How to Choose a Bed

There’s no scientific consensus on what makes a good mattress. People around the world sleep   comfortably on all sorts of beds: straw mats, hammocks, futons, waterbeds, airbeds and all manner of mattress. In a market where what feels good is good and comfort is subjective, it comes down to you — what feels comfortable, what you can afford, and what you can do if your new mattress turns out not to suit you.

Time for a change?

Manufacturers and chiropractors recommend you replace your mattress around every 10 to 13 years, depending on how it’s treated. If it’s on a sprung base, plan to replace it every 12 or 13 years. A mattress on an unsprung base (including fixed-slat bases) should last about 10 years.

If your mattress is of poor quality or you don’t look after it properly, it may not last this long. And in any case, it’s recommended you replace your mattress at least every 10 years for hygiene reasons.

Some obvious signs you need a new mattress are annoying peaks, dips or lumps, or if you wake up stiff. If it’s uncomfortable, interferes with your sleep or leaves you with a backache, it’s definitely time to act.

Another reason for regularly renewing your mattress is that your needs change as your body ages. As you get older, your body will appreciate softer padding to support and protect pressure points. But don’t confuse softer padding with a soft, saggy bed — the underlying structure should be firm enough to support your spine as it gradually loses strength and flexibility. Furthermore, you may have difficulty moving around in — and getting out of — a bed that’s too soft.

Your options

There’s a variety of mattresses and bed bases on offer these days, and what’s best for you ultimately comes down to personal preference. Most people buy an inner-spring mattress and box base or slatted bedstead, so we’ll concentrate on this set-up.

Mattresses differ in comfort and support, so manufacturers and retailers emphasise that the only way to choose one that’s right for you is to go out and lie on as many as possible. If you’re going to spend eight hours a day in the bed for the next 10 years or more, it’s worth putting in some time to get one you’re really happy with.

  • To get the most out of your shopping trip and increase the odds of getting a good mattress:

  • Go to a shop that offers a range of brands and models from different manufacturers, with mattresses ranging from soft to firm on display for you to try.

  • Wear loose and comfortable clothes, with shoes you can easily slip off.

  • If a bed feels comfortable initially, lie on it for 10-15 minutes and try as many sleeping positions as possible. A good correlation between the impressions formed in a 15 minute trial and longer-term satisfaction.

  • Lie on your back and try to slide your hand under the small of your back. If it slides very easily, or your shoulders and hips feel uncomfortable, the bed’s too firm.

  • Try to roll over. It will take a lot of effort if the bed’s too soft, and will feel uncomfortable on your hips and shoulders if it’s too firm.

  • Make sure the base under the mattress you’re testing is similar to yours. For instance, if you have a hard base (fixed slats or just board) at home and you’re testing a mattress on a sprung base, you’ll find it feels a lot different at home. Ask the shop staff to let you test it on the floor.

  • If the bed is for two people, both of you should go shopping. Test whether you’ll have enough space to move freely without hitting the other person, that movements of one doesn’t disturb the other and make sure you don’t roll into each other.

  • The mattress and base should look well-made, thick (the mattress should be thicker than 15 cm) and solid.

  • Mattress corners should have weight and substance, and edges should be solid but resilient.

  • When you roll around, the mattress shouldn’t creak, crunch or wobble.

Your spine should be straight when you’re lying on your side (top). If the mattress is too soft (centre) or hard (bottom) it will be curved. 

Which one’s just right?

When you’re deciding if a bed is too hard, too soft or just right, look at two major factors: the support — which is provided by the internal spring unit — and the comfort, provided by the padding. The spring unit supports your body frame, while the comfort system conforms to your body’s shape, cushioning it from the spring unit. Orthopaedic experts generally recommend you go for the firmest (most supportive, not ‘hardest’) mattress you find comfortable. 

It can be hard to differentiate between the relative hardness and softness of the support and comfort layers: the key lies in the line of your spine. It should be straight when you lie on your side, and maintain a natural curve when you lie on your back. If the support unit is too hard or too soft, your spine won’t be straight — see the diagram above. The padding should cushion your body from the spring unit, and mould slightly to your shape, supporting your waist and lower back. 

If a bed’s too firm, you’ll get pressure points at the heaviest parts of your body. This reduces blood circulation and signals your body to turn over, while the muscles in your back and neck have to work harder to keep your spine straight. After a night of tossing around and working hard, you won’t feel refreshed and relaxed. 

On the other hand, if a bed’s too soft it will take you more effort to move or roll over, your spine won’t be properly aligned and it can cause tension as your muscles work to compensate for the lack of support. 

Manufacturers say you get what you pay for — the more you pay, the better you get. This is apparently because the quality of the springs and padding improves with price, and while two beds may seem similar when new, the cheaper one will probably deteriorate more quickly.

This is all very well when you’re comparing beds within a brand, but what about between brands? Unfortunately there’s no easy answer.

