Mattress Matters— Part 4: Say Yes to the Rest: Mattress Search Uncovers Hard Truths in Squishy Business

She arrived at my door full of hope, promise and foam-wrapped innersprings, the mattress I’d been dreaming of; the same model I’d slept on for two nights in a Chicago hotel, where I woke up feeling like a teenager again, with a back that moved like a Slinky, for the first time in years.

The hotel’s mattress, a “Sealy Posturepedic Plush Euro Pillowtop,” custom-labeled for the hotel, made my old, and I mean old, “Sears-O-Pedic Solace Pillowtop,” which I’d been fitfully sleeping on at home, suddenly feel like a large hay bale.

Until this awakening, achieved in sleep, I’d given my mattress about as much thought as I give the air. It was just always there. “I have to have this mattress,” I told my husband when I came home from my business trip. Like most husbands, DC generally supports anything that makes his wife happy in the bedroom.

So, based on two brief nights, I made a life-changing decision. I ordered the non-returnable mattress through the Fairmont Home Store. (Fairmont is one of many hotels meeting a market need for guests who want to recreate their hotel-bed experience. Apparently, this isn’t just me.)

The mattress would take six-to-eight weeks to arrive. Meanwhile, I fretted. What if I was just dreaming? What if I was just wasting money? How much does a mattress really matter, anyway? At my core, I am cheap and skeptical.

I mean, let’s be realistic. My stiff morning back didn’t happen overnight. The fact that my lumbar vertebrae resembles a five-car pile-up was years in the making, the result of an occupation that requires sitting, of decades of running on pavement (which I’ve given up), and of (cough) getting older. So, I certainly couldn’t expect it to go away overnight. Could I?

While I waited, I decided to take a deep journalistic dive under the covers of the mysterious mattress business, and — as those of you who’ve been following this column the past few weeks know — reveal my findings.

In the discovery process, I’ve spoken to representatives from TempurSealy, the world’s leading mattress manufacturer; from the Better Sleep Council, the education arm of the International Sleep Products Association; from GoodBed.com, a mattress matchmaking and clearinghouse; and to an orthopedic spine surgeon. I read current consumer-trend data, and the few published studies on the subject. All because buying a mattress is a big, expensive, back-making-or-breaking decision.

Then, I took the ultimate test. I feel asleep on the job.

Now, before I tell you how my experience worked out, and to manage your expectations, I offer this disclaimer: The first night buyers spend on their new mattress is typically not their best, experts say. “The real benefits surface in three to four weeks,” said Goodbed.com founder Mike Magnuson. “That’s when people really start to love their new mattress.”

I’m two nights in, and these are my findings: Turning over is a lot less challenging. I used to need two arms and a crane to go from back to side because my old mattress was so soft. Now I flip like a politician. Overall, I toss less, which means I’m sleeping better. And I wake up feeling less stiff, about 50 percent less stiff than before. While I don’t feel 20 years younger, I do feel 10 years younger. And I’ll take it. Moreover, if the experts are right, the best is yet to come.

So, my friends, after mulling these mattress matters and factoring in my own findings, here, to echo Oprah, are eight things I know for sure:

Mattresses are not one size fits all. What works for me may not work for you.

The mattress industry is a squishy business. It’s based on a little science and a lot of marketing. But with some effort consumers can crack it and find a good mattress fit.

A new or different mattress can bring relief to an aching back. While a mattress will neither cause nor cure an anatomical back problem, for many who routinely wake up with garden-variety, low-back stiffness, a better mattress can help. Conversely, sleeping on an old mattress, or one that isn’t a good fit, can make a back feel sore.

Almost any new mattress is better than any old mattress. “One reason hotel mattresses feel so great is because they’re replaced frequently,” said Mary Helen Rogers, of the Better Sleep Council, “so you never have a worn-out mattress.” Experts recommend replacing mattresses every eight to 10 years. (To find out how old your mattress is, check that flimsy tag that can only be removed by the consumer.)

The two must-haves in a mattress are spinal alignment and pressure relief. A mid-priced mattress will get you that. Everything, beyond those basics, is frosting.

Firm is relative. The mattress industry has no standard firmness scale. Most people want “supportive comfort” and “medium firm,” but medium firm to you may not feel like that to me.

Sleep on it. You cannot know how a mattress is going to work for you by lying on it for five minutes in a showroom. Sorry. Ideally, you “get lucky” in a hotel or while staying at a friend’s. If you spend the night away and wake up feeling better than you do at home, look at the mattress label, take a picture and track it down.

Read the return policy carefully. Thanks to the growth of online mattress companies, which offer gracious return policies, more brick-and-mortar stores are starting to offer trial periods, too. But read the return policy closely to find out if the seller will refund or replace the mattress, under what circumstances, and whether they charge restocking fees. Sleep well.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go and the forthcoming Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One (Sterling Publishing, Dec. 2019). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.

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