Mattress Buying Guide

How to buy a mattress you’ll love sleeping on.
 
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01 .Sleeping beautifully

Making bed

In brief

  • Buy your mattresses on comfort (see our 2010 mattress survey) and on discount. 
  • To find a mattress that's comfortable, try lying on as many as possible. From our Mattress Satisfaction Survey, those who tried out their mattresses between 25 and 29 minutes were more likely to be satisfied with their purchases. 
  • Replace your mattress every 10 years. Using the same one for too long can cause back and neck problems, not to mention hygiene risks.

There’s no scientific consensus on what makes a good mattress. It's highly subjective as we all have different shapes, sizes and weight. People around the world sleep comfortably on all sorts of beds: straw mats, hammocks, futons, waterbeds, airbeds and all types of mattresses. Decide on a budget first and make comfort your key decision-maker. In addition, find out if your retailer allows you to return the mattress if you don't feel comfortable on it. Prevention is definitely better than cure in this case. Most retailers allow returns only when the mattress has defects. It can be a long-drawn process in getting a replacement because the manufacturer will usually be contacted to inspect your mattress. So remember to read the fine print in the warranty.

For more information on Bedding, see Living and bedroom.

 

When should you replace your mattress?

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. See Good foundations for more on bases.

If your mattress is of poor quality or you don’t look after it properly (see Caring for your mattress), 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. Latex and foam mattresses, futons and waterbeds are discussed in Alternatives. We also take a look at the new kid on the block: viscoelastic mattresses — see Memory foam.

Our Mattress Satisfaction Survey 2010 showed that satisfaction does not depend on what a mattress is made from.

 

 
 

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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.
  • Find a manufacturer that is also a retailer. You’ll see the materials they use, products are generally cheaper and they can custom-make a mattress to suit your needs.
  • Ask to be shown a cross-section of the mattress you’re interested in. Look for natural fibre coverings such as cotton and bamboo, which allow skin to breathe. Avoid polyester or nylon coverings.
  • Ask for specifications such as what fibres are used, what type of springs the mattress has and how many, as well as the density of the memory foam, foam or latex. Ask how the mattress is “layered”; if this is a mystery to sales staff, don’t buy from that retailer. Ask to be shown a cross-section of the mattress you’re interested in.
  • Test the model you like in other stores. Mattresses may become well tested by previous bed shoppers and the same mattress may feel different.
  • Wear loose and comfortable clothes, with shoes you can easily slip off. Test out the mattress with your sleeping partner and preferred pillows for at least 30 minutes.
  • 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.
  • 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 (see Which one's just right? below).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Be aware that mattresses with pillow tops retain more heat and can’t be turned for impact distribution. There’s no cure for a mattress that feels too hot; all you can do is get out of bed.
  • Ask if you return the mattress if you find it uncomfortable. Only a handful of stores, such as Ikea, have a "comfort" returns policy.
  • Ask the retailer about its returns policy, including transport to the retailer’s store and re-delivery charges.
  • Don’t fall for “osteopathic” or “chiropractic” advertising It means little unless it’s from an accredited source.
  • Check the warranty, as most do not cover comfort. Some warranties cover different parts of the mattress, or are based on a pro-rata basis. For example, Tempur provides a full guarantee of its mattresses for the first five years, but the guarantee depreciates by 10% annually from the sixth to the 15th year.

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 — whiSpine alignmentch 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.

Warranty

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.

Changed your mind?

Despite your best efforts testing a mattress in the shop, it may not be until you’ve slept on it overnight — or even for several weeks — that you discover whether or not you’re really satisfied with it.

We recommend you choose a retailer who gives you the option of returning or exchanging a mattress you’re not happy with. Conditions vary from store to store, so check before you buy. You might be charged for re-covering the mattress (for hygiene reasons - which could be considered a plus if you don't like the idea of buying a 'second hand' mattress yourself!) and return delivery costs. Check whether you can get a refund, or are only entitled to exchange the mattress for one of equal or greater value.

Returns can cost retailers — they may have to sell the mattress at a discounted price even if it’s been cleaned and/or re-covered — so a good retailer knows it’s in their interests to help you get it right first time around.

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.

One way to delay the next mattress shopping expedition is to care for your mattress.

