Karin Mahoney on buying the right mattress | Home Front

Feb 23, 2012

Karin Mahoney, the director of communications for the International Sleep Products Association and Better Sleep Council, joins Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza on the weekly Home Front chat. Together, they give advice about how to pick the right mattress.

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A mattress is a very important part of decor. We've got a great expert with us today, Karin Mahoney from the International Sleep Products Association. So send your questions on. And read my Handy Guide on buying mattresses in today's Local Living. A recent survey rated sleep-deprived jobs - lawyers and computer programmers are among the ones who get the least sleep. Hairstylists and teachers get the most. What do you think?

Happy to be here with you today. Let's talk mattresses!

How much better for good nights' rest are mattresses costing over $1,000? I've set this price limit. Am I being foolish?

With mattresses, the old adage, you get what you pay for, holds true. The general rule of thumb is to buy the best you can afford. By no means am I saying that you should go out and remortgage your home to buy a new mattress, but you should definitely invest in your rest. You spend over 1/3 of your life in bed, so take the time to buy the mattress of your dreams. 

Where do you recommend buying a mattress that is not reconditioned and/or ridden with bedbugs? How does the average consumer protect themself?

ALWAYS buy from a reputable store or retailer. Don't buy from a second-hand store or thrift store. Depending on your state, this process may be regulated, and beds are required to be labeled. Bottom line, ask the retailer. There is a wide range of affordable, quality beds out there so you should be able to find a bed that fits your price range, and is bed-bug/refurbished free.

Hello! My master bedroom was featured in House Calls last year, and we really appreciated the design. We've been slowly implementing things and now have Valspar's "Peaceful Slumber" on the walls and a full set of actual wood furniture! The difficulty comes when it's delivered and, although it's gorgeous, is bit more cherry than the anticipated brown-hue. I'm trying to come up with good colors for new drapes and possibly new bedding. The current bedding is cream with a pattern in gold threads and it doesn't seem to play up the furniture as much as I'd like. Do you have any suggestions? Cream is probably the safest bet, but it would be kind of fun to have some actual color... I've had a suggestion for tangerine!

Hi there! I think your instincts are right on, color is fun. If you have all wood furniture and "Peaceful Slumber" on the walls (which is a soft blue, right?) then adding some color could be a nice touch, although I'm not sure tangerine is the one. Question for you: How much of the designer's House Calls suggestions have you followed? If it's a good amount, we'd love to consider a follow-up. E-mail me at buergerm (AT) washpost.com.

My elderly father's health issues have kept him in bed most of the time. His skin has thinned and sometimes cracks, bed sores are a problem. He is partially paralysized. Would a temperpetic mattress be worth the expense or would a type of sheet help? He also uses Oxygen, should I get an adjustable bed? Could a mattress change the quality of his life?

My Mom is actually paralyzed as well, and based on what her doctors said, an adjustable mattress is probably your father's best bet. And yes, a quality mattress could very well help your father live a more comfortable, restful life. I would talk to your father's physician and see if they have a suggested bed, but a safe bet would be something that can adjust levels to relieve any pressure and prevent bed sores.

I can't be here for the discussion -- dental work. Looking forward to reading about buying the right mattress, as I'm redoing my entire master bedroom. I'd planned on a gray-blue color on the walls and ceiling (I hate white ceilings), but have fallen deeply in love with Galapagos Turquoise by Benjamin Moore. My bedroom has one window facing east and a outer door facing south, and I like keeping it dark. However, GT is really intense. Should I just make it an accent wall (I know you hate those, Jura) ; if so, what other lighter color would go well with it. Or should I just be brave and paint the entire room GT? Thanks so much!

If you really love that color, I might mix some white paint in it to get a less intense color. Yes, I it's true I'm not a fan of accent walls. But I also feel that you should do what makes you happy!

