Would you be comfortable sleeping on a sheet of ¾” plywood? Absolutely not, because it would create innumerable pressure points on your skull, elbows, shoulder blades, hips, and heels. It would be nearly impossible to find a comfortable way to lie down and sleep on such a hard, flat, unforgiving surface.
Contrariwise, it can be a painful experience to sleep in a hammock. Oh, it’s certainly more comfortable, but it makes us into an elongated curve. That’s fine for our shoulders and back, but our knees only bend in the opposite direction, and it can hyperextend our necks, so you can wake up with achy legs, and even a headache. Blood flows to your lowest point, your buttocks, decreasing the amount to your brain and feet, too, making the situation worse.
Humans need a relatively level surface upon which to sleep. Even rough ground with the proper rises and depressions makes a good sleeping surface, as our evolutionary ancestors knew well, provided it fitted our body contours.
A bag of straw (or nowadays, raw cotton fiber) makes a futon, one of the earliest mattresses. It has lots of give, conforms to our shape, and even helps prevent excess sweating to increase comfort.
The disadvantage is that it compresses over time, and no amount of “fluffing” will fix it. It needs to be unstitched, emptied and refilled with new material, or replaced entirely.
The modern mattress was placed in a wooden frame bed, and served for many years that way. Steel spring fames replaced that, giving the mattress more flex, allowing more air circulation, extending its life, and making it more comfortable.
Bedframes became passé, when we invented a spring system permanently mounted inside a box frame that perfectly matched the mattress. The box spring set still provided the flex, but added resilience that kept the center from sagging. It was a success and considered the height of luxury.
Some retro-enthusiasts brought back the futon for a few years, but it never really gathered much attention from serious sleepers. Waterbeds, on the other hand, gathered a lot of attention because of the remarkable support offered to the sleeping body, and the complete elimination of pressure points.
Its shortcomings were manifold. For example, such a bed required a heater to keep the temperature in the vicinity of human body temperature. Too cold, and you could end up with systemic body aches; too hot, and you could end up in a lake of your own perspiration when you arose.
Early models, lacking internal baffles, would slosh for long periods of time, every time you moved. Even if you carefully removed all the air when you filled it initially, more bubbles would evolve over time, and it would make noises as you moved, so it needed to be “burped” frequently.
Of course there was the issue of weight, sometimes straining the structure of a house. Worst of all were punctures, bursting, heater failure (requiring draining to repair), freezing, and leaks.
Air mattresses were introduced, eliminating the weight problems and the necessity for heating. They are still quite popular, built into a seemingly ordinary mattress, but able to vary the stiffness to make it maximally comfortable for the individual. In a large mattress, it could even vary by section, head-to-toe, or side-to-side. It’s even possible to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bed) in a box 1 ft. × 1 ft. × 2 ft. that becomes a Queen-sized, normal height bed in just minutes, with an electric air pump.
Of course the traditional box spring and mattress still rule the roost, but now they include variations from completely basic to “pillow-tops” or those with memory foam pads built in. The premium models are undeniably comfortable, but they are (arguably) overpriced considering the materials and labor involved.
Before pillows were invented we used to lie on our arms to help keep our necks straight so we didn’t have aches when we woke up. Once someone came up with the idea, they became the must-have item as sleep aides.
Nowadays you can buy a shaped pillow, carved or molded from memory foam, to give great support. Some are filled with bamboo chips, barley grain, charcoal, meticulously engineered geometric structures made of fancy polymers, along with the more conventional designs filled with hollow polyester fibers or feathers of many descriptions.
Whether you use a $10 pillow from a popular chain store, a $30 memory foam design, or a $200 engineered “miracle-pillow” doesn’t make much difference provided it gives the support you need to keep your neck vertebrae in alignment with your spine. Precisely the same thing can be said about your mattress and your whole body.
If either of these items fail to keep you comfortable and pain free, it’s time to consider replacement. Some clever promoters offer free delivery, pick-up of the old mattress and donating it to a charity, and even a 30-day, in-your-home trial of their mattresses. Ostensibly this is to make sure you really like it, but also with the notion that most people won’t return a mattress they’ve had for a significant period of time, and now that the old one is gone, they are going to buy a mattress anyway.
Mattresses seldom need to be replaced. It’s worthwhile to investigate the possibilities thoroughly because one mattress may last you for a lifetime, if it is of good quality, and you don’t abuse it. Maintenance is relatively simple, too.
Mattresses ought to be flipped (side-to-side) after six months if they don’t have a special “top” or end-to-end (even if they do) so that they wear evenly. The most common wear point is the spot on the edge where you often sit, so moving it around spreads the wear to other areas, preventing collapse of that area.
Tossing your pillow into the clothes dryer (low or no heat) once in a while airs it out, removes accumulated dust, and makes if fluffy as new. These simple steps can help extend their lives, and help you get a good night’s sleep!