  • Turn it over and rotate it end to end regularly. Alternate the flipping and turning so that both sides of the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of the mattress get equal wear. One manufacturer recommends turning or rotating every two weeks for the first three months, then every two or three months thereafter. One-sided mattresses only need rotating.
  • Use a mattress protector to keep it clean. Don’t wet your mattress; only use a vacuum cleaner for cleaning. If you must wash it, use soap, cold water and a damp cloth and rub gently. Dry thoroughly to avoid mildew (try a hair dryer or put it in the sun). A waterproof cover may be useful for bedwetters.
  • Don’t use the handles to lift or carry the mattress. They’re not designed to take its weight, and should only be used for positioning it.
  • Don’t fold the mattress. Try to bend it as little as possible when carrying it around corners.
  • Don’t put a new mattress on a saggy, broken-down base.
  • If you often sit on the edge of your bed (to tie up your shoes, say), try to avoid sitting in the same spot every time.
  • If you want a trampoline or crash mat, buy one.

You can’t tell much about the quality of a mattress by looking at it from the outside — you’ll have to rely on knowledgeable and helpful salespeople and cutaway models in stores. (If you don’t find either of these, go elsewhere.) However, it helps to know something about the structure of a mattress before you go shopping so you know what to look for, what to ask, and how to understand the answers.

Springs

The spring unit is the main source of support for your body. Five factors can influence the degree of comfort, support and durability of aMattress internal mattress: the number of springs or coils, their shape, the gauge of wire used, the number of turns in each spring and the distribution of the springs.

The final effect will depend on an interplay of all these factors. So, for instance, more springs aren’t necessarily better if they’re lower in quality. Let comfort, rather than stats, be the deciding factor.

  1. The number of springs: There should be at least 300 coils in a double bed, 375 in a queen-size and 450 in a king-size. But otherwise, more doesn't necessarily mean better - let comfort be your guide.
  2. Spring shape: There are several shapes of spring, and it may be a good idea to try lying on the different kinds, as one type may suit you better.
    • Hourglass-shaped springs are used in the original inner-spring system, called the Bonnell System. They’re joined together with spiral wires to form the unit. They compress quite easily at first, but then get firmer the more they’re compressed (hence offering more support), resulting in a ‘soft but firm’ bed. They tend to be found in cheaper mattresses.
    • Sealy springContinuous coil springing is made from a single length of wire shaped into a system of coils. It means manufacturers can increase the density of coils, which they claim gives greater support and minimises partner disturbance. The number of springs or coils is irrelevant in a continuous system.
    • Open-ended coils are joined together to form a spring system, but the top (and bottom, for a double-sided mattress) of each coil is free to move independently. This allows each coil to adjust to the weight on it, with the free-moving bit compressing relatively easily for comfort, and the body of the coil offering more resistance and therefore firmer support. Because there’s more turns -- and therefore wire -- in these springs, they tend to be more expensive than Bonnell or continuous coil systems 
    • Pocket-spring mattresses consist of a grid of springs, each in their own fabric pocket. Because they’re not wired together, each spring is able to work more or less independently — the weight on one spring doesn’t affect those surrounding it (except for pull by the mattress cover). Tests by our German counterparts consistently rate pocket-spring mattresses the most comfortable type of inner-spring mattress.

      Hourglass-shaped Bonnell springs (left) and continuous coils (right) are joined at the Continuous coilsHourglass springstop and bottom to form a single spring unit, while pocket springs are able to move more or less independently (though the mattress coverings limit complete independence). Open-ended coils are joined together part-way down the spring, rather than at the top (which is free). The most comfortable spring system comes down to personal preference and depends, among other things, on your size and weight, and whether you sleep alone or with a partner.

  3. Wire gauge: Not all springing systems are made from wire with the same strength, durability and quality. Ask for information about the gauge of wire used in a mattress. The lower the number, the more durable the wire (that is, 13-gauge wire is thicker and stronger than 16-gauge). Wire may also be measured in millimetres — obviously the higher the number the thicker it is.
  4. Active turns: A further variation is the number of active turns in the spring or coil — that is, the number of turns that are absorbing and supporting the weight of the body. The more turns, the softer the bed and the longer the springs will last because the work is spread around.
  5. Distribution of springs: Some beds differentiate support zones in the mattress, usually putting firmer springs in the centre third of the bed to support your heavy bits. It’s difficult to confirm whether they really add to the quality of support offered by the mattress.

Some also include side or edge support springs, which provide more strength and support at the edge of the mattress, and protect against the spring and comfort systems breaking down around the edge of the bed (which is thought to be a major cause of mattress failure).

