How to arrange pillows to sleep upright —and who should sleep in this position

Four white pillows stacked for sleeping upright on a bed
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We all have our preferred sleep position  - be lying on our side, back, or front stomach - but there is another way to sleep: sitting upright. While humans traditionally lie down when trying to catch some Zs, sitting upright can have its benefits.

If you're sleeping on the best mattress for your body yet certain health issues are still getting in the way of your sleep, then you may want o consider sleeping upright. But how exactly can you sleep upright and stay comfortable

This Sleep Awareness Week 2024, we'll discuss how to stack pillows to help you sleep upright and who this arrangement can benefit. We'll also show you what pillows can be used and how you can pick them.

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Who should sleep upright in bed?

While sleeping upright (also known as vertical sleeping) can have its advantages, it's not ideal for everyone. However, people with certain health conditions can benefit the most from resting in a semi-reclined position, which can alleviate particular symptoms. 

A woman with short blonde hair blows her nose in bed because she has a cold and a stuffy nose

(Image credit: Getty)

"Sleeping upright helps reduce snoring as your airways will be more open," explains Claire Davies, Sleep Editor and Certified Sleep Science Coach at Tom's Guide. "It can also help your nose drain effectively if you have post-nasal drip caused by a cold, the flu or a sinus infection."

Davies also recommends vertical sleeping to those with gut issues such as acid reflux: "Stomach acids will have a harder time flowing up the oesophagus in this position. Some people with back and neck pain may also feel more comfortable when sleeping upright, depending on where they are experiencing the most pain.” 

How to choose pillows for sleeping upright 

Vertical sleeping requires more pillows than sleeping in a reclining position - and you need to make sure these pillows are suitable for stacking. Some pillows might even be much different to the ones you are used to. "When choosing pillows for sleeping upright, we recommend picking larger (wider and with a higher loft) pillows that hold their shape well," advises Davies.

Another important thing she says to consider when picking pillows is material. While memory foam is an excellent choice for cushioning pressure relief, it does have a tendency to trap heat.

Sealy Adjustable Pillow

(Image credit: Sealy)

 “Medium-firm to firm memory foam pillows are an excellent choice as long as they are made with cooling gels or temperature-regulating covers to dissipate heat," says the sleep coach. "We also recommend natural latex pillows, which offer a great blend of firmness and cooling support."

She also recommends opting for an adjustable pillow, especially if you're unsure what pillow firmness to choose from. "These come with a bag of extra fill (for example, cross-cut memory foam) that you can add or remove from the pillow to change its height and make it softer or firmer,” she explains.

To provide extra support for the back or the neck, you also may want to include a travel pillow or cervical pillow and a bolster pillow.

How to arrange pillows to sleep upright in bed 

If you're going to stack pillows to help you sleep upright, it's a good idea to learn how to arrange them in the correct order for optimal comfort and support. Here's a step-by-step guide to stacking pillows for vertical sleeping: 

A woman with dark hair stacks pillows on a bed to sleep upright

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Place your sturdiest pillow on the bed first to form a supportive base. "This should be much larger and firmer than other pillows in your stack," Davies says. 

2. Next, start adding other pillows to your stack. "When adding extra pillows that become increasingly more contouring and softer," says the sleep coach. “Your pillow stack for sleeping upright should reflect the support and comfort layers in a mattress in that sense – firmer at the bottom, squishier at the top."

3. At the top, Davies says you'll need to add a pillow that supports your neck, which tends to bend over when sleeping upright: "If you have neck pain, consider buying a cervical pillow or even using a travel pillow to wrap around your neck and keep it in a comfortable position when you’re sleeping upright in bed.”

4. Once you've stacked the pillows, one on top of the other, you may find there's a slight gap between your lower back and pillow stack when sitting against it. To fill this gap, you can either fill it with a thin, squishy pillow or a small bolster pillow.

Frances Daniels
Sleep Staff Writer

Frances Daniels is a Sleep Staff Writer at Tom's Guide and her role includes covering all mattress and sleep news, in addition to mattress reviews and buyer's guides, plus sleep accessories such as pillows and mattress toppers. Frances is a PPA-accredited journalist and is hugely interested in the relationship between good sleep and overall health. When not writing about mattresses and sleep for Tom's Guide, Frances enjoys writing about women's issues, health and wellbeing, the environment, and her native Wales.