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Firm vs. Soft Mattress: What Should You Choose & Why?

When it comes to purchasing a mattress, you want to ensure that you get the best one that can help you maintain and improve your health. After all, having a restful sleep starts with choosing the right mattress.

And one of the main factors you should consider is figuring out whether to go for a firor soft mattress. Both mattress types come with several benefits, but how do you know which one's perfect for your needs?

To help you learn more about firmness levels and determine what firmness will work best for you, we've put together this firmness guide. In it, we'll go through everything you need to know about mattress firmness, including what it is, how it's measured, and how to choose the best level for your unique sleeping needs.

What's the Best Firmness for a Mattress?

The firmness of a bed refers to the initial feel a sleeper experiences when sleeping on it. Are you resting right on top of the surface, or are you sinking into it? Are you experiencing some push back, or do the materials contour to the curves of your body shape. These questions can help determine whether your mattress is soft, medium-firm, or firm.

Plus, the mattress industry often scores its mattresses on a firmness scale with a range of 1-10. A bed that scores a 10/10 would be the firmest, and the one that scores a 1/10 is the softest. A score of 6.5/10, on the other hand, is regarded as the mattress industry standard for medium firmness.

Let's go over what firm, medium-firm, and soft actually feel like in more detail below.

Soft Mattress

Generally, soft mattresses fall within the 3-5/10 range. They use thick sections of memory foam or cushioning materials, such as quilted pillow tops, in their top layers, also known as comfort layers. They're also characterized by feelings of pressure relief, body contouring, and deep sinkage.

You won't experience much push back on soft beds, meaning you're more likely to feel more "in" the surface than "on top" of it. The luxe materials that design these mattresses generally put them on the high end of the price range.

Softer beds are preferred mainly by people who strictly sleep on their sides or those who want a little extra comfort at their hips, shoulders, and lower back. Common soft mattresses include the Helix Sunset, Nectar, and the Layla mattresses.

Medium Firm Mattress

Medium-firm beds generally fall within the range of 6-7 on the firmness scale. These mattresses usually combine soft memory foam top layers with sturdier bases of either pocketed coils or high-density poly foam. This establishes a perfect balance between support and pressure relief, which is appealing to various types of sleepers.

Although you may experience some sinkage when sleeping on a medium-firm surface, you're likely to feel lifted. That's why these mattresses are ideal for back or combination sleepers, as these categories can benefit quite a lot from some extra mobility.

The slightly more sturdy materials that medium-firm mattresses come with make them more durable than soft mattresses. However, their overall longevity is still much less than firmer mattresses.

Firm Mattress

And finally, we've got firm mattresses which fall within the 8-10/10 range. These mattresses rarely feature plush or soft materials in their comfort layers. Instead, you'll find thin layers of soft memory foam atop springs or high-density poly foam. This makes firm mattresses highly supportive.

When sleeping on a firm bed, every body section should be lifted squarely on the surface with plenty of push back. If you're a heavy sleeper who strictly sleeps on the stomach, you'll appreciate the extra heft that you'll receive from these structures. It's also a suitable fix for hot sleepers as it allows for maximum airflow.

However, a side sleeper might feel uncomfortable on a firm mattress as the firm surface can compress their shoulder and hip bones. This can create numbness and even pain.

Firm mattresses are less expensive than softer beds, but they're long-lasting as they're made with solid, sturdy materials. Popular examples of firm mattresses include WinkBed, GhostBed Classic, Helix Dawn, and Layla Hybrid.

How is Firmness Measured?

The firmness of your bed is typically measured on a 1-10 scale.

1/10 - extremely soft: You'll rarely find mattresses that measure 1/10 on the firmness scale. This is because this type of beds offer way too much sinkage, thus disrupting any potential for support.

2-3/10 - this is a range between ultra-soft and very soft: Although there's still a lot of sinking, beds at this level start to offer a little more support. This softness level is typically ideal for side sleepers under 130 pounds.

4/10 - medium-soft: The comfort layers at this level start to get thinner, and most individuals won't feel the stuck-in-the-bed sensation that comes with most softer mattresses.

5/10 - medium: This is a more common firmness level for most bed-in-a-box brands that describe themselves as "soft." While you'll still find soft comfort layers on these beds, they'll be balanced by sturdy foundations of either coil, springs, or high-density poly foam.