A quick note on an item from last week about trash picking around colleges on move-out day... a GREAT idea, BUT... when I was helping my son move we left an orderly pile of his belongings for just enough time to get a moving cart for transfer to the car. Alas, when we returned some of the items had been "retrieved" by someone else! I live by the mantra Reduce-Reuse-Recycle, but one has to temper one's eagerness for free stuff!

Yikes! The stuff must have been pretty great for someone to move it all so quickly. I hope there wasn't anything too expensive or sentimental in the pile.

My husband and I are unable to both sleep well on the same bed. We have very different preferences of firmness/softness in a mattress. We have added mattress pads on one side of the bed, but it doesn't help much. Should we save up to buy an expensive sleep number bed or do you have any other suggestions for us to try? Thanks!

Ahhh, the couple's dilemma. :) Another solution would be to buy two twin XL beds and put them together with a seamless mattress joiner/bed doubling system. That way you can have the preferred softness/firmness on each side, and still have the intimacy of sleeping in the same bed. 

My mattress is 14 years old. It seems plenty comfortable to me (still) but I'm wondering if I should turn it into the guest bed and buy a new one for myself? Is that fair to guests?

What a really fabulous question. Obviously, you want to be a gracious host and give your guests comfortable accommodations. Of course, you are giving them a real bed, which is a lot better than a sofa bed. Since you sleep in your house every night, I would say it would be okay to get yourself a new mattress and give the older one to your guests, especially as you say it's still comfortable. If only one person sleeps on a mattress, it generally gets less wear and tear than if a couple does. I'll tell you my guest room mattress story. About 7 years ago, we decided to replace the guest bed mattress, which was given to us by friends who had moved probably 15 years before that. It's a double because that is the only size that room will hold. Because the mattress in there was so soft, we chose what turned out to be a too-firm mattress. Now we call it the Crippler. If you love a hard mattress it's fine, but for most people it's a bit too firm. A new guest bed mattress is on my home improvement list. But before that, I would want to replace my own 8-year-old queen mattress. Choices.

Having just gone through the mattress buying experience, I can safely say the only ting that rivals it is buying a used car. You don't really know if you are going to like it, but you are stuck with it for years anyway.

This is hysterical. Someone in my office bought a mattress last weekend and likened the experience to shopping for a car too.

Don't ask how old the mattress is, please. When should a mattress be replaced? We need to buy the whole house, 3 beds. Can we get a huge discount on a bulk purchase? Thank you from the family who sleeps on lousy mattresses and don't know it. I am to the point of going to our favorite hotel and buying their mattresses (new) because at least I know I can sleep on their mattresses. Can people buy mattresses that the hotel chains buy from manufacturers?

Based on research from Oklahoma State University, the Better Sleep Council suggests that you consider replacing your mattress every 7 years or so--or sooner if you're waking up with aches and pains. And yes, almost all hotels are partnering with mattress manufacturers, so if you slept great at a hotel and loved the bed, you're just a few clicks away from finding the mattress of your dreams!

My mattress is 16 years old. It is comfortable and I have no complaints. Should I be looking for a new one?

If you're sleeping through the night, getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep and not waking up with aches, pains or stiffness, keep the mattress and get your Zzzzs! 

Hi. When my son transitioned from a crib to a toddler bed, we kept the same mattress. But now we're struggling with a comforter my husband and I dislike. But looking for a replacement is difficult because technically it's still "crib-sized" which means lots of prints...which is exactly what we don't want. Any suggestions on where to get a solid crib comforter? Thanks!

Not sure what colors you're looking for, but Sears has a solid toddler comforter (see it here). You could also try Ikea and other department stores like Macy's. Company Kids might also be a good place to try. Try also doing an Internet search for "solid toddler comforter."  If you don't find one you like, you could always go with a heavy solid blanket instead.

Thank you for this excellent article. It would be very helpful to follow up with a piece on decorating / designing homes for adults with disabilities, which is important for those with specific disabilities and everyone as we age. Great job.

That's a great idea. Thanks for writing. And thanks for the nice comment about the story. I'm glad you liked it.

