Should I Choose A Firm Or Soft Mattress?

by Véronique Raymond
mattress review

Many people ask the question, “Is a soft or firm mattress best?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question.

When buying a new bed, the firmness is one of the most important considerations due to its effects on your sleep quality.

The best mattress for one person could be completely different from the person sleeping next to them.

Let’s investigate the factors that affect the firmness of a mattress and how to choose the best new mattress for you.


What Affects Mattress Firmness?

There are a few factors that will affect where a mattress falls on the firmness scale. Some mattresses are so firm that people need a mattress topper for a little extra cushion, and others can be so soft that you sink right into the bed.

Spring Tightness

Most firm mattresses will be innerspring mattresses, and this is because coils are the most effective way to add structural support to a mattress to produce a firmer feel. Spring tightness therefore has a major impact on just how firm a mattress is. The tighter the spring is, the less a coil will be able to bounce and there will therefore be less give to the mattress. Looser springs will allow the mattress to be pushed down deeper when pressure is applied and will respectively have a softer feel.

Top Layer Design

Every quality mattress on the market will have a support layer close to the sleeping surface. It can be made of different materials and have different properties, but the top layer will have a pretty significant impact on how your mattress feels because it is the component you have the most direct contact with. A foam layer will offer a softer feel than latex, and a simple fabric cover on a spring mattress will give the firmest feel.


The material composition of a mattress is the most significant factor that affects the firmness of a mattress. Latex and spring/coil mattresses will be the firmest because of the natural density and support capabilities of the material. While there can be varying degrees of firmness in these mattresses, you won’t be able to achieve a truly soft mattress. Memory foam mattresses are on the softer end of the spectrum, with AirFoam alternatives being the softest possible material for a mattress. Hybrid mattress models, those that combine a firmer bed material like springs with a softer material like foam, will be the middle of the road. They will have a medium firmness to varying degrees and are the best for adapting to the personal preferences of multiple people sharing a bed.


Things To Consider Before Deciding On A Firm Vs Soft Mattress

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There are quite a few things that you need to think about before deciding whether a soft or firm mattress is right for you. Of course, mattress firmness is a sliding scale and not just one or the other, but in general, the same rules apply for varying levels of softness and firmness. Let’s take a look at the factors that will affect what a perfect mattress means to you.

Sleep Position (Back, Stomach, Or Side Sleeper)

Your sleep position preference is THE single most important thing you need to consider before committing to a firmness level. The way you sleep will affect your spinal alignment, which pressure points are bearing your weight, and the type of pillow you will be using.

Stomach sleepers and back sleepers should choose a firm mattress. Sleeping on a firm mattress in these positions will ensure your spine stays neutral and you won’t wake up with back pain. While most back sleepers should choose a medium-firm mattress, some firmer mattresses will still offer the hip support you need for excellent spinal alignment.

Side sleepers should always choose a soft mattress because of the way they relieve pressure. Sleeping on your side puts a lot of weight on your shoulders and hips, and a soft mattress with contouring capabilities will ensure you don’t experience any joint pain. It will also just be more comfortable.

Physical Ailments (Back Pain, Arthritis, Etc.)

Any physical ailments you’re experiencing should come into play before deciding on the appropriate firmness level for your needs. Of course, you shouldn’t base your decision on temporary conditions because you’ll have this mattress for at least 5-7 years and as many as 25 (some mattress warranty coverage even extends as long as 15 years).

Arthritis, joint pain, muscle soreness, and other physical ailments can all be at least partially alleviated by sleeping on a soft mattress. The pressure relief and comfort layers are designed to contour and support your body while providing a very comfortable surface. Back pain can be improved by both soft and firm mattresses; your sleeping position will be the most important factor for relieving this pain.


If you experience a reduction in mobility on a semi-regular schedule or it is a permanent condition, you’ll want to look into a firmer mattress. Soft mattresses let you sink into the mattress quite a bit, and this can make it difficult to move around even when you do have full mobility. A firmer mattress offers a more supportive, less flexible surface that makes it easier to shift positions and get in and out of bed.

Body Weight

Your body weight will also affect what type of mattress you should be sleeping. As a general rule, heavier individuals should choose a firmer mattress and lighter individuals should choose a softer mattress. Heavier people will sink further into a mattress than someone who weighs less, and if you are already sleeping on a soft mattress that allows sinkage, you may find it just plain uncomfortable. The mattress will also age faster due to the additional compression the materials experience.