6/10 - medium firm: Most mattresses in this range strike a balance between support and pressure relief, making them ideal for a wide range of sleepers. These mattresses can either be constructed entirely out of foam or by using a combination of coils and foams.

7/10 - slightly firm: A score of 7/10 on the firmness scale brings us into firmer territory. Mattresses measuring 7 are notable for how they lift people up and out of the sleep surface. Back, stomach, and combo sleepers benefit the most from this extra lift.

8/10 - firm: These mattresses don't offer a lot of "hug" or body contouring. Instead, they give a lot of push back. Beds measuring 8/10 are perfect for stomach and back sleepers and could work well for individuals who want a more traditional feel.

9/10 - very firm:
A 9/10 mattress feels similar to an 8/10, but with less hug and sinkage. Here, there's extreme sinkage, meaning most sleepers might find this level a bit too firm.

10/10 - ultra-firm:
You're not likely to ever get a true 10/10 mattress because they don't offer any pressure relief.

The vast majority of beds on the market are somewhere between 4 and 7/10. This is the firmness range that most sleepers find comfortable. Specialty mattress manufacturers provide very firm or soft mattresses, but these are far less common.

If you're not sure what mattress firmness level will work best for your needs, there are a few factors that can help you identify the best fit.

We'll break down these factors (and more!) to help you make a wise purchase decision.

Sleeper Considerations

Purchasing a new mattress can be exhausting. Navigating the websites and stores and debating between choosing a firm or soft mattresses can leave you feeling frustrated.

Instead of going through all that stress, consider these factors to find the right firmness level.

Body Weight

Like sleeping position, your shape and body weight influence the choice of the perfect firmness level to provide comfort, spinal support, and other vital features.

For instance, people with a lighter profile (under 130 pounds) don't sink deep into the mattress. So to get good contouring, most of them sleep comfortably on a softer mattress, especially those who have pronounced pressure points or sleep on their sides.

On the other hand, people who weigh over 230 pounds are likely to sink further into the sleep surface, especially around heavier sections of the body, which can easily throw off spinal alignment. These sleepers often have better results with firmer mattresses for proper spinal alignment and comfort.

Remember, it's not just weight that influences how you choose the right firmness level. Sleepers with broader hips or shoulders may need a soft bed with more contouring. People over 6 feet tall, on the other hand, should go for a mattress that allows them to stretch out comfortably.

Sleep Position

What position are you normally in when you tuck in to drift off? And in what sleeping position do you often find yourself when you get up in the morning?

The answers to these questions can offer vital insight to help decide whether to go for a firm or a soft mattress. Your body parts that need more support to maintain spinal alignment vary greatly based on your sleep posture. That's why choosing an ideal firmness level to fit your sleep position can improve comfort and help avoid pains and aches.

Back Sleepers

Back sleepers put a lot of pressure on their lower back. A softer mattress can make your torso sink in more deeply than your lower and upper body, thus creating strain because of the U-shape. If the sleep surface is too firm, there won't be sufficient accommodation of the slight curve in the lower section of your body. As a result, those who prefer sleeping on their back do well with a medium-firm to firm bed with light to moderate contouring.

Combination Sleepers

Combination sleepers sleep in more than one posture throughout the night. If you fall in this category, you should choose a firmness level based on the sleeping position you spend the most time in.

If you don't have a specific position, medium-firm provides the best bet across various sleeping postures. It would help if you also went for a responsive bed to facilitate easy movement on the surface.

Side Sleepers

Those who prefer sleeping on their sides have sharper pressure points where their bodies are the widest, most notably around the hips and shoulders. On a too soft bed, those points can easily dip out of line with the spine. 

If the mattress is too firm, side sleepers will feel the impact at the pressure points, making them prone to misalignment. Consequently, these sleepers should opt for a medium-soft or medium-firm mattress.

Stomach Sleepers

Like back sleepers, stomach sleepers put more pressure on their lumbar spine. They do well with firm mattresses that won't feel suffocating when sleeping face-down on the bed.

Partner Preferences

Couples and bed sharers need to consider their partner's preferences, weight, and sleep position as well as their own. Most couples find the comfort and support they need in medium-firm mattresses. However, when your preferences are completely different from your partner's, you can opt for specialized mattresses that allow users to customize each side of the mattress individually. Other manufacturers offer beds that feature adjustable firmness settings, allowing you to change them as needed. 