I've had mattresses before where the springs tore through the mattress cover and scratched the floor. Is that normal wear and tear or is that a defect? Thanks!

How old is the mattress? The warranty is there to protect you against product defect--things like springs popping through, ticking coming apart, etc. I would check with the manufacturer and see if this qualifies as a defect and see if you can get a replacement.

Ugh. Jura, per your question on Twitter. I have two queen-size mattress/box spring sets in my house. One was originally purchased in 1984 when I bought my bed; the other was purchased in 1999 when I bought my guest bed. I know I need to replace them, but I'm intimidated and don't want to spend $5,000 to get quality. Thanks.

Funny you mention cats  and mattresses. My cat is the one who spends the most time sleeping on our queen size mattress! I find it's a good idea to keep a file called MATTRESS where you put receipts of your mattress purchases. Then you can keep track of how old they are and what brand, if you particularly like them. Or write the date you bought the mattress on the label. You don't need to spend $5000 I think for $1000 to $2000 you could do quite well. If the large mattress chains scare you, there are also small retail furniture  companies such as Crate & Barrel, Room & Board and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams which have all done research to create their own private label mattresses. It's a narrow selection, but could make the choice easier for some.

We are building a weekend cabin in West Virginia. Two of the three bedrooms are very small and will probably have two twin beds in each. What should I consider when buying mattresses for these rooms? They will not be used every day and we want them to last a long time and also be comfortable as a guest bed for many people. Any advice to keeping them fresh between usage?

The first line of defense at keeping your mattresses fresh and extending their life is to protect it with a mattress pad or cover. Another thing to note--for your taller guests, you might consider getting a twin XL, to give those long-legged friends some extra space to stretch out and not have their feet hang over the edge. :)

Do you recommend a special mattress for very obese people? If so, what? Are there any that should be avoided? Thanks!

There are some companies out there that make mattresses with heavier gauge springs, meant for larger people. A quick Google search will bring up a few options. In general, look for a mattress that has reinforced siding and contact the manufacturer for their product recommendations.

Oh, boy, is this a timely topic. Every morning for years now, I awaken with an aching back. I have tried memory foam mattresses, innersprings of varying hardnesses, egg crate toppers, and more. Right now I am sleeping on a memory foam with a featherbed topper and it is okay, but I still have middle back pain that causes me to have to get up earlier than I would like. Body pillows and wedges can help, but they result in a tangled mess that awakens me throughout to night to fix. The pain subsides once I am out of bed and I can continue normal activities until it starts over again the next night. Could the right mattress help me? I have heard good things about the sleep number beds, but they are pretty spendy for not knowing if it's going to help. I don't even know where else I might be able to get help - a back specialist? a chiropractor? a physical therapist? This is seriously impairing my quality of life. Thanks for any advice.

I feel your pain. The right mattress can be the difference between sleeping through the night, or waking up with aches and pains. Have you slept at a hotel or friend's house and woke up thinking, "Wow! I slept great," or pain-free? If so, use that as your starting point. Also, it's a good idea to ask your physician or chiropractor if they have any suggestions and make sure that your pain isn't caused by some underlying medical condition.

Hi there, I have a kitchen, dining room and family room all open to one another. My floors are fairly dark wood, cabinets and a built-in are white and countertops are green tiger granite. I'm thinking grey for the wall color. Do you think that would work? If so, any grey suggestions?

Really difficult to say without seeing the spaces and what else you have in all the rooms. That said, gray is a fairly neutral color, so if you think it will work and you like it, test out some big swatches on the wall and decide after a few days.  Here are a few nice grays to get your paint search started: Wedgewood Gray and Harbor Gray and Horizon from BM. 

My husband jokingly stands on our mattress from time to time. I told him that it could weaken the mattress but he does not believe me. He weighs about 175 lbs and is of average build. It seems obvious to me that having his weight distributed on two feet on the mattress (instead over a larger space, like when someone lays down) is damaging. However, I couldn't convince him. Who is right?

