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