Bed buying guide
The right bed can go a long way towards helping you get a good night’s sleep.
There’s a lot to sleep on when choosing a new bed. Here’s what to consider when choosing a mattress and bed base.
Types of mattresses
There are several types of mattress. There’s no evidence that any one type is better than another, and one person’s comfort level is another’s recipe for a nightmare, so you need to find one that works for you.
With inner-spring mattresses, springs support your body and layers of padding provide the comfort. The number, shape and distribution of the springs, the number of turns, and the strength of wire in the springs all influence how much support the mattress gives and how long it will last. You can expect to replace an inner-spring mattress every 10-15 years.
Springs: mattresses may have individual springs housed in fabric pockets, a system of springs joined with crosswires, or a continuous coil woven out of a single length of wire. A layer of natural or synthetic fibre lies over the springs. It prevents you from feeling them and protects the comfort layers.
If you and your partner are very different weights or disturb each other while sleeping, look for a mattress with individual springs to reduce the ripple effect or any roll together. Another option is a mattress with 2 continuous coil units side by side, separated by a foam divider.
Some mattresses provide extra support along the sides of the bed, which may help them last longer. Some provide more support in “zones” where there’s likely to be more pressure, such as around your hips.
Padding/comfort layers: this is the layer between you and the springs. It determines how hard or firm the mattress feels against your body. Padding might be made up of polyester fibre, wool, polyurethane foam, viscoelastic or latex. Lower grades of foam break apart more easily and may lose their ability to spring back.
Pillow top: an extra layer of cushioning that moulds to the shape of your body.
Outer mattress cover: cheaper, less durable mattresses will probably have a flat cotton cover. More expensive mattresses tend to have a quilted damask cover. The quilting determines the feel of the surface. If the design is small and close the bed will feel firmer, while a larger pattern will feel more cushioned.
Covers on foam mattresses are often removable for washing. Some manufacturers claim its outer fabrics have properties that help disperse heat and moisture.
Looking after your inner-spring mattress: manufacturers recommend flipping and turning it regularly to prolong its life and flatten out indentations. However, many people will find it too much of a hassle or too heavy to lift. Single-sided mattresses don’t need flipping but should be turned head to foot several times a year. At the least, you should regularly air the mattress (at least weekly) and vacuum it from time to time. Use a mattress protector to keep it clean.
Tip: when flipping your mattress, don’t use the handles at the side to support its full weight – they may pull out. They’re intended for repositioning the mattress.
Futons are versatile. Some can be folded up for use as seating, then unfolded for a bed. The cheapest futons are filled with layers of cotton wadding and provide a relatively hard sleeping surface. Futons with alternating layers of wool, and possibly latex, provide more comfort.
You’ll need to keep the fillings well ventilated and fluffed up, and futons should be aired and turned weekly to avoid mildew.
Futons should only be used on a flat slat base of unvarnished wood (varnished slats don’t allow moisture to escape). You can expect to replace a futon every 5-8 years.
Memory foam mattresses
These mattresses are topped with a layer of temperature-sensitive viscoelastic material or memory foam. The most well-known is Tempur, a material originally developed by NASA.
As it’s a type of foam, you should sink into it and feel your weight absorbed. This takes pressure off your joints and increases circulation. It’s sensitive to heat and, because it moulds to your body, memory foam helps you “sleep warm”. The greater the foam density, the greater the durability. You can expect a good-quality memory foam mattress to last at least 15 years.
Latex foam mattresses
Natural latex mattresses use rubber, a renewable resource from plantations. Some brands also claim to be good for allergy sufferers as they harbour less dust than other mattress types and have been treated to inhibit the growth of bacteria, mould and dust mites.
Latex mattresses are heavy, but you don’t need to turn them. You can expect a latex foam mattress to last at least 15 years. Another option is a latex overlay, which can be used with a firm inner-spring mattress.
Packaged vacuum-sealed, bed-in-a-box mattresses are a convenient way to buy a mattress. When opened, the mattress expands into its full size.
Buying a base
What to consider when buying a bed base.
A platform base is a wooden box with a board across the top and an upholstered fabric outer. Platform bases from king size up are usually split in two so they can fit through doorways and up stairs. Some brands offer drawer bases, which provide handy extra storage.
Slat bases are easily dismantled and moved, allow maximum airflow around the mattress, and come in different styles to match your other bedroom furniture. They’re also durable – a slat base could last you a lifetime.
There are 2 types – fixed and flexible. Fixed slats attach straight to the frame and have no give. They’re the cheaper option and are fine for inner-spring mattresses and futons. Flexible slats are closer together to support the mattress.
They’re attached to the frame with pivoting holders and allow some give, so they’re more appropriate for latex and foam mattresses. Slats last longer if you shift the load-bearing slats to the head or foot from time to time.
Beds for kids
Trundle beds or bunks are space-saving options for children’s bedrooms. Whatever type of bed you choose, the mattress should always fit the frame so there aren’t spaces where a child’s arm, leg or head can become trapped. Be careful where you place the bed – don’t create a space between the bed and a wall that could trap a small child.
If you’re buying a bunk bed, consider the safety issues. Most bunk bed injuries happen when children fall from the top bunk. Children can also get stuck in gaps or get clothes caught on tall corner posts. Bunk beds aren’t recommended for children under nine years of age.
There is a standard for bunks: AS/NZS 4220:2010 Bunk Beds. It specifies safety requirements including material, construction, design and performance. If you’re building bunks, you should design and build them to the standard – you can buy a copy from Standards New Zealand.
A guard rail and fixed ladder are important safety features. There should be no sharp edges or protrusions, as they can catch clothing and create a strangling risk. Metal tubular bunks should have the tube ends plugged. The standard also sets out safe gaps in the structure. A bunk bed will have a recommended mattress size, and this is what you should buy. If you use a mattress that’s too deep, you’ll increase the risk of a child rolling off the top bunk.
You also need to ensure the bunk bed is in a safe position in the bedroom. Keep them away from other items of furniture that children may be tempted to try and climb on to, and away from windows. Allow a space of at least 2m from ceiling fittings, fans or lights, and make sure curtain and blind cords aren’t accessible to children from the bunk bed.
A trundle bed is a great option for sleepovers, but if the lower bed has a thin mattress it won’t give enough support to be a good long-term solution.
Tips for buying a bed
- Shop around! Mattresses are often on sale, or you may be able to negotiate a discount. Before hitting the shops, check company websites to narrow down your options.
- Be wary of retailers claiming to sell mattresses “exclusive” to its store. The same mattress may also be available in other stores but with a different name and outer fabric. From the outside, there’s no way to know if it’s the same mattress.
- Don’t get sucked in by sales jargon. Terms like “orthopaedic” are meaningless unless they come with accreditation from a proper medical association.
- Ask about trial periods. Some manufacturers and retailers provide a “comfort guarantee” and allow customers to exchange a mattress if it’s returned in its original condition. Terms and conditions vary between retailers – you’re usually given between 14 and 30 days to make up your mind.
Tips for trying out a bed
- Take off your shoes and get comfortable. Take your time and spend at least 15 minutes lying on it. Bring your partner if you share a bed.
- Make sure the base or frame in the shop is like the one you have at home. It can affect how soft or firm the mattress feels.
- Lie facing up and try to slide your hand under the small of your back. If it slides easily and your hips and shoulders feel uncomfortable, the mattress is too hard. If there’s no space between your back and the mattress, it’s too soft.
- Try rolling over. It will be an effort if the mattress is too soft and will be uncomfortable on your hips and shoulders if too firm.
- Check you can lie or sit near the edge of the bed without feeling like you’re going to roll off.
- Check the depth of the mattress so you know your sheets will fit.
Back problems? Consider these points
- You may have difficulty getting into and out of a bed that’s too low or too high. When you sit on the edge of a bed, your feet should reach the ground comfortably, and you shouldn’t need to use much effort to stand.
- If you’re prone to pressure pain from sitting or lying in the same position for too long, choose a mattress with soft padding but firm underlying support to allow you to roll over and sit up easily. An inner-spring mattress with a foam or latex overlay could be suitable.
- Although a firm bed can help alleviate lower back pain, a bed that’s too firm could aggravate some back conditions. Ask your doctor or back-care specialist for advice.
- Beds with names involving “paedic”, “physio”, “chiro” or “ortho” aren’t necessarily better for your back.
Asthma and allergies
Dust mites thrive in beds, where they feed on skin scales. It’s their faeces that trigger asthma. Here’s how to minimise exposure to dust mites.
- Vacuum your mattress regularly.
- Try a slat base. It will improve ventilation and provide fewer places for dust mites to accumulate.
- Buy allergen exclusion covers for your mattress, pillows, box base and duvet inner. They allow moisture to escape but keep mites and their debris in.
- Air blankets and duvets weekly – in direct sunlight is best.
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