I know maybe I should not ask, but why does he do this? I assume he isn't standing there for long... but is he jumping on it too? It's probably not a good thing but if he does this like twice a year, no worries.

Please consider natural latex matresses. They are expensive but oh so worth it. In Europe you can buy the latex only cut to the size required without all the frills and it gives you the best sleep ever.

Thanks for sharing this.

What is going on with mattresses?! I have purchased 2 complete sets with in the past year spent close to 3,000 and am still not able to get a good nights sleep. I hate the slew of mattresses that are out now. Where can i find a good old-fashioned mattress that you flip over. I need a good mattress and I'm starting to thik I'm going to have to put out more money and buy one of the sleep-matic adjustable beds. I need a firm mattreess that stays firm, even after sleeping on it for 6 months. Karin do you have any suggestions? Signed, The Princess and the pea.

Pillowtop/one-sided mattresses are the most common out there right now, that's for sure. The reason one-sided mattresses are so common is due to consumer demand. People were frustrated with having to flip and rotate their bed, so manufacturers came up with the one-sided mattress that all you have to do is rotate. That said, there are two-sided, "flippable" mattresses out there, but it just takes some digging. Another option would be to get a one-sided mattress, but with a firm/medium firm topper. You might also consider trying an adjustable or foam bed too as they offer a wide variety of choices that fit your criteria. Good luck, Princess! I hope you're able to get a great night's rest sooner than later!

Hoping I can ask an organizing question! I was wondering how ladies organize and keep their makeup? I'm struggling with this not taking over my entire dresser top! Any advice would be much appreciated, especially for smaller spaces.

A great question. And you should all feel free to chime in. I have a nice basket where i put all the make-up I use on a daily basis. Then I have a small woven basket where I keep my lipsticks. These are out on my vanity. In my medicine cabinet, I have bought cosmetic organizers at The Container Store to hold my excess stuff and things I don't use on a regular basis. I have also seen nice plain wooden small trays - they sell them at West Elm - used to store makeup.

This is not really a question, but a comment. As an independent mattress retailer, It is frustrating to read some of these questions.You can certainly get a high quality mattress set for under $1000. In fact, other than a specialty foam set, almost all of my sets sell for under that price (in a queen size). If you only shop at the big chains and department stores, with their high overhead and inflated prices. You definitely don't want a $399. set to sleep on every night, but $1000 will get you a great bed. I am not trying to market here, I just hate hearing the disgust about the business I'm in. It doesn't have to be like a used car. there are honest dealers, you just have to find them.

Thanks a lot for your thoughts. We appreciate it.

What if you choose a more neutral color for the walls but find several decorative items that match the GT color. That way you get to enjoy the color but it's in fewer spots so less intense overall. You could also use the GT to paint some artwork to hang on the wall.

Thanks. These are great ideas.

How timely! I'm in a position where I'm considering buying my first "real" bed - the only one prior was an Ikea frame & mattress out of neccessity right out of school (and a featherbed top has made it more enjoyable), but I'm looking for actual quality and staying power now. Though money is not unlimited, I'm willing to invest for good quality. But where to start - especially in DC without regular car access for shopping? Do I decide on a frame first, or mattress first and have the decision on a bed or frame follow? Box spring or boxless with slats? And with many trends in low-lying beds, is it at all possible to find something with 14-15" clearance for storage underneath (I don't mind, and in fact like, the height of adding a boxspring and mattress above). Any points in a direction to start would be a huge help!

I think the mattress is most important. It's one of your most intimate pieces of furniture, and you want something that's going to offer you the right amount of comfort and support for you. Keep in mind the space of your bedroom--don't go ahead and get a king bed if all you have space for is a twin. As for storage, there are height extenders that you can put under your foundation that will give you the extra storage space you need. 

How can we determine whether any given mattress store is reputable--that they are providing valid information and that the product is what they say it is?

Online research is your greatest tool. That, and word of mouth is essential. With websites like Yelp and Google reviews, you can easily get a fair idea on whether or not the store is reputable or not. 

