Mattresses, Beds, and How We Sleep

by Wesley Vaughn


Sealy Gel Memory Foam Mattress

Sealy Mattress and Box Spring


It is common knowledge that we need sleep, and that—for the most part—several factors determine whether and how we sleep. Among these factors are time of day, how tired we are, physical condition, medication, diet, amount of light, noise, vibration and motion, warmth and cold, pain and comfort.

Even knowing this much, it is easy for many people to take their beds and mattresses for granted. For example, I used the same steel framed bed from late pre-teen years through high school. It had a “sheet spring,”* and the mattress was only 3-4 inches thick. What was suitable for a runty fifth grader was not good for a late teen approaching 130 lbs. Oh yes, I slept. But I became tired during the day. I also thought that the “morning backache” was normal for everyone. When I got to college, I had a firmer bed. The morning backaches faded away. I didn’t make the connection then between the bed and how I felt, but now I do.

The point of this testimonial is that our beds, mattresses and bedding do make a difference in how we sleep, and how we sleep makes a difference throughout the day. A ton of research bears this out, even though an occasional article downplays the role of beds and mattresses in poor sleep (to be fair, the intent of a 2011 NY Times article was to not blame everything on the bed or mattress, but also consider sleep disorders).

The last three pairs of factors in the opening paragraph are all influenced by what we sleep on, under and in: our bed frame/foundation, mattress, pillows, covers & sheets and nightclothes. The mattress and bed support and cushion us.

When people used sleeping mats on the floor or a raised earthen platform, they had plenty of support. The mats were for cushioning, to reduce the pain of lying on a hard surface. With the introduction of couches and beds standing above the floor, the bed had to also provide support. Ultra firm support was supplied by a solid surface or a grate, so the role of early mattresses remained cushioning.

In the mid 1800’s coil springs were invented for wagon seats. These were modified for box springs and innerspring mattresses as Bonnell coils. Now a mattress both supported and cushioned the sleeper. Heavy springs were the norm, and innerspring mattresses provided firm support. Padding cushioned the user and evened out the impact of individual coils. From Bonnell coils, offset coils and continuous coils were developed.

In the mid 1960s memory foam was invented by NASA contractors for airplane and space ship seats. It was developed for commercial use, and Tempur-Pedic introduced the first memory foam mattress. Memory foam is more conforming than Bonnell, offset or continuous coils. It responds to the heat and weight of a sleeper’s body. If you push your hand into memory foam then lift it, an impression of your hand will show for several seconds. The comforming provides support for the body between the big parts such as hips and shoulders. This way it reduces pain from pressure points.

How can a mattress affect our sleep? It can be too firm or too soft. It can transfer motion from one person to another or dampen motion transfer. It can be noisy if coils or other components squeak. It can be too hot or not warm enough. The surface can be smooth and relaxing or rough. Some mattresses can emit unpleasant odors. Others may cause allergic reactions, contain irritants or harbor harmful microbes.

Support & cushioning- pain and comfort

How a mattress supports the sleeper determines how well you sleep and how you feel after getting up. The first mattresses were supported by the floor or by a solid bed, so the support was external. After the invention of the innerspring, the mattress itself provided support. Now there are several types of innersprings: Bonnell coils, offset coil, continuous coils, wrapped (pocket) coils, and dual coils. These different kinds of springs have been developed to tailor support for proper spinal posture, relief from pressure points, preventing motion transfer, and adjustment to different sleepers.

Bonnell coils are the least costly, but also the ones better suited for supporting heavy weight. However, they also transfer motion from one sleeper to another. This means that when one sleeper moves, the other can be disturbed.

Offset coils cost more to make than Bonnells, but they are about as supportive. However, motion transfer is lessened, making them better for couples. Continuous coils are somewhere between Bonnell and offset coils in support. Each of these three types has variations.

Wrapped or pocket coils, also called Marshall coils after their inventor, are more conforming than the previous types. This reduces pressure points and virtually eliminates motion transfer. However, since the coils do not support each other, as the previous kinds do, they are more subject to coil failure unless made of heavier gauge wire.

The last type, dual coils (also known as coil-in-coil design), is a development of pocket coils. Each pair of coils is wound from one piece of wire with a shorter coil inside a larger one. With a dual response, dual coils can cushion a light person and support a heavier one. This should make both members of a couple comfortable, even if they differ widely on size and weight.

Specialty sleep mattresses (those without an innerspring) have been gaining in popularity. There are three types: foams, waterbeds, and air beds and now gel. There are three basic kinds of foam mattresses: polyurethane, memory foam and latex. Polyurethane mattresses are usually made for institutions like college dormitories, such as those made by University Sleep Products.

Waterbeds use liquid-filled bags to support the sleeper. Water offers viscose support, meaning that the medium moves out of the way (is displaced) to make room for the supported weight. Waterbeds were popular for a while. A major advantage is that water provides even support for the whole body. However, as an adult sinks into the water, it becomes hard to move around or get out of bed. Also, when two people are using a waterbed at the same time, they tend to roll together, and one person’s motion moves the other.

Air beds use three or more air-filled chambers to support the sleeper. An advantage air has over water is that the level of support can be adjusted by changing the air pressure in the mattress. This is the concept used to promote Select Comfort beds, hence their brand name Sleep Number. Now even Tempur-Pedic, the original memory foam mattress maker, has an airbed. Modern air beds have two sets of air chambers with separate controls. Each sleeper in the bed can select his or her level of support.

