The 5 Questions You Need To Answer Before Buying a Bed

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I honestly spent less time deciding which car to buy than which mattress.

Buying a car is relatively simple. You’ve got an idea of which are the best manufacturers and you accept that you more-or-less get what you pay for. Cars aren’t mysteriously reduced by 75% and you can at least guess what most of the extras and accessories do.

​With mattresses, it’s a very different story. Retailers wag their fingers and tell you that it’s the most important decision you’ll ever make because you’ll spend so many thousands of hours in bed. A cheap bed will lead to a lifetime of back pain and remorse, they say.

They then show you diagrams of the inside of mattresses with springs, squidgy bits and other things you really aren’t interested in. If you’re lucky you’ll be shown a diagram of someone with a pert bottom lying down with a perfectly straight spine.
After reading enough mattress guides to fill a library I’ve boiled it down to five decisions. Follow these and you’ll be ready to buy your mattress .

Coffee cup next to bed
The mattress market is confusing – but it doesn’t need to be

Decision 1: Foam or spring?

Most beds sold in the UK are made with springs. They’ve got a familiar feel and there’s a huge choice. The consensus is that pocket sprung mattresses are far superior to ‘open coil’ or ‘traditional’ mattresses. Sure, you can spend a couple of hours looking at diagrams and animations – or you can just take my word for it and move on. Many of them are in our top 10 mattresses guide.

The alternative is a foam bed. These offer consistent support all over and they have performed well in some academic studies. For example, Hou and Zhang published a paper in China in 2020 which found that memory foam was given a ‘high evaluation’ by younger and middle aged trial participants who slept on their back or side. The slightly older sleepers scored the memory foam mattress highly regardless of their sleeping position whilst the oldest sleepers gave a high score for the memory foam mattress for side sleeping but less so for back sleeping.

Another much debated area is whether foam mattresses are better for reducing dust mites. Many sources conclude that memory foam is better for allergies because they are ‘made from inorganic fibres’ so they ‘don’t provide any tasty, life-sustaining food for nasty, hungry dust-mites to feed on. As a result, dust-mites can’t thrive and will therefore avoid them’ (that’s according to mattress-brand Dormeo)

On the other side of the argument is a study in Norway which took samples from children’s foam and sprung mattresses. Its conclusion was the opposite, with many more dust mites being found on the sprung mattress (‘House dust mites and allergies’ by Schei, Hessin and Lund from 2002). It found many factors coincided with the presence of dust mites including ‘age of mattress’ and ‘bedroom temperature’.

The charity Allergy UK says that the key is to use ‘allergen-proof barrier covers on all mattresses, duvets and pillows.’ It also approves a number of mattresses for people with dust mite allergies

If you decided you want a foam mattress then the main choice is between a memory foam mattress which uses a layer of memory foam on top (e.g. Nectar SleepErgoflex 5GTempur) or a foam mattress which puts the layer of memory foam in the middle of the mattress (e.g. Emma, Studio by Silentnight). Most of these are known as ‘bed in a box’ mattresses because, well, they arrive squashed up into a box.

This may sound like a duller discussion than two men arguing over brands of drainpipe, but it makes a big difference to the feel of the mattress. Mattresses with memory foam on top give more of a sinking/hugging feeling and tend to make you feel warmer. Putting the memory foam as a middle layer aims to avoid these issues whilst still being supportive. 

A final option is a latex mattress, which is a relatively expensive natural material. This is a bit of a niche option, but Dunlopillo is the best known brand.

Decision 2: Cheapmid-priced or luxury

You can spend £100 on a cheap and nasty mattress, or you can spend £10,000 on something which was made by a master craftsman with luxurious wool which is only available from a flock of sheep which live on Kilimanjaro.

For those of us who want something in between, take a look at the specification rather than the brand or the inflated ‘original retail price’ and buy what you can afford. If you are planning to spend less on your mattress than you did on your guest bedroom TV, then you are probably not spending enough. Check out our guide to some of the best reviewed beds on the market.

A good-enough pocket sprung mattress will have between 1000 and 2000 springs. Heavyweight boxers will benefit from the extra support of 2000 springs, whilst jockeys can make do with 1000. Anything beyond 2000 springs is showing off and offers diminishing returns. Ideally you want something with hand-side-stitching (a sign of quality so that it doesn’t bulge at the sides) and a nice woven material on top (e.g. damask).