Wondering if there are mattresses that help you stay cool at night?

There are some top of bed accessories out there that can regulate heat/coolness on your bed. Also, you might consider looking into a mattress with gel. Manufacturers say that gel has cooling properties, so it might be an option for you.

I don't whether you allow people to make recommendations, but my last two mattresses have been purchased from C&C Mattress, which is a Pennsylvania company. The owner, Peter Cancelli, is very happy to talk to you via e-mail or on his blog regarding what you want and what he thinks will work for you. He actually told me to buy a less expensive mattress set because the one I originally thought I wanted had too much padding in it, and would be softer than I thought. The website for his store is themattressexpert.com

Thank you.

I bought two mattresses in the last 10 years. Both are brand names and neither was cheap. One, a full size, developed a ridge in the middle soon after I got it. The other, a queen pillow top purchased 5 years ago, is now completely lumpy with deep valleys. Both seemed great when I got them! How can I ensure the next mattress I buy doesn't develop these problems.

Always follow the manufacturer's product care specifications, but as a general rule of thumb, it's a good idea to rotate your mattress 180 degrees, clockwise every couple of months. That should even out any indentations and provide a smooth sleeping surface.

I am heavier than my husband, and we have different preferences in firmness. A few years ago we bought a high-quality high-density foam mattress. Heaven! It completely isolates our movements, sonwhen one person rolls over, there is absolutely no "wave effect" to bother the other one. Well worth the money.

Glad you are both getting a good night's sleep!

I am in my mid-40's and have a desk job. Often by the end of the day my back is tired and sore. I have a mattress that has a layer of memory foam at the top. I find that, when I lay on my back, I do sink down into the foam some, but not so much that all parts of my spine have an equal amount of support. I have been thinking about buying one of the tempur-pedic mattresses on the theory that these would be good for a cranky back. But they same to be a love it or hate it deal and I would hate to spend several thousand dollars on something I hate. And yes I have tried lying down on one for 10 minutes but my current mattress felt good for 10 minutes as well. Any advice?

Good for you, taking the time to test out the mattress! While actually sleeping on the mattress overnight is the best way to see if you actually like it, a lot of times that isn't really an option. That said, a lot of manufacturers offer something called  a Comfort Guarantee, where if you try out the bed and after XX amount of days you come to find that you don't like it, you have the option of returning it for something else. Be sure and ask about this next time you go shopping!

I wake up every morning with my back aching. The longer I stay in bed, the worse it is. I have a traditional mattress with a pillow top and recently added a 4 in. foam topper to it. It seemed to be better when we first got the topper but now it's pretty much back to the same as it was before the topper. There are so many different types of mattresses out there that I'm at a loss as to which to buy. I like a pretty firm mattress. I would appreciate any suggestions.

I always suggest that you think back to a time where you spent the night at a friend's house or a hotel and woke up feeling great. Use that as your starting point. Was it an innerspring? Adjustable? Foam? That will help you narrow down your choices in the wide variety of beds that are out there. From there, go to a reputable store and lie down on a bed for a minimum of 10-15 minutes in your typical sleeping position. Pay attention to how the mattress supports your spine and hips, if you can fit more than 2-3 fingers in the gaps between the bed and your hips or curve of your waist. Chances are it isn't the right mattress for you.

He stands on the mattress to be funny, such as when he's telling a joke. He'll raise his hands and so on. You know, to be expressive.

Maybe get him a stool - or a podium!

We bought memory foam from Costco - seemed very similar to Tempurpedic at less than half the price. It's super comfy and Costco has a fantastic return policy. Highly recommend.

It's amazing what you can buy at Costco. And try their chicken noodle soup made from their rotisserie chickens when pickup up your mattress.