Gel beds, with a gel-only top layer, are relatively new, and there are a few manufacturers, such as Technogel. Gel is described as supportive, cushioning, conforming, and cooling. Time and customer reviews will tell.

Foundations also affect sleep by how they support the mattress. A good box spring makes a firm Bonnell, offset or continuous coil innerspring mattress more responsive and cushioning. On the other hand, foam mattresses need more consistent support to keep from sagging. For them a solid platform or closely spaced slats are more suitable for supporting both the mattress and the sleepers. Therefore, it is important to have the right foundation for your mattress.

While the right kind of support is needed for a good night’s sleep, so is the right level of cushioning. Very few of us can sleep comfortably on a concrete floor with no padding. At the same time, too soft a sleeping surface makes many people uncomfortable. The right level of firmness is a Goldilocks preference. What’s just right for one person may be too hard for a second person, yet too soft for a third. Only by trying mattresses can you know which combination of support and cushioning is right for you.

Comfort layers began with fiber padding materials over the innerspring, such as cotton and wool. Modern padding fibers now include polyester. Then foams were used, such as foam rubber (latex), polyurethane and memory foam. Now comfort layers can include microcoils. Then there are hybrid mattresses, a combination of two kinds of mattress into one. Usually these are innerspring mattresses with a significant thickness of specialty material. However, it is not clear when a mattress becomes a “hybrid.” Some retailers and reviewers are trying to draw the line.


When Goldilocks sampled the three bears’ porridge, one bowl was too hot, one too cold, and one just right. So it is with sleeping. We sleep better if it is neither too warm nor too cool. The right temperature begins, of course, with the room temperature, and continues with the covers and nightclothes. But the mattress itself can influence our temperature, affecting the quality of our sleep. Memory foam introduced conformability, but it also absorbed and built up body heat, becoming too warm for many people. Innerspring mattresses are inherently cooler, since air can circulate through the mattress, even with fiber padding on top, but with the introduction of memory foam in the cushioning, they can get too warm for comfort.

Manufacturers are using various means to make memory foam cooler. These include open-cell structure, porosity, ventilation and gel-infusion. Now several mattress makers are using phase change materials to regulate temperature. These are added to cover materials and foams to keep temperatures within a desired range—not too hot, not too cold.

Allergies and Irritants

It can be hard to sleep well if we are allergic to the mattress or the bedding. Stuffy sinuses, runny noses, congestion, and itchy or burning skin can make us uncomfortable and restless. More serious allergies can interfere with body systems. Allergic reactions can be caused by laundry detergents and fabric softeners in pillowcases and sheets. Bedbugs, fleas, lice, dust mites and mosquitos can carry allergens. Some of us are also allergic to some materials used in mattresses. Outgassing from certain foams and adhesives can trigger allergies. Some fabrics and chemical fire retardants are irritants. Even if we are not allergic to released gasses, the odors can disturb us.


The texture of the sheets or the mattress cover may or may not keep you awake, but it is easier to sleep on a smooth surface.


One of the most recognized factors leading to sleeplessness or poor quality of sleep is noise. It is hard to sleep when there is too much noise, unless one is deaf. On the other hand, stone silence (negative noise) can keep some of us awake. We can control most of the unwanted sounds—even snoring—but what if your bed and/or mattress are making noise? Some innerspring mattresses and some beds squeak. Not loud, but when your ear is on the mattress it can be too much. And if you have an air bed or an adjustable base, pumps and motors are not totally soundless, but some are quieter than others. This is not a problem if you sleep alone, but what if this is a dual-control bed or base, and your partner makes an adjustment while you are asleep?

Preparing for Quality Sleep

We can prepare for quality sleep in the selection of our beds and mattresses. Read the reviews, including those on Visit several retailers and try their mattresses. If you get a good night’s sleep in a hotel or a friend or relative’s house, find out what the make and model are, including the comfort rating. Check out not only mattresses, but also foundations. Would an adjustable base work for you? How about a platform bed? Or European style wood slats?

Find out what bothers you, and screen the mattress and base for these. Do you have allergies? What is your sleeping position? Do you have back or hip problems? Take these into consideration. Hopefully, your choices will lead you to quality sleep.
* A sheet spring was a wire grid attached to the bed frame by coil springs at the ends or around the edge

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This entry was posted on Saturday, March 22nd, 2014 at 9:29 PM and is filed under adjustable beds, bedrooms, beds, coils, fabrics, foam, foundations, furniture, innerspring, mattress covers, mattresses, memory foam, News, sleep, springs, upholstery . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

31 thoughts on “Mattresses, Beds, and How We Sleep”

  1. Pingback: WIP | Beds Blog
  2. How would I know if my bed is toxic it doesn’t have a smell but every time i sleep in it i can’t sleep and my body ache about15 to30 minutes after laying in the bed

    1. Sherry,

      The body ache suggests a problem with support, which is the most common cause of aching. Is this ache in certain places, such as the back, the neck, hips, or shoulders? However, some chemicals may have that effect.

      What kind of mattress do you have? Is it all-foam, or an innerspring mattress, waterbed, or airbed? Any type of mattress can have support problems. A good innerspring can be spoiled by a lot of foam which does not hold up. Waterbeds and air beds have their own issues.

      What brand, collection/series and model is the mattress? Quality can vary widely by manufacturer or by model.

      Feel free to answer, and I can check out the mattress in question.


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