Who Should Sleep on a Firm Mattress?

Remember the most important thing a mattress can promote for healthy sleep posture is spinal alignment. That can mean different things for different types of sleepers, but for back and stomach sleepers, it means ensuring your hips don't sink too far in the bed. Back sleepers can have a bit of leeway in terms of what firmness is good for them, ranging anywhere from a 6/10 based on their preference.

That medium range from 6 to 6.5/10 will be a good option for those who spend most of their time on their back or adjust from their back to their sides throughout the night. When it comes to stomach sleepers, most sleep specialists say that no matter what kind of mattress you get, it isn't healthy to sleep on your stomach. However, if you can't just help it, we recommend the strict stomach sleepers out there to go with a firm mattress to avoid lower back pain.

Overall, a firm mattress will be much in line with what stomach sleepers and back sleepers need.

Advantages of a Firm Mattress

Firm mattresses are well-known for distributing weight evenly on the surface, thus preventing your pressure points from bearing a lot of pressure. These beds come with minimal sinkage, so your spine is highly likely to remain in a neutral position.

Other benefits of purchasing a firm mattress may include;

  • Prevents overheating
  • Suitable for heavy sleepers
  • Ideal for stomach and back sleepers
  • Improves circulation

Disadvantages of a Firm Mattress

Firm beds aren't meant for everyone. Side sleepers, for instance, may experience pressure build-up on their sides when sleeping on a firm mattress. Lightweight sleepers, on the other hand, may not experience enough sinkage on a firm sleep surface, causing muscle tension and spinal misalignment.

Other drawbacks of a firm bed include;

  • Not the best alternative for sleepers with arthritis, joint pain, and muscle pain
  • Can be somehow challenging to adjust to, especially if you lack prior sleep experience

Who Should Use a Soft Mattress?

Soft mattresses can be great for those that sleep on their sides. That is because side sleeping has greater pressure points to form on your shoulders and hips because of the higher weight concentration over the lower surface area.

Advantages of a Soft Mattress

Softer mattresses are usually recommended for sleepers experiencing back pain or those with pre-existing back problems. They're also better for side sleepers as they perfectly align the spine and cushion the shoulders and hips.

Other benefits of a soft mattress include;

  • Reduces pressure points
  • Good choice for lightweight sleepers
  • Promotes proper body alignment
  • Delivers motion isolation
  • Many comfort level options are on the market

Disadvantages of a Soft Mattress

While they can seem more luxurious and comfortable, soft beds can inconvenience those who sleep with their partners. Heavier partners may sink in excessively, making the surface unbalanced.

Other drawbacks of a soft mattress include;

  • Sleeping deep in the surface can trap body heat
  • Lack of enough support for stomach sleepers

Mattress Firmness vs. Support

When talking about firmness and support, most people think they're synonymous with one another. However, these words refer to two different things.

Firmness refers to the immediate feel sleepers experience when lying down on a mattress. Does your bed feel comfortable to you? Does it relieve pressure? Is there a lot of pushback, cushioning, or something in between?

On the other hand, support is all about how well the bed keeps the spine in alignment. This means you can find a soft bed with maximum support and a firm bed with virtually no support. A firm mattress can also be highly comfortable and pain-relieving.

But it would help if you were careful with softer mattresses. Most sleepers tend to naturally gravitate towards the word "soft," as softness typically indicates plushness, luxury, or coziness. However, soft beds can often become quite uncomfortable as they don't offer adequate support for most sleeping positions. So, if you prefer a soft mattress, ensure that your bed features a solid core of either pocketed coils or high-density poly foam.

So, by focusing on these factors individually, any sleeper out there can find the perfect mattress that offers the support they need, in their preferred sleeping position, and the right firmness level for them.

Firm vs. Soft Mattress: The Verdict

Now that you're fully equipped with all the know-how on choosing between a firm or soft mattress, it's time to apply it to the real-world buying experience. When thinking about how firm or soft you want your sleep surface to be, remember to consider your weight, sleeping posture, the kind of support you need, and how much hug or sinkage you want.

If both soft and firm seem too extreme for you, you can look into more balanced alternatives, such as medium, medium-soft, or medium-firm beds. That way, you'll be set to getting the perfect mattress firmness level for a good night's sleep.

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