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How to pick the perfect pillow

Get a better night's sleep with your head on the right pillow. Here's how to find one that's just right for you.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Getting a good night's sleep requires a lot of variables lining up. In addition to having a good mattress, comfortable sheets, climate control, lighting and mental distractions all play a role in how well your rest is.

So does your pillow. Where you lay your head at night can affect not only how well you sleep, but how rested you feel when you wake up. Here's what to consider when shopping for your next pillow.

Read more: 12 proven ways to sleep better tonight.

Sleeping position and support level

Good sleep posture means aligning your body with good support. The head, neck, spine, hips, even knees and ankles should be supported and aligned so you don't wake up with aches and pains.

The first step to picking the right pillow is identifying which position you sleep in most often. How you sleep informs what level of support your body needs in a pillow.

Stomach

If you sleep on your stomach most of the time, try a very thin pillow or none at all. Since stomach sleeping puts a significant amount of stress on your lower back, the National Sleep Foundation suggests sleeping on your side instead with a body pillow for comfort.

Side

If you're a side sleeper, invest in a firm pillow with an extra-wide gusset (the rectangular panels around the pillow that increase thickness). This added thickness helps fill in the distance between your shoulder and your ear, adding support for your head and neck.

For better spine alignment, you could also try adding a pillow between your knees.

Back

If you like to sleep on your back, consider a thinner pillow. Keeping the pillow on the thin side ensures your neck isn't tilted too far forward.

Try a pillow with an extra loft in the bottom third (that odd bump in modern memory foam pillows you've always wondered about). That bump supports your neck while allowing your head to rest in a normal alignment. Memory foam is a good bet here because it will mold to the shape of your neck and head.

Looking for even more support? Add a pillow beneath your knees to relieve lower back pressure.

Filler material

What your pillow is filled with can make a big difference, especially if you have allergies or are sensitive to certain materials.

If real feathers aren't an option for you, consider down alternatives. Most polyurethane or polyester fiber pillow are hypoallergenic and shouldn't irritate sensitive sleepers. The same goes for some buckwheat hull and memory-foam models. Be sure to check the packaging and remember that each filler feels different.

Don't be afraid to try it out in the store to get an idea of how soft, firm, lumpy or solid the pillow feels.

Temperature

Do you sleep hot? Some pillows include cooling gel with memory foam or a breathable polyester to keep you comfortable.

If you're really serious about keeping a cool pillow, consider high performance pillows or pillowcases with moisture-wicking fabric. Like athletic clothing fabric, these are designed to keep away heat and moisture.

When to replace your pillow

Experts at the National Sleep Foundation recommend replacing your pillow every 18 months or so. Pillows can be packed with mold, dead skin cells and dust mites.

Totally grossed out? Try adding a pillow protector to extend the healthy life of your pillow. To determine if it's really time to get a new pillow, test it by folding it in half and seeing if it springs back to flat. If it doesn't, it's time to find a new place to rest your head.

While there are dozens of factors affecting how well you sleep, having a pillow that supports your preferences and sleep style goes a long way. With the right pillow and maybe even a smarter mattress, you'll be off to dreamland in no time.

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