I would certainly recommend stretching to a pocket sprung mattress instead of an ‘open coil’ or ‘continuous coil’ mattress as pocket springs feel much more stable. Research by Shen, Chen et al in 2012 found there is a clear link between stability and quality of sleep (‘The percentage of deep sleep and sleep efficiency were low when subjects slept on mattresses with poor stability’).

If you’re going for a foam mattress, take a look at the overall thickness of the mattress.

If it’s described as a ‘memory foam mattress’ take a look at how thick the top layer is, as the mattress won’t be 100% memory foam. Some come with measly couple of centimetres (the equivalent of painting your Peugeot red and calling it a Ferrari) whilst some come with a much more generous layer (e.g. the Nectar Sleep and Ergoflex 5G both have a 9cm memory foam layer)

​There are other factors to do with density, but I won’t go into that here for risk of boring you.

Decision 3: Softmedium or firm

Firmness is less to do with personal preference and more to do with your build. Essentially you are trying to achieve the right level of support so you don’t sink into the mattress too much and so that you don’t lie on top with a wonky spine.

If you don’t weigh much, a softer mattress is probably your best option. If you are above average weight then you will probably want something a little firmer. Another factor is your sleeping position. People who sleep on their sides need softer mattresses than people who sleep on their front or back. The idea is that you combine your weight and your sleeping position before choosing your firmness.

Researchers around the world have carried out their own studies into mattress firmness, although I wouldn’t say that a complete consensus has been reached.

Back in 2000, a study was published called ‘The influence of bed firmness on sleep quality’ (Bader and Engdal) which used subjective interviews and sleep recording technology to see how nine men slept on a ‘soft’ mattress and a ‘more firm’ mattress. The softer mattress was the winner, with twice as many sleeping ‘significantly better’ on the soft mattress than on the firmer mattress.

Nine years later, researchers in China compared soft, medium and firm mattresses in a study called ‘Quality of sleep, as influenced by mattresses with various degree of firmness’(Wang, Zhou et al, 2009). In this instance, it was the medium tension mattress which led to ‘better sleep’ including better ‘support of the buttocks, scapular and low back’ and less ‘body movement’. However, the study varied the types of mattresses used so it is harder to conclude whether it was the material or the firmness which led to the best result (or a bit of both).

One slight problem is that bed manufacturers have never quite decided what ‘soft’ or ‘medium’ actually means. One company’s soft mattress could be the same as another company’s firm mattress. Try out a few in a showroom to see which firmness is usually best for you or try a mattress with a risk free trial which allows you to return it if you don’t like it.

If you share a bed with someone twice your weight then you might consider a split tension bed which is medium on one side and firm on the other. You can buy it as two singles zipped together or as one mattress.

Decision 4: Divan or bedstead/bedframe

Once you’ve picked your mattress, you’ll need a base for it unless you want to chuck it on the floor and experience a glamping vibe all year round. 

Divan beds are generally cheaper and provide consistent support for the mattress which turns into consistent support for you. Posh divan beds have their own layer of springs. Most mattress shops sell divan beds but there’s a big range at AmazonDreamsDivan Base Direct and John Lewis & Partners

Most people prefer the look of bedsteads (also called bedframes). If you go down that route then make sure the gaps between the struts aren’t too big. Some companies suggest boarding over the whole base but others say it will stop the airflow. Again, bedsteads are widely sold but we’ve written guides to 5 of the best wooden beds5 of the best metal beds5 of the best leather beds and 5 of the best sleigh beds to get you started.

Happy Beds wooden bed
Wooden beds are a popular choice

Decision 5: Where to buy it from

Congratulations, you’ve made it – apart from actually buying the bed.

Buying online is generally cheaper, but it’s a real gamble to go just based on the description. It’s also difficult to try out a mattress in a shop and then sneak home to buy it online, since big bed retailers often have their own ‘exclusive’ versions from manufacturers.

Some higher end mattress makers offer a no-obligation trial (e.g. Tempur) as well as several mid-priced mattress makers (e.g. Nectar SleepOTTYSimba and others). Personally I’d be far too British to send back a bed unless it had fallen to pieces, but you may be slightly bolder than me.

If you want a mattress with a free trial, you might like to look at:

Nectar Sleep mattress closeup cover
The Nectar Sleep mattress is one of several which aren’t sold in shops but come with a trial period

Good luck and sleep well!