Some of the big-name brands spend a lot on research and development — and marketing — and these costs are built into their prices. You’re also paying for their reputation. But it is possible to buy an equivalent-quality mattress made by a lesser-known brand for less, just as you can buy an expensive brand of poor quality.

What’s in a name?

One of the most confusing things about shopping around for beds is that it’s almost impossible to find identical models from store to store, making it difficult to compare prices. Stores want to carry their own ‘exclusive’ models and each has its own requirements, according to its clientele (luxurious, trendy, budget, etc).

The only practical advice is to visit several stores that cater to your price range, and lie on as many beds as possible. If you find a couple that are equally comfortable and the quality seems comparable, buy the one at the best price.


Don’t buy a mattress just because it offers a long warranty — it’s no guarantee of durability, and it won’t help you if the manufacturer goes out of business. A warranty should be an indication that the manufacturer is willing to fix faults in design, materials and construction for a stated number of years.

The bottom line

Once you’ve found an acceptable level of comfort, support and durability — as well as appearance — there’s no need to go any further, especially if the price is right.

History of a Bed.

  • Ancient times: Prehistoric humans simply huddled in groups for warmth at night and slept on the ground.
  • 10,000 to 8,000 years ago (Neolithic period): The invention of the mattress and then the bed. It was raised off the ground to avoid drafts, dirt, and pests. Most probably, the first “mattress” was a pile of leaves or grass with animal skins over it. Straw was probably also used. Softer materials were added: grass, straw, pea shucks, rags, etc.
  • 3600 BCE: The first water-filled beds were goatskins filled with water, used in Persia.
  • 3400 BCE: Egyptian people slept on palm bows heaped in the corner of their home.
  • 200 BCE: Mattresses in the Roman Empire were bags of cloth stuffed with reeds, hay or wool. Wealthy people filled the bags with feathers. Romans discovered the waterbed. The sleeper would recline in a cradle of warm water until drowsy, then be lifted onto an adjacent cradle with a mattress, where they would be rocked to sleep.
  • 15th century: In the Renaissance, mattresses were made of pea shucks or straw, sometimes feathers, stuffed into coarse ticks, then covered with velvets, brocades, or silks.
  • 16th and 17th centuries: Mattresses were generally stuffed with straw or down, placed atop a lattice work of rope from which the expression “sleep tight” is derived. The latticework needed regular tightening.
    NOTE: This origin of the phrase “sleep tight” is disputed. Most scholars now believe that the term springs from an archaic meaning of the word “tight” — when used as an adverb, it simply means “soundly”, so “sleep tight” just means “sleep soundly”. A typical bed of 1600 was a timber frame with rope or leather supports.
  • 18th century: Mattresses were stuffed with cotton or wool.
  • Mid 18th century: Mattress covers started to be made of quality linen or cotton. The mattress cane box was shaped or bordered and the fillings available were natural and plenty, including coconut fibre, cotton, wool and horsehair. The mattresses also became tufted or buttoned to hold the fillings and cover together and the edges were stitched.
  • 1857: The steel coil spring was invented and first patented for use in a chair seat.
  • 1865: The first coil spring construction for bedding was patented. Mattresses were lumpy up to the late 1800s, when the box spring was invented. Even the box spring mattresses were lumpy, but at least the springs made it more comfortable.
  • 1871: The German Heinrich Westphal is credited for inventing the innerspring mattress. He lived in Germany and died in poverty, having never profited from his invention.
  • 1873: Sir James Paget at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital presented a waterbed designed by Neil Arnott as a treatment and prevention of pressure ulcers (bed sores). Waterbeds allowed mattress pressure to be evenly distributed over the body.
  • 1895: A few waterbeds were sold via mail order by the British store Harrod’s. They looked like large hot water bottles.
  • 1900: James Marshall invents the pocket coil mattress
  • 1906: Sealy Mattress Company formed after buying all patents and knowledge from a local gentlemen.
  • 1930s: Innerspring mattresses and upholstered foundations slowly became the most widely used form of mattresses. Artificial fillers became common. The most expensive beds of 1929 were latex rubber mattresses produced by Dunlopillow. Pocket spring mattresses were also introduced. These were individual springs sewn into linked fabric bags.
  • 1940s: Futons were introduced to North America.
  • 1950s: Foam rubber mattresses and pillows appeared on the market.
  • 1960s: Modern waterbed was introduced. Due to lack of suitable materials, the waterbed did not gain widespread use until this decade, when vinyl was invented. Also, adjustable beds become popular with consumers.
  • 1980s: Airbeds were introduced. The mattress was an inflatable unit made with vinyl.
  • 1992: Tempur-Pedic introduced their pressure-relieving “Swedish Sleep Systems” mattresses using TEMPUR branded viscoelastic memory foam.
  • 1999: For the first time ever, the queen-size mattress beat the twin-size to become the U.S. most popular choice for mattress size.
  • Currently: Most mattresses use innerspring coils.

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