I was looking for a comforter to replace my down one w/out spending a fortune. After looking at all the dept stores I went to Marshall's and found a gorgeous quilt from Carole Little. It was much nicer than the one's I saw in Macy's at a much better price

Good for you. I was at Homegoods last weekend in Rehoboth and I must say I was really impressed at their bedding department including comforters, pillows, sheets and coverlets.

I haven't shopped for a mattress in a while (which probably means I should buy a new one soon). One frustration I had when I last purchased a mattress was that every retailer had a different name for their mattresses. For instance, Mattress Company X would sell mattress Y at Mattress Discounters under some name like "Regency." The same mattress would be for sale at Sleepy's, but the company would put a different fabric on it and call it "Devonshire" or whatever. So it was very hard to compare apples to apples, since it was never clear which products were comparable, and the retailers were less than forthcoming with this information. The system strikes me as shady, at best, and possibly in violation of consumer protection standards. Is this still the system with mattress retailers? How can we get reliable information for effective comparison shopping?

I get this question a lot and can understand your frustration. Form my understanding, mattress retailers have mattresses made specifically for their store by the manufacturer. It's their way of offering one-of-a-kind mattresses for consumers. It does lead to frustration and confusion though... My best advice is to shop from store to store based on add-ons and customer guarantees. Will they ship your bed for free? Offer free removal of your old mattress, etc. Comparison shopping from store to store can be difficult, so save yourself a headache and compare based on the things I mentioned! And good luck!!!

Considering redoing my master bedroom and painting the walls navy. Then we'd have pops of color from white curtains and closet doors, and a bright green for the bedspread, etc. The floors are honey colored oak. My concern is that we have dark wooden dressers and a large armoire. Do you think the dark furniture combined with the navy walls would be much too dark? The room does get good natural light. Thanks!

You don't mention the size of your space, but it does sound like it's going to be pretty dark in there regardless. And I'm not so sure the navy will look great with the honey-color floors and bright green bedding. But if you love the idea, try a big swatch on the walls first and try it out.

Reading this chat I can't help but think a lot of these back problems etc are not the fault of the mattress! Do these people exercise, or even walk most days? A strong core helps a an aching back!

Exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle, and also key to getting 7-8 hours of quality rest each and every night! Just be sure not to work out within two hours of going to bed, as it can have an adverse affect and keep you awake. 

Well, we really kept on topic today. Lots of good information here on buying a mattress and making the right choice for you. Thank you Karin for your helpful responses and tips. And thanks to all of you for sharing your stories, the good, the bad and the ugly. So that's all for today and enjoy the nice warm weather out there in DC right now.

How would you recommend finding a mattress that will be comfortable for a young child, who isn't old enough to be able to say "I like this one" at the store, and due to the significant difference in size (22 lbs vs 175 lbs) would have a totally different experience on a mattress? We'd like it to be a good choice for the whole time he's growing up.

Great question! I always suggest buying a mattress that your child can grow into--so a full/double is a great option. That way, when they're younger, there's room for you to snuggle and do bedtime activities like reading or quiet chatting, and it still gives them space to grow into as they get older. For little ones, something a little firmer is a good bet, and be sure to protect it with a good mattress pad!

I got a new mattress to replace my old one. However, it's only half a year old and already it seems like it's too soft. I specifically told the sales person I was looking for a firm mattress, and the mattress I chose was the third most firm in the entire store. How could it already be too soft??

Unfortunately, the terms "firm" and "soft" are completely subjective. What may be "firm" to one store may be medium-firm to medium-soft at another. The only way to really tell is to take the time at the store to test it out and see if it feels firm to you. Only you know know what works best for you.

Thank you all for the great questions! I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to answer them all. Wishing you all sweet dreams!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post's Local Living section.
Karin Mahoney
Karin Mahoney is the director of communications for the International Sleep Products Association and Better Sleep Council. For the past six years, Karin has worked with the Better Sleep Council, educating the public about the importance of sleep to good health and quality of life, and the role a new mattress plays in that equation. Originally from Wisconsin, Karin graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and now resides in Alexandria, Va, with her husband and one cozy bed.
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