Soft Or Firm Mattresses: What Makes A Good Bed?

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The debate between soft versus firm mattresses has continued for decades, with benefits and drawbacks to both options continually presented. While some people prefer the stable support of harder, less forgiving mattresses, others choose softer and more lenient beds to spend their nights on. With the selection of mattresses increasing constantly, use this breakdown of mattress styles, functions and options to select which design and material is right for you.

Comfort vs. Support

One difficulty in the pursuit of the perfect mattress is the division between comfort and support. For years, hard mattresses have been recommended as essential for proper back support, and the only option for maintaining healthy spine alignment during sleep. Contrastingly, more and more mattresses are marketed purely for comfort, claiming to mimic the softness of sleeping on a cloud. While sleeping comfortably is an obvious aspiration for most people shopping for a new bed, an aching back lacking adequate support clearly presents an obstacle to a good night's sleep as well.

Innerspring Mattresses

The most common form of mattress available, the innerspring, uses a layer of metal springs, covered by a small layer of fabric. The springs are designed to support the weight of your body, while sinking just enough to feel comfortable. Depending on the gauge of the coil, spring mattresses can range from firm to moderate support, and then eventually reach soft with age and wear. Innerspring mattresses typically range in price from $200 to $500.

Within the spring layer, one of four types of coils may be used:

  • Continuous Coil: Each row of interior springs is made up of one continuous spring. The use of one spring as opposed to many is thought to increase the strength of the coil, providing stronger support, and extending the life of the spring's original resistance.
  • Open Coil: The oldest style of spring mattress, open coil springs form the shape of an hourglass, and are bound to each other by a series of smaller wire spirals. While open coil springs initially provide adequate support, they tend to lose their resistance relatively quickly.
  • Offset Coil: An adaptation of the open coil, offset coil springs form a square head rather than circular. This design change is thought to increase the mattress's ability to conform to the weight of a person's body. Offset coils are also connected to each other within the mattress by a series of smaller wire coils.
  • Individually Wrapped Coils: Rather than using a chamber of coils spanning the entire interior of the mattress, this style uses individually wrapped coils, each enclosed in a fabric pocket. The separation rather than connection of coils attempts to reduce the transfer of motion from one coil to another, stabilizing the mattress's surface. 
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Rising in popularity, the foam mattress has become increasingly available from many brands. Rather than using a series of metal springs for support, this system utilizes a thick foam core. Two variations, latex and memory foam, offer several benefits and drawbacks to spring coil systems.

  • Latex and memory foam, depending on the quality and style, range from extra soft to very resilient, and can provide as much or more support as a coil spring mattress.
  • Foam is temperature sensitive. This means foam mattresses in very cold rooms respond slower to the weight of your body.
  • Memory foam is very responsive to body weight and heat, adjusting further than latex to the contour of your body. However, this also means memory foam can retain more heat than other mattresses, potentially creating an uncomfortable sleeping environment. 


If the traditional support of firm springs and the body hugging comfort of foam both interest you, hybrid mattresses attempt to offer the best of both worlds. Using a layer of latex or memory foam in place of the purely fabric layer on top of a spring mattress provides consumers with the option to select varying coil retention and foam support levels in one bed. Hybrid mattresses typically range in price from $300 to $2500. 

Adjustable Firmness

Select mattresses offer the unique ability to adjust their firmness through air chambers. Controlled by a remote, consumers can increase or decrease the firmness of their mattress at will. Adjustable firmness mattresses usually range in price from $1,000 to $3,500.

  • Companies like Sleep Number even offer mattresses that can be adjusted separately on both sides of the bed, further increasing the firmness customization.
  • Some styles also offer a foam layer on top.
  • Though typically more expensive than other styles of mattress, this option is best for anyone with complicated support needs, or couples with varying desired comfort levels. 

Though the selection can feel overwhelming, deciding between coils, foam, air or a hybrid is key to finding the perfect mattress for you. Try testing different models in store, and experiment with varying support and comfort levels between materials. 

Last Updated: July 21, 2011
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About Alexandra Kerr Through Ideal Home Garden, Alexandra covers topics ranging from interior design to home improvement, gardening and cuisine. Having a passion for cooking and entertaining in her own life, she hopes to communicate her love of home design and decorating with her readers. 

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