If you’re a bit of an insomniac like me, you’ve probably seen infomercials and countless commercials about Sleep Number beds. These beds boast giving a perfect night’s sleep through finding and maintaining a firmness level that fits your body’s needs.

Taking it a step further, both you and your partner can share the same bed while maintaining a different firmness setting for each of you. If you prefer a firmer mattress than your spouse, this is possible on the Sleep Number bed without putting two mismatched mattresses on the same frame. Admittedly, this is a pretty cool concept, but how do these beds actually work?

I decided to pose these questions to the manager of a nearby bedding shop one day as my wife and I were in the market for a new mattress. Because the shop has done business with Sleep Number in the past, I was asked not to give his name for the purpose of this article.

Here are some of the insights he offered:

Why Do They Seem So Impressive at the Shop?

A good salesperson will always turn a general curiosity into a need. If you walk in a Sleep Number store, you may see a “traditional” mattress, which is admittedly lumpy and only somewhat comfortable next to the top-of-the-line Sleep Number bed.

When visitors try the traditional mattress, a subliminal distaste for any mattress is conveyed through association. Sure, it may not be the most unpleasant mattress out there, but it hits a point between terrible and the mattress you probably already have at home. It’s like eating a bad apple from one store, and avoiding apples from any store altogether for a while. It’s something that humans do by nature, and people in sales love it. You’ll see this tactic used a lot in infomercials as they give demonstrations of the alternative of whatever miracle product they’re pitching.

Once you’ve lain on the traditional mattress for a moment (if you opted to), you’ll be asked to lay on the Sleep Number bed. The bed itself starts at its firmest setting, giving you a temporary feeling of discomfort, which is quickly relieved as the seller turns the number down to a softer setting. The result is simple: You get a first-hand experience of just how much more comfortable a Sleep Number bed is than traditional mattresses.

In some cases, this impression is absolutely genuine, though the science behind these beds is actually very simple.

How Do They Work?

Sleep Number beds combine an air mattress with a memory foam mattress to create an experience that varies in firmness without losing that soft feeling people come to expect in quality bedding. On Sleep Number beds built for two, a set of air chambers are placed under a layer of comfort foam, surrounded on four sides by foam boarders, and covered with a mattress cover that makes the Sleep Number mattress look more like a traditional mattress.

The number you arrive at while setting up the bed is actually an indication of the level of air pressure in the chamber. It’s not unlike setting up an air mattress for a camping trip and letting a little air out if it feels too firm after inflating.

Outside of the mattress component, everything else is pretty much the same as any other bed. You have a box spring that keeps the mattress flat on the bed frame, and standard fitted sheets can be used.

If you opt for a higher-end Sleep Number bed, an additional pillow top layer is added to enhance the comfort levels of the user. The underlying air chamber technology is still present, though less obvious to the user.

What Are the Advantages?

For many people, there is a big advantage to having a bed with an easily adjustable firmness. You may not enjoy the same type of bed your spouse does, and this gives you both an opportunity to be comfortable without giving up the ability to share the same sleeping space or deal with the hassle two mattresses can introduce.

As your body and/or sleeping habits change over several years, you can still enjoy the same bed just as much by adjusting the firmness level accordingly.

You can easily disassemble a Sleep Number mattress for simple cleaning and maintenance. Traditional mattresses are a nightmare to clean, and are typically replaced relatively quickly.

If anything goes wrong with your Sleep Number bed, replacement parts can fix it where a replacement would be required for most traditional and memory foam mattresses.

What Are the Disadvantages?

Sleep Number beds have a number of possible points of breakdown including the pump, hoses, air chambers, foam padding, and cover. Leaking air chambers are not unheard of, and would require you to replace a part before you could enjoy a good night’s sleep, whereas a traditional mattress could be a bit sturdier and harder to break.

Sleep Number beds can be a bit pricey. You’re looking at paying $1,000 for the bottom-of-the-line queen mattress and five times that for the crème de la crème.

At its core, the Sleep Number bed is an air mattress with a layer of padding on top of it. Personal comfort is different for everyone, and while some may see this as the best solution, others may not. Unfortunately, it takes more than a trip to the store to find out whether or not you’re buying something that is absolutely right for you.

Usage Tips

Give things time. It’s almost impossible to judge a bed by a single night. Sleep Number beds have the advantage of adjustable firmness, giving you the ability to adjust things until you find the exact right setting for you.

Once you’ve set a comfortable level, wait until morning to make changes if changes are needed. Even then, only adjust the setting by five one way or the other, giving yourself two or three nights to adjust to the new setting before adjusting it even further. As with any bed, it can take a week or two to break things in and get into a groove that feels comfortable to you.

Beds are like cars; if you go cheap, you probably won’t appreciate the value a year after purchase. If you have any misgivings about the low-end mattress at the store, you’ll certainly suffer from buyer’s remorse after the fact. Take the time to save enough to get a mattress that you feel comfortable with. After all, you’re going to spend eight hours per night on this thing for the next 8-15 years on average.

Wear and tear generally sets in before the warranty expires. Warranties don’t cover wear and tear, so you should expect to replace whatever it is you purchase halfway through the warranty term. For example, if a mattress comes with a 25-year warranty, you could expect to get about 12.5 years out of it at most. In many cases, traditional beds last about eight or nine years, even when the warranty extends coverage to 20.

What about you? What type of bed do you sleep on? Would you recommend it?

Photo by Vera Kratochvil.