Padding and ticking

The comfort layer is what lies between you and the springs — it determines how hard or soft the mattress feels against your body.

A manufacturer that makes a large range of mattresses will often use the same spring unit but vary the fillings — the more expensive the mattress, the better the filling. And the better the filling, the longer the mattress should last.

At the top end of the market (over $2500) fillings include silk, wool, cashmere, premium foams, latex and goosedown. At the lower end (under $700), materials include lower grades of foam, reclaimed cotton fibres and coconut fibre. These don’t tend to last as long because they break apart more easily, forming lumps and pockets, and lose their ability to spring back more quickly. A $7000 bed won’t last seven times as long as a $1000 one, however — you’re paying the price for luxury rather than durability.

You might want to think twice about getting a ‘pillow top’ mattress (where a separate thick layer of padding is attached to the top and bottom of the mattress). They tend to lose their ability to bounce back over time. We've had complaints from consumers to this effect, and the mattresses are very expensive. If you want extra cushioning, buy a separate padded overlay made from foam, feathers, cotton, latex or memory foam, and replace it when needed.

The way in which the padding is secured in place can also influence how well the bed maintains its comfort. In top-of-the-range mattresses, each layer is handstitched into place to prevent the materials shifting around. This is a specialist craft (called hand-tufting) and can take one person several days. Retailers should know which mattresses are hand-tufted — they’ll be the expensive ones.

As far as the outer cover (or ticking) goes, cheaper, less durable mattresses will probably have a flat cotton cover, while more expensive ones have quilted damask covers (linen, silk, cotton or wool fabric woven with patterns) - which will get covered up with a sheet!

Good foundations

Box basesBox base

A typical ‘ensemble’ consists of a box base and inner-spring mattress. Some box bases are simply that: a wooden box with a board or slats across the top, covered with fabric to match the mattress. Others have internal springs, which take some of the load from the mattress, helping to extend its life. When you’re thinking about a new mattress, take a good look at the condition of your base — if it’s sagging or worn you may need to replace it too, as it won’t support your new mattress properly and will shorten its life. Some companies won't honour warranties if you've used the mattress on a base they consider inadequate.

 

 

Slatted bases

There are two types: fixed and flexible slats. Flexible slats are attached to the frame with pivoting holders and allow soSlatted baseme give. Fixed slats — the more common of the two — attach straight to the frame and offer little to the mattress. Latex and foam mattresses work best on a flexible slat base; fixed slats are fine for inner-spring mattresses.

Despite what you may see or read, one major manufacturer tells us there’s no such thing as a mattress that shouldn’t go on a slatted base. A mattress may last longer on a sprung base, but a slatted-base bedstead itself could last a lifetime (unlike a sprung base).

Make sure the slats aren’t too far apart — about 5 cm is good.

People who are elderly or infirm and those who have asthma or back problems have special needs, and should consider the following points when choosing a mattress.

  • An inner-spring mattress can be very heavy and may be difficult to flip or turn regularly by people who are older or have back problems. A foam mattress (see Alternatives) may be a better option.
  • The same people may have difficulty getting into and out of a bed that’s too high or too low. When you sit on the edge of the bed, your feet should reach the ground comfortably, and you shouldn’t need to use much effort to stand.
  • If you’re prone to pressure pain from sitting or lying in the same position for too long, choose a mattress with soft padding.
  • Don’t go too soft — the underlying support (provided by the spring unit) should be firm enough to allow you to roll over and sit up easily. The softness should come only from the surface cushioning.
  • Beds with names involving ‘paedic’, ‘chiro’, ‘ortho’ and so on aren’t necessarily better for you than others without medical-sounding terms — it could just be the marketing.
  • Also be wary of endorsements from medical-sounding organisations. While some are legitimate, in some cases manufacturers buy the rights to use one, rather than earn it, and other manufacturers have been found to claim endorsements from impressive-sounding but non-existent organisations.
  • Although a firm bed can help some lower back pain, a bed that’s too firm could also aggravate some back conditions. Some back problems may benefit from a soft bed, so it’s important to ask your doctor or back-care specialist for advice first.
  • Asthmatics and allergy sufferers may find that an anti-allergy cover will help prevent dustmites settling in the mattress. Vacuum your mattress regularly. A slatted bed base will improve ventilation and provide fewer places for allergens to accumulate.

