What is a memory foam mattress? Expert advice on the the right choice

They're one of the most popular choices out there, but what is a memory foam mattress? We asked experts to explain what they are and who they suit.

A mattress in a modern bedroom, illustrating what is a memory foam mattress
(Image credit: Emma )

The comfort and support of memory foam mattresses provide have won them many fans. While the innerspring mattress remains the number one choice for Americans, memory foam is rapidly growing in popularity.

Today, its ability to mold to body shape for optimal support and slowly spring back when pressure is removed makes it a top option as a mattress material. 

Compared to spring mattresses, memory foam designs might seem like a relatively new innovation. However, the material from which they’re made has a longer history. Memory foam was developed by NASA in the 1960s to absorb shock and therefore improve protection in its airplane seats. 

These days, the best memory foam mattresses suit back, side and front sleepers. They offer a host of other benefits, too, and we’ve put together all you need to know about them.

What is a memory foam mattress?

Leesa memory foam mattress

(Image credit: Leesa)

A memory foam mattress is made from polyurethane. You might also find it called viscoelastic foam. However it’s labelled, in terms of mattress firmness, it makes for a mattress that feels soft, yet one that provides excellent support at the same time – a blend of qualities that accounts for its popularity. The reason memory foam is supportive and comfortable? It adapts to your body shape as you lie in bed, responding to both the heat of your body as well as its pressure. It's this contouring ability that plays a major part in creating a peaceful night's sleep.  

‘The memory foam mattress can disperse your weight evenly across the bed, which helps reduce pressure points,’ explains Dr Allen Conrad of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center. ‘When you put additional pressure on one part of your back, it leads to pain and spasm when you awake. A memory form mattress helps contour to the normal curvature of your spine, which reduces any specific pressure point discomfort that a traditional spring mattress may cause. Many people with a history of sciatica, for example, find that sleeping on a memory foam mattress is much more comfortable due to the soft yet supportive material used.’

One thing that’s important to note is that just as with other mattress types, memory foam designs come in different firmnesses, so you’ll need to look out for this rating when you’re buying to complement your build and your personal preference. 

a headshot of Dr Allen Conrad
Dr. Allen Conrad

Dr. Allen Conrad is specialist in chiropractic care for back and neck pain. He attended Millersville University and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree (B.S.) with a minor in Chemistry in 1996. He then attended Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, where he received his Doctor of Chiropractic Degree (D.C.).

What are the benefits of a memory foam mattress?

A memory foam mattress has a lot of positives that might tempt you to invest. The biggest reason to choose one is the level of support it offers, because the foam adapts to individual body shape. This matters because it keeps your spine in the proper – so-called neutral – alignment, following its natural curves and avoiding unnecessary pressure that might cause or exacerbate back pain. The foam’s properties also mean it regains its shape when you move into a different position. 

‘When a memory foam mattress adapts to your body’s shape, it will fill in the gaps between your body and the mattress which will relieve pressure and give targeted support to the areas that need it,’ explains Dr Matthew Cavanaugh of Cavanaugh Chiropractic. ‘This conforming of the mattress to your body’s unique shape will help evenly distribute weight across your body’s surface which will decrease pain and stresses placed on muscles, joints, and pressure points that are commonly found in your hips and shoulders.’

A headshot of Matthew Cavanaugh
Dr Matthew Cavanaugh, DC

 Dr Matthew Cavanaugh, DC is the founder of Cavanaugh Chiropractic Clinic and specializes in treating conditions associated with the neuromusculoskeletal system.

The feel of a memory foam mattress can also be super appealing. While it offers support because of the way it contours to your body, a mattress made from memory foam feels soft, which spells both comfort and luxury if that’s your personal preference. It’s sink gently in rather than lie on top if you opt for memory foam.

Memory foam mattresses also offer good support in the areas of the body it’s particularly needed, which vary depending on your preferred sleeping position. They are used in hospital settings for just this reason, but it’s a benefit at home, too, distributing your weight and helping to prevent aches and pains as well as improve sleep quality.

If you’re disturbed at night by a partner who tosses and turns, a memory foam mattress could also prove an excellent bet. Since the mattress contours to each sleeper, it avoids the movement transfer that means your bedfellow’s bad night becomes yours, too. If you’re easily disturbed, bear in mind that a memory foam mattress also means there is no possibility of creaky springs waking you in the night.

Are memory foam mattresses good for back pain?

Best memory foam mattress on bed frame lifestyle image

(Image credit: Zinus )

If you suffer from back pain, a memory foam mattress could prove a great choice. The reason? Memory foam can maintain your spine in the correct alignment as well as relieving pressure. 

‘Memory foam mattresses are a great option for people who suffer from back pain,’ explains Dr Cavanaugh. ‘They are designed to provide customized support to the sleeper’s body by contouring to their shape, size, and weight. This helps to maintain a neutral alignment of the spine which will decrease aches and pains you may experience when you do not get proper support.’

What sleep positions do memory foam mattresses suit best?

Whether your preferred sleep position is on your side, your back, or your front, a memory foam mattress can be a sound choice – but it can prove optimal for the former. ‘Memory foam one of the best mattresses for side sleepers, but almost anyone will find a memory foam bed comfortable,’ says Dr Allen Conrad. ‘As you lay on your side while sleeping, the foam will contour to the normal curvature of your spine. This forms a firm yet comfortable layer of back support, which helps you wake up feeling refreshed.’

For back sleepers, memory foam allows the neutral spine alignment that’s important to swerve back pain. If you sleep on your stomach, it can also prove a sensible option because of the support it provides for the middle of your body – an important factor in keeping your spine aligned in this sleeping position. But be aware this isn’t the sleep position experts advise, especially for some people. 

Best memory foam mattress on bed frame lifestyle image

(Image credit: Leesa )

‘In general, sleeping on your stomach is not recommended for those with degenerative arthritis or sciatica,’ says Dr Conrad. ‘Laying face down will cause increased pressure in your intervertebral discs, which can cause back spasm or nerve irritation. Side laying or laying on your back with memory foam offers the best combination of comfort and support for someone who suffers from lumbar arthritis.’

Move between positions through the night? Memory foam may not be the best pick for your sleep habits since changing positions on your sink-in mattress is a little harder work.

The best memory foam mattress

Memory foam mattress FAQs

How much does a memory foam mattress cost?

As with any type of mattress, price will vary on size and quality. You pick up a really cheap model for under $200 but our best reviewed memory foam mattresses tend to start from the $500 mark and go up to $1500.

How long does a memory foam mattress last?

A good quality memory foam mattresses is one of the most long lasting mattresses you can buy. Unlike a sprung mattresses there's less risk of sagging and lumps and bumps forming and if you care for them they will last up to ten years (some even beyond).

While there are plenty of benefits to memory foam, it's far from the only mattress material. For more eco-friendly, luxury mattresses, it's well worth checking out the best latex mattresses. For more general inspiration, there's always our tests of the best mattresses

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.