Similarly for lighter people, sleeping on a firm mattress can be very uncomfortable; you won’t sink into the mattress really at all, and this can affect your spinal alignment and overall comfort level while you sleep. Your body type is therefore a fairly significant factor that should be brought into play.

Hot vs. Cold Sleeper

You read the heading right: even your sleeping temperature will matter when deciding on a firmness level for a new mattress. Hot sleepers will be more comfortable on a firm mattress; since you sleep on top of the mattress instead of sinking in, your body will be able to expel heat more effectively and the mattress won’t be able to trap it and send it back up to you.

Cold sleepers, on the other hand, would benefit from a soft mattress’s ability to trap heat and contour to your body. These things will limit the amount of heat that is lost to the air, and will create a very warm, comfortable cocoon for you to sleep in.

Need For Motion Transfer Control

The final consideration you need to make while debating a firmness level is the need for motion isolation. Firm mattresses are notoriously poor at isolating motion, predominantly due to their composition. Soft memory foam mattresses are excellent at limiting motion transfer, so if you sleep with a restless partner, a soft mattress will help both of you achieve an excellent sleep.


Pros And Cons of Firm Mattresses

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Firm mattresses can absolutely be the right mattress type for a number of individuals. They have a few advantages over softer mattresses and can do a lot of good for the right sleeper type. They also have their downsides though, so a firmer mattress is certainly not for everyone. Let’s investigate.


  • Stable, Even Surface: The stable, even surface that characterises a firm mattress offers a number of benefits. People with mobility issues will have a much easier time getting in and out of bed when they have a stable surface to use as a crutch. Switching positions at night is also a lot easier, especially on an extra firm bed that doesn’t have much give at all to it. A firm feel to a mattress is also quite excellent for improving your spinal alignment as long as there is a little give in the hip region. If your spine causes you problems, you may find that you experience a better sleep and less pain during the day as a result of this improvement.
  • Excellent Longevity: Firm mattresses tend to have excellent longevity due to their material composition. Plus, since they have a firm surface already, it will take longer for sagging to be evident than in a mattress that already lacks that kind of surface rigidity. Most firm mattresses will contain coils, and that component will likely be the first to give out.


  • Can Exacerbate Pain: A firm mattress does not always mean a supportive mattress, and since you end up sleeping on the surface of the mattress instead of sinking into it, even medium-firm mattresses can exacerbate pain. There isn’t much contouring around pressure points, so if you suffer from shoulder pain or hip pain, it is more than likely that a mattress with a higher firmness level will make these symptoms worse.
  • Not Very Comfortable: A firm mattress does not usually have more than one comfort layer, and due to the structure of its composition, many people find that they aren’t all that comfortable at the beginning and they will require a number of nights to get used to the feel of a new firm mattress. Eventually you won’t feel any discomfort sleeping on a firm mattress, but the process to get there can be a tiresome one.


Pros and Cons of Soft Mattresses

mattress review

Whether you choose the softest possible mattress on the market or your preference tends toward medium-soft, there are some pros and cons that will be common to all types of soft mattresses. Let’s explore.


  • Excellent Pressure Relief and Contouring: When you sleep on a soft mattress, you sleep IN the bed instead of ON the bed. As a result, these mattresses are exceptional pressure relievers and will contour to your body at every point of contact. If you suffer from lower back pain, hip pain or other joint pain, the pressure relieving effects of a plush mattress will help you achieve a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.
  • Very Warm and Comfortable: Since soft mattresses allow you to sink into the bed, they are incredibly comforting. They also tend to hold heat and redirect it back at you as you sleep (unless specifically designed for the opposite effect) so they are excellent for cold sleepers that want to feel cocooned in warmth and comfort all night long.
  • Excellent Motion Isolation: Motion isolation isn’t much of a problem when you sleep alone, but when you add a partner to the mix, you can notice that your firm mattress is actually keeping you up at night with your partner’s movements. This is why a trial period is so important; no matter how a mattress feels in a store, you need to spend a significant amount of time on the sleeping surface to know exactly how well it suits a duo. Mattresses with a soft pillowtop comfort layer and memory foam will be the best on the market for motion isolation.


  • Can ‘Trap’ You In Bed: While a softer feel in a bed is a good thing, soft beds can sometimes leave you feeling stuck. Since you sink in to the mattress and there isn’t any firm surface to push off of, you may notice that you have a more difficult time moving around at night and getting out of bed. Some soft mattresses have pretty significant sinkage, but others just conform to your body at the heavier points of contact. It’s something to watch out for especially if you are a heavier person or your mobility is restricted in some way.


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