Firm vs Soft Mattress: What is the Difference?

There’s a major misconception that a firm mattress is more supportive than a soft mattress. The idea is that a firmer bed is better for keeping your spine aligned, whereas a soft mattress will sag and put pressure on your lower back.

That simply isn’t true, and we’d hate for that misconception to keep you from sleeping on a mattress that “feels” right to you.

A soft mattress can be supportive, keep your spine aligned, and reduce back pain (we cover how below).

But there are good reasons to choose a firm mattress over a soft one (and vice versa). We cover them below as well, explaining how your preferred sleeping position often decides your preferred comfort level.

Plus, we look at the 4 factors you should be considering when shopping for a new mattress (whether you decide on a firm bed or a soft one).

When possible, we recommend that you try your mattress in person before deciding on your next bed, but Slumberland's Sleep Solutions department makes mattress shopping online easier. With intuitive filtering, you can see all the mattresses that fit your specific criteria. It is also worth noting that by spending as little as 15 minutes on a mattress in our showroom, you will get a better idea of how it feels and how it will support you. Visit a Slumberland showroom today to test out your future mattress.

Sleeping Position and Comfort Levels

A mattress is made of support layers and comfort layers. The support layers provide you with back support. The comfort layers go over the support layers. Comfort layers are softer and help make the overall feel of the mattress. The more comfort layers you have, the softer your mattress.

And while a softer mattress doesn’t mean it’s less supportive, there is a relationship worth considering when picking your ideal firmness — your sleep position.

Side Sleepers Tend to Like a Softer Mattress

Side sleepers put a lot of pressure on their hips and shoulders when they sleep. They are the heaviest parts of your body and by sleeping on your side, your weight isn’t as evenly distributed as it would be if you were on your back.

So side sleepers usually find more comfort in a soft mattress, because a softer mattress will fill the space between your hips and shoulders. If you’re on a firmer mattress, it’s not going to fill the curves of your body as well.

Back (and Stomach) Sleepers Tend to Like a Firmer Mattress

When you sleep on your back, your weight is more evenly distributed, and the biggest curve is the small of your back.

So you don’t need that extra plushness of a soft mattress, but it also doesn’t necessarily hurt.

You just need to make sure that your hips (where we tend to weigh the most) aren’t sinking too low into the mattress. If your hips sink below your thighs, you’re going to put a lot of pressure on your lower back.

This pressure can lead to tossing and turning, along with lower back pain.

Stomach sleepers also like a firmer mattress so their hips don’t sink into the bed. But we want to point out that stomach sleeping is generally not recommended. When you sleep on your stomach, you’re going against the natural curve of your spine. If you can only get comfortable on your stomach now — and it’s not for a medical reason — that could be a sign that it’s time for a new mattress.

How to Know Your Perfect Comfort Level

It can be confusing (and frustrating) to find your perfect comfort level because the classifications change across mattress brands and all different types of mattresses.

For example, you may feel comfort in a memory foam mattress that’s labeled as a medium-firm mattress but then you try another brand’s medium-soft and it feels firmer. Plus, most brands have several different ways of classifying their comfort levels (from extra firm to ultra-plush).

To help you find the right comfort level each time, we created a universal rating system.

All of the mattresses in our Sleep Solutions department can be rated on our 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being the firmest.

This means you can compare hybrid mattresses, all-foam mattresses, and innerspring mattresses across all brands. Once you know which range of numbers you prefer, you can narrow down your search for the right mattress.

You can even do this in our online store. Say you want a softer mattress; you’ll look for a mattress with a rating of 3, 4, or 5.

Go to the Slumberland mattress page. In the left sidebar, you’ll see filters, select 3, 4, and 5. in the Feel section.

That brings up all of the mattresses we offer that are rated a 3, 4, or 5, i.e. our soft collection.

You’ll also see other ways to filter your results, including mattress type, back support, pressure relief, and cooling. That’s what we cover next.

What to Look for in Your Next Mattress

So if you prefer a soft mattress, get a soft one. If you like a firm one, get a firm one. If you’re not sure, think about how you sleep at night: on your side, back, or all over?

But no matter which feel rating you choose, make sure that your next mattress is comfortable and supportive, by looking at how they handle these 4 issues.

  1. Back Support
  2. Pressure Relief
  3. Motion Isolation
  4. Cooling

1. Back Support

A mattress that has back support helps support proper spinal alignment. This support comes from your mattress’s support layers. The support layers are directly below your comfort layers, and they can be made up of memory foam, poly-foam, coils, or a combination of all three.

Think of a mattress with back support as sitting on a chair that helps you keep better posture.

When it comes to figuring out what amount of back support to get, consider your body weight and any chronic back or neck issues. If you’re of a bigger build, have ongoing back issues, or live an active lifestyle that puts a lot of pressure on your back, then we recommend a mattress with more back support.

At Slumberland, we rate our mattresses on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the least amount of back support and 5 for the most back support possible.

As we talked about above, you can get a very soft mattress with a lot of back support.

It’s a 5 on the feel scale, meaning it’s as soft as it gets. But it’s also a 5 on the back support scale, meaning its support layers are very, very supportive. Plus, it has advanced pressure relief, which we cover next.

2. Pressure Relief

If you’ve ever slept on a surface that made you toss and turn because you felt pressure build up in your hips or shoulders, then you know what it’s like to have your pressure points aggravated by your bed.

Pressure relief can come from the support layers and the comfort layers of your mattress. For example, if you have high-density memory foam in your comfort layer, you’re going to feel the benefits of pressure relief.

At Slumberland, we have two ratings for pressure relief:

  • Moderate pressure relief
  • Advanced pressure relief
  • Generally speaking, the more pressure relief a mattress has the more conforming it feels. So if you don’t like that conforming, contouring feel that’s popular with memory foam mattresses, then you might want a mattress with moderate pressure relief.

    But if you want the most pressure relief possible, whether just out of personal preference, or you want your mattress to help you with serious chronic issues like fibromyalgia or sciatica, then look for the mattresses that are labeled “advanced pressure relief.”

    And while it may seem like you need a soft bed for advanced pressure relief, that’s not technically true.

    Let’s look at the Tempur-Pedic LuxeAdapt Firm, one of the best firm mattresses we offer.

    It’s a 2 on our firmness scale, which means it’s a firm mattress (perfect for back sleepers and stomach sleepers). It’s also a 5 on our back support scale, so it’s great at keeping your spine properly aligned.

    Finally, it offers advanced pressure relief. That’s because the TEMPUR-material adapts to your body, relieving pressure while still having a firm feel.

    3. Motion Isolation/Motion Transfer

    If you share your mattress with someone, you may feel them move throughout the night. This can be frustrating, especially if you’re a light sleeper.

    Feeling someone’s moments through the mattress is called motion transfer. The motion they’re making literally ripples over to your side of the bed. Not everybody is bothered by motion transfer, but for those that are, it’s a big deal.

    There’s no real relationship between a mattress’s comfort level and whether it helps with motion transfer or not. What matters is how it supports you and the materials it uses. If the mattress uses old, cheap coil technology (coils that are connected at the base by a continuous coil), then it’s going to have more bounce.

    On our showroom floor, you can easily see which mattresses help reduce motion transfer and those that don’t.

    4. Cooling

    Sleeping hot at night can keep you up, making you toss, turn, and fidget with your blankets.

    Sometimes people think a softer mattress will be hotter. This is because, in a soft mattress, you’re more “in” the mattress, i.e., your body sinks into the mattress a little more than it does with a firm mattress.

    People think of it as wearing a thick coat vs. a thin track jacket. One of those is definitely plusher and warmer than the other.

    But that analogy doesn’t work for mattresses. While you do sink into a softer mattress more than a firm one, it’s very easy to get cool-to-the-touch, soft mattresses.

    At Slumberland, we rate whether mattresses have no cooling features, moderated cooling features, or advanced cooling features. You can also read our article on how to sleep cool at night.

    Next Steps: Visit a Slumberland Sleep Solutions Department

    Hopefully we’ve shown you that neither a firm mattress or soft matteress are “more supportive” or “more comfortable.”

    You can get a comfortable, supportive, and pressure-relieving mattress, no matter its comfort level.

    But to help you figure out which mattress will help you get a good night’s sleep, we recommend you visit a Slumberland Sleep Solutions department in person.

    In our Sleep Solutions department, you can take our Rest Match test. Here you’ll try three different mattress types (memory foam, hybrid, and innerspring) so you can better gauge which is the best mattress type for you.

    You will also be able to try our 5 different firmness levels, on a scale from 1 to 5. That will tell you whether you prefer the feel of a very firm mattress, a very plush mattress, or something in between.

    By using this universal rating system, you can now compare different mattress brands, types, and firmnesses in a way that’s never been easier.

    Visit a Slumberland showroom to find your perfect mattress.