Some people prefer the look or feel of other types of mattress to the inner-spring type we’ve looked at here. Alternatives include:

Futons

Originally from Japan, futons are basically big cushions filled with fluffed-up cotton, wool and/or artificial fibres. You need to keep the fillings well-ventilated and fluffed-up, and they must be turned regularly to avoid mildew — and they’re often just as heavy as an inner-spring mattress. They’re harder than most other types of mattress and may better suit people with a small, light build, as they won’t adapt to your curves and bumps as readily.

Waterbeds

WaterbedThey’re claimed to give good body support without pressure points, and may be good for allergy sufferers. Good support depends on the amount of water in it, so make sure it’s full enough.

If you sleep with a partner, look for a design that minimises disturbance from movement.

They’re very cosy in cool weather, and cool in warm weather, but make sure you put a fabric layer between the sheet and the bladder to absorb perspiration.

 

Foam mattresses

There are different types and grades of foam. Polyurethane foam mattresses come in different grades. Cheap low-grade mattresses may be good for the spare room, but aren’t resilient enough for everyday use. In Europe, where foam mattresses are popular, high-grade foam scores well for comfort (support and breathability) and durability. Foam mattresses sold in Australia tend to be low-grade, although European-based retailers in Australia are likely to sell European-quality mattresses.

Latex

Latex (natural rubber) mattresses can be very expensive, and may also need an expensive flexible-slat base. One made of good-quality, pure latex, however, can be expected to last 20–25 years. A latex mattress may be a good option for allergy sufferers because they’re less likely to harbour mould and dustmites.

Our German counterparts found that these don’t wobble like inner-spring mattresses (reducing partner disturbance), and they rated well in tests (on a par with high-grade foam mattresses or pocket-spring mattresses). If you’re buying a latex mattress, consider getting one with a firm innercore and soft top layer, so you get the luxurious, spongy feeling without sinking right into it. If you can’t afford a latex mattress, a latex overlay (used with a firm inner-spring mattress) is a good, comfortable option. Ask to see a cross-section of the latex mattress before you buy and make sure that perforations in the mattress  have a diameter of at least one centimetre - a bigger hole allows bettwer airflow so that the mattress doesn't feel too hot.

Memory foam

Also known as viscoelastic, memory foam is made from polyurethane, but has a different cell structure from other foams, which makes it less ‘springy’ and slower to recover (hence ‘memory foam’ — it ‘remembers’ your shape for a while after you’ve moved).

You can buy viscoelastic mattresses (which have a layer of viscoelastic attached to another material, usually polyurethane foam) or viscoelastic overlays (which you put on your current mattress). The thicker the viscoelastic layer, the more you’ll sink in — which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

They’re reported to be very comfortable and luxurious feeling, and are excellent in terms of minimising partner disturbance. But they’re not for everyone – they’ve also been described as like ‘sleeping on wet or hard sand’.

Sensitive to weight and temperature, a viscoelastic mattress moulds to your body’s form, supporting it evenly, rather than having pressure concentrate at the shoulders, hips and feet. They’re used in some hospitals and nursing homes to help prevent pressure ulcers caused by lying in one position for a long time.

References to numerous ‘clinical trials’ and ‘clinically proven’ facts have been bandied about, although none of the mentioned trials has been published in the mainstream medical or scientific literature.

One such trial held over three months claimed that over 90% of people trying a particular brand of viscoelastic mattress experienced marked improvements in the quality of their sleep. Other studies claimed an 83% reduction in tossing and turning, and deeper sleep experienced by participants.

Our German counterparts tested viscoelastic mattresses and found they offered no particular advantages over other types, except for bedridden people, who may benefit from the pressure-spreading. Overall they tended to score less than foam, latex or pocket-spring mattresses and equal to regular (Bonnell-spring) inner-spring mattresses.

The main criticism was that the softness of the mattress makes it hard to move in your sleep, therefore requiring more physical effort. Heavy people in particular might find it difficult. Small movements (as opposed to full-scale tossing and turning, which is caused by blood-flow restriction at pressure points) are important for spine health.

However this may have been specific to the models tested. If you’re trying out one of these mattresses in a shop, see how easily you can move — if you feel bogged, try a thinner layer of viscoelastic.

Keep in mind that it takes about 15 minutes for the foam in some mattresses to fully warm up and soften, so what feels pleasantly firm at first (or unpleasantly hard) may not stay that way for long. So make sure you allow enough time to test mattresses properly when you’re buying. And not all memory foam feels the same, so if you like the idea of it, try different brands and models.

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