Back sleepers have it easy. They can sleep with almost any type of headphones or earbuds as long as they are comfortable.
However, if you are side sleeper, you may have found it almost impossible to sleep with your favorite over-ear headphones and uncomfortable to sleep with most earbuds and in-ear headphones.
Perhaps you have just bought a very nice pair of noise cancelling headphones or noise isolating earphones.
In principle these headphones would be great to get rid of nighttime noise and listen to some nice tunes, but when you try to lie on your pillow with them you can’t fall asleep.
Or, you do fall asleep only to wake up an hour later with ear pain.
There are some headphones and earbuds designed specifically for side sleepers, but what if you don’t want these? You just want to sleep with the headphones you already have.
Attempting to use regular headphones, earbuds, and even noise-blocking earmuffs at night, I have done quite a bit of experimentation:
There are some special pillows and a few other tricks that make it possible to sleep with headphones. And this is what this post is about.
Sleeping with earbuds and in-ear headphones
The main issue with these is that most of them protrude from the ear.
When you hit the pillow, they get pushed into your ear which makes them uncomfortable and changes their sound.
What you would need is a comfortable pillow with a hole where your ear is.
For a while, I used a donut pillow designed for people to sit on because they have hemorrhoids or tailbone pain.
That pillow wasn’t bad, but now I have found something more comfortable.
By accident, I came across the Pillow with a Hole (PWAH).
This is a pillow designed for side sleepers that need to keep pressure away from their ears because they have CNH, pressure sores, or recently had ear surgery.
Other users include people with ear piercings and—surprise, surprise—people who want to sleep comfortably with headphones, earphones, or earplugs.
That sounded good to me, so I bought one and put it to the test.
The Pillow with a Hole is about two-thirds the size of a normal pillow. The company recommends using it on top of a regular pillow but also states that you can use it all by itself.
It has a zipper, so you can remove some of the filling or add more if you need it firmer.
The pillow hole is 3 x 4 inches—significantly larger than your average ear—and its position is optimized for the ear.
Following another PWAH user’s advice, I folded up a small hand towel and added it to the narrower side for added neck support. I also added a relatively firm one-inch seat cushion underneath to increase the height.
So how does sleeping with earbuds, earphones, and headphones work with this pillow?
I have tried it with in-ears, earbuds, the Bose QC20 in-ear headphones, and clip-on headphones, and it works with all of them.
As long as the ear is in the hole, none of the earphones I have tried gets pushed into the ear and the sound is balanced as well.
I have also tried it with full-size Bose over-ear headphones. It does work with these headphones, but it isn’t optimal. While the opening is large enough for the ear cups (there isn’t much room left), there is no cavity for the headband.
Lying on the pillow, the headband pressure is acceptable, but I’d much prefer it wasn’t there at all.
With noise blocking earmuffs, due to their different headband and design, I can’t sleep comfortably with this pillow.
So for full-size headphones, there are some for which it is OK and others for which it won’t work.
But for sleeping with in-ears, earphones, earbuds, or earplugs, the Pillow with a Hole works very well.
Now everyone is different, so if you get this pillow, you might have to experiment a bit until you have found the ideal amount of filling so that it works together with your current pillow. The good news is that you can even completely replace the filling with a different material if you so desire.
The one issue remaining is that if you move around a lot at night, your ear might come to rest outside the hole—with the consequence that the earphones then uncomfortably press against the pillow, likely waking you up. This does happen to me at times and I have to readjust my position.
The way I see it is that when I want to use earphones, this solution beats trying to sleep with a normal pillow by a long margin. With a normal pillow and most earphones, I probably wouldn’t be able to fall asleep in the first place.
Sleeping with over-ear headphones with a headband or noise cancelling earmuffs
As just mentioned, while the Pillow with a Hole will work with some over-ear headphones because the cups find space in the hole, the headband still pushes against the pillow.
Depending on the headband design this can become a major issue.
For over-the-ear headphones and earmuffs, I have had good success with a horseshoe memory-foam travel pillow. Mine is about 11.5 inches long and wide, and 4 inches high.
Positioning the pillow so that the opening is aligned with the top of the head, both the headband and the ear cups find enough space in the pillow and don’t get pressed against the ear or head. When lying on the side, cheek and chin rest on the pillow, providing enough support for me.
(If you find the pillow not high enough, you could, for example, use a seat cushion underneath, raising it by another inch or two.)
I have tried this with different headphones and low-profile earmuffs (ear cup depth 1.8 inches), and it works well: it keeps the pressure away from the ear and the headphones.
Because the sides are relatively narrow, the pillow needs to be denser than a regular pillow, so that I don’t sink in too much.
Generally, I find this kind of pillow OK for sleeping on my side, but less comfortable than the more “normal” Pillow with a Hole.
It might take some getting used to, but it surely beats having the ear cups and/or headband being pushed against the head.
If you don’t already have one, you want to get a travel pillow allowing you to button the two sides together, so that the pillow keeps its shape when you lie on it.
Sleeping with specifically designed sleep headphones
For most normal headphones and earphones, I find it a lot more comfortable to sleep using the Pillow with a Hole or a memory foam travel pillow rather than a regular pillow—soft or hard.
With regular pillows, even most standard-sized earbuds just become uncomfortable after a short while. Besides, the pressure on the headphones/earphones changes the sound and perhaps breaks them.
However, recently several companies have come up with headphones and earbuds designed specifically for sleeping on a regular pillow.
Sleep earbuds are tiny earphones that completely disappear in the ear canal and don’t protrude, so they don’t get pushed into your ear when you lie on them.
So far, the most comfortable ones I have found are Maxrock sleep earphones; they are tiny and completely contained in a soft silicone housing.
Headