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Saturday, February 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Before you buy a mattress, get a firm grip on the basics — and lie down

Seattle Times staff reporter

Buying a mattress rivals few other purchases in stress and complexity. The horror stories — too soft, too firm and the Amazing Sinking Mattress — plus the dizzying array of choices make it hard to buck up and buy.

But if you arm yourself with a few basic mattress facts and spend more than a few minutes testing beds, the end result may be years of restful nights.

Before you start, here's what you should know ...

Mattress construction

There are two main types of mattresses, not including pricier specialty mattresses like Duxiana and Select Comfort.

The first type, the innerspring mattress — the traditional choice and usually the most affordable — is made of coils and layers of foam.

The second type, the all-foam mattress, is gaining in popularity despite the expense. Other specialties like air mattresses also are on the market.

Mattress resources


For more guidance on buying a mattress, see www.bettersleep.org or www.ebuyingguides.com/how/Mattressb_H.htm

Bedrooms & More: 300 N.E. 45th St., Seattle, 206-633-4494; www.bedroomsandmore.com

Macy's Furniture Gallery: 15340 N.E. 24th St., Redmond, 425-688-6850; www.macys.com. The Macy's home sale, including mattresses, runs through Feb. 20.

Seattle Mattress Co.: 5815 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle, 206-632-2240; www.seattlemattress.net

Select Comfort: www.selectcomfort.com

Tempur-Pedic: www.tempurpedic.com

Duxiana: www.dux.com

For an innerspring mattress, the coil count is an easy place to start, although that should not be your only consideration. Opinions vary, but mattress retailers generally agree that a queen-size mattress should have a coil count of 400 to 600, unless you are looking for a beginner mattress for a child or student, in which case the coil count can be lower.

"It's not all about the coil count, but that's just something to gauge when you're getting into a decent bed," said Jackie Cuddy, store manager at Wallingford's Bedrooms & More. "You need to see what kind of cushion layers you like and whether that feel is worth the money to you."

The strength of the coil, or its gauge, also affects how firm or soft a bed is, said Charlie Furukawa, mattress coordinator for Macy's furniture. A heavier coil is stiffer and results in a firmer bed, while a lighter gauge will feel softer.

For all-foam beds, know the difference between visco-elastic — or memory foam, which responds to body heat and is best known by the brand Tempur-Pedic — and latex, an all-natural rubber gaining popularity because it is naturally hypo-allergenic. Those foams also are available on innerspring mattresses.

Both types of foam will add significantly to cost, however, and all-foam mattresses can cost twice as much as a regular innerspring.

Shopping tips

But coils, foam and price aside, the most critical element in choosing a mattress is a sleep test, said Nancy Sharkey, executive director of the National Sleep Council, the consumer arm of the mattress industry trade association.

"What feels great to you could feel hard as a board to me," Sharkey said. "It's totally a question of personal preference."

Prepare yourself by shopping in comfy clothes and slip-off shoes, and take your partner along.

Cuddy recommends avoiding going to the extreme from your current bed, no matter how much you believe it's too soft or too firm. People often find they don't want such a dramatic change in their mattress once they sleep on it at home.

And, like most shopping experiences, it's better to go to a store you trust. Mattress comparison-shopping is tough because many manufacturers label the same models differently, depending on the retailer. Descriptions of beds and their firmness also vary.

Consumer Reports recommends shopping at mattress specialty stores, which tend to have better service. Look for a comfort guarantee, which can range from two weeks to several months to return or exchange a bed. Returns vary, so check on the various costs a return can incur.

If you're still determined to compare mattresses at different stores, the Sleep Council suggests trying to match the level of support and comfort as opposed to comparing brands. Ask a salesperson to see cutouts of the bed's guts so you can inspect the support system. Compare the stores' services, including whether they let you return the bed.

Mattress test

• Lie in your normal sleeping position for at least five minutes.

• Do the same on your stomach and back.

• Do you feel supported in your lower back?

• Are your shoulders and hips comfortable?

• For innerspring mattresses with regular foam, check to see whether the mattress bounces back right away. Visco-elastic foam mattresses will retain their shape longer, while latex foam will return to its original shape right away.

Do you need a new mattress?

The Better Sleep Council recommends buying a new mattress if:

• You regularly wake up stiff or achy.

• You sleep better elsewhere, such as at a hotel.

• Your mattress is visibly used, with lumps, exposed interior or sagging.

The guts

Support systems:

Coils: Look for a range of 400 to 600 for a queen-size innerspring bed. Coils include an hourglass shape, a continuous coil, the pocketed coil or specialized coils patented by a manufacturer. All provide good support, depending on your preference, according to Consumer Reports.

Visco-elastic or memory foam: Memory-foam mattresses recover from your shape slowly. The foam can be used for the entire bed, or layered with coils. The memory foam is recommended for those with neck, shoulder or hip problems, but since it retains heat, it feels warmer at night than regular foam.

Latex foam: This natural rubber foam is good for people with allergies and is used for the entire bed or as a foam layer with coils. It recovers quickly from your weight. Latex also is recommended for those who have neck, shoulder or hip problems.

Inflatable: Select Comfort is the best-known of these beds, which allow you to vary the firmness on each half of the bed.

Foam: Beds have gotten thicker, and more foam is filling out the layer above the coils. Foam can include visco-elastic, latex or regular polyurethane. Make sure the foam is fire-resistant.

Pillowtops: A pillowtop, which adds a visible soft foam layer to the top of a bed, is another way to customize your mattress. It's recommended for those who like softer beds.

Ticking: Mattress upholstery includes the sleek, shiny look of yore that generally shows up on cheaper mattresses and natural, cotton material on more expensive beds. A tight quilt pattern usually means the bed is firmer, while big diamonds result in a softer mattress.

Specialty mattresses

Tempur-Pedic: This is the best-known of the memory-foam mattresses, which are activated by heat and mold to your body. A queen-size mattress starts at $1,199.

Select Comfort: Support comes from air chambers, and each half of the bed can be adjusted for individual preferences on firmness. A basic Select Comfort queen mattress starts at $699.

Duxiana: This bed has a layered spring system with hundreds more coils than the average mattress. A queen mattress starts at $4,900.

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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