Secrets of the mattress

What you should know about finding joy in bed.



From the May 2007 issue of the magazine.


Maybe it’s because we’re all working harder, or maybe it’s all that Tim Hortons coffee we’re downing, but suddenly getting a good night’s sleep appears to be an obsession across Canada. Walk into any good mattress store and you’ll see more models lined up in rows than anywhere outside the set of Deal or No Deal.

There are the classic innerspring versions, of course, which have cores of steel coils and cost you $500 and up. Then there are space-age foam mattresses that promise to mould to your precise body shape ($4,200 for the queen-size EuroBed model from Tempur-Pedic). Finally, there are the true luxe models, such as the $22,000 Hastens 2000T, stuffed with horse hair and so heavy that it requires four strong men to hoist the bed up a flight of stairs.

Which of these options is best? That’s where things get tricky. Picking out a mattress is a matter of taste — and just to make things complicated, there’s no guarantee that who you sleep with will share your taste in what you sleep on. Since a good mattress will last you eight to 10 years, it pays to devote several hours to trying out options. The best time to do so is on a weekday afternoon when showrooms are less crowded. Remove any heavy coats, shoes or sweaters before lying down. Most important, bring your partner with you to make sure you both get a comfortable fit. Then apply these tips:

Ignore brand names

Mattress shops brag about offering the lowest prices and will challenge you to compare deals. The truth is that they can do so with confidence because mattress makers have an annoying habit of renaming identical products for different retailers. This, of course, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for you to see how one store’s price stacks up against another’s. Maybe one chain’s Wot-A-Sleeper is identical to another chain’s ZZZZZ-King — but you never know for sure.

The one fact that you can take to the bank is that most innerspring mattresses have similar innards. The steel coils that give them their bounce nearly all come from a single company — Leggett & Platt Inc. of Carthage, Mo. “This is especially true in Canada,” says Margery Walker, executive director of American Innerspring Manufacturers, a trade group based in Memphis, Tenn., that represents both Canadian and North American manufacturers of innerspring mattresses. “About 90% of mattress coils are made by Leggett & Platt.”

Since most mattresses use identical coils, you might as well ignore brand names. They’re meaningless. And while we’re at it, so is most of the nattering about coil counts and wire gauges. The technical specs are designed to impress consumers with a mattress’s heavy-duty construction, but any mattress from a reputable manufacturer should give you at least a decade of good service. Far more important than a coil count is how the mattress feels to you.

Know your options

Unless you’re one of those poor souls who is still listening to the Bee Gees and yearning for a water bed, you have three choices when it comes to the type of mattress you’ll buy. The first is the classic innerspring design from makers such as Serta and Sealy. This design still makes up close to 85% of mattress sales and is usually the cheapest option.

A second choice is an air chamber mattress from makers such as Select Comfort. Instead of steel coils, these mattresses use internal air chambers to create firmness and bounce. Some models allow you to select a different firmness for each half of the bed through handheld remote control units. They’re very high tech and not a bad choice if you and your sleeping partner have radically different preferences when it comes to firmness.

Finally, there are memory foam mattresses from companies such as Tempur-Pedic. These use a space-age foam that’s supposed to conform to your body and minimize pressure points. In theory, this should reduce turning, but while some people find being swaddled in foam to be the ultimate in comfort, others find the sensation suffocating. “Always test a memory foam bed with your sleeping partner,” says Gary Baskerville, board member of the Sleep Council of Canada, a non-profit organization that represents mattress manufacturers and retailers. “Foams envelop the body and the feeling is truly unique. Test one for a longer period of time than you would an innerspring mattress before you make a final decision.”

Inflatable air mattresses and memory foam mattresses tend to cost far more than a basic innerspring mattress, but don’t assume that spending more guarantees you a better sleep or a more medically sound rest. Your best guide is your own comfort. “If you like a mattress, use it,” says Dr. Joseph De Koninck, professor of psychology and director of the sleep lab at the University of Ottawa. “As long as your bed is comfortable to you, that’s all that’s important.”

Be firm — but not too firm

If a mattress is too firm, it won’t evenly support all your body parts and may hurt your hips and shoulders. But if it’s too soft, you can sink into the mattress, which can cause tingling, numbness and body aches. A good way to judge firmness is to lie back and see if you can slide your hand through the small space between the mattress and the small of your back. If you can, the mattress is too firm. Look for something a little softer.

Ask about returns

The mattress that feels great in a store may be too firm or too soft when you try to sleep on it. To avoid problems, inquire about the store’s return policy. Most furniture stores offer a seven-day exchange policy, meaning you can exchange the mattress for another one in that period, but not necessarily get your money back. Most speciality mattress shops extend the return period to 30 or even 60 days. The longer the return period, the better for you. But ask about any extra fees — some retailers charge a pick-up fee if you choose to exercise the return option.


Mattresses have some of the largest markups in the furniture business, so bargain, bargain, bargain. I got the manager of a mattress shop in Toronto to reduce the price of a queen-sized Tempur-Pedic mattress from $4,500 to $2,800 simply by asking. In fact, the closer I moved to the exit door of the store, the lower the price dropped. Friends report similar experiences, so I urge you to drive the hardest deal you can. Never settle for the first offer. The worst that can happen is that you’ll have to go to the next mattress store down the block and try again.

To get the most out of any new mattress you buy, apply good sleep hygiene. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or vigorous exercise in the couple of hours before bed. As well, schedule a bit of relaxation time between the time you shut off the TV in the evenings and the time you jump into bed. “You really need a quiet transition period between your active day and the time you lie down in bed and shut off the lights — and you need to do this every night,” says Wendy Lee Caldwell, a sleep disorder specialist and psychotherapist in Ottawa. “So take a hot shower, have a cup of camomile tea, put on some soft music and maybe do a bit of journaling before retiring to bed. Good sleep habits are what really make a difference in the quality and quantity of your sleep.”

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