-like pillow that molds around the neck and head for extra support. This type of pillow offers excellent support for sleepers who prefer a firm pillow or have neck and spine issues.

Support Recommended for Specific Sleep Positions

The type of pillow to use is determined on your preferred sleep position. Here is a list of basic sleep positions and the recommended pillow type to help support your head and neck at night.

  1. Back sleepers should use a medium firm pillow that provides support under the head, neck and shoulders. This will maintain the natural curvature of the upper spine, and eliminate any neck or upper back issues. Memory foam pillows offer the best support for back sleepers.
  2. Side sleepers need a pillow that contours and cradles the neck. The best side-sleeper pillows have a gusset: a side panel that adds extra height and firmness to a pillow to keep the sleeper’s head and neck in alignment. Some memory foam pillows, natural filled, and poly cluster pillows offer the best support for this sleep position.
  3. Stomach sleepers need a flat, soft pillow, so the head and neck aren’t strained more than necessary by the sharp bend required to sleep in this position. Down and synthetic fills work well for stomach sleepers.

Different Pillow Sizes

Pillows come in different sizes, mostly to fit the different sizes of mattress. Here are the most common proportions.

  1. Standard pillows are 20” x 26” and fit inside a standard-size pillowcase. This pillow is your basic sleeping pillow and provides support for your head and neck. Depending on the fill, a twin pillow works for any sleeping position. Typically one standard pillow is used on a twin bed; two across a full or queen bed, and three across a king or California king mattress.
  2. A queen pillow is 20” x 30” and fits tightly in a standard-size pillowcase, giving more firmness. Of course, a queen-size pillowcase will fit the pillow with some slack. Created for queen-size beds, two queen pillows fit perfectly across either a full or queen mattress.
  3. King pillows are 20” x 36” and fit into a king-size pillowcase. These extra-long pillows are great for extra body support for those with muscle or joint pain, or for pregnant women. Two king pillows fit perfectly paired across the top of either a king or California king mattress.
  4. A European pillow is 26” x 26” and is generally used as a decorative pillow in a European sham. These add an extra touch of style when positioned against the headboard.
  1. A body pillow is 20” x 54” and fits into a body pillowcase. This body-length pillow can be curved to fit the shape of your body, making it perfect for side sleepers, expectant mothers or anyone with joint pain.
  2. Travel pillows are typically 12” x 16” and fit into a travel-size pillowcase. These pillows are perfect for traveling by plane or car. They are also a great size for a toddler's bed, or trips to Grandma or daycare.

Updated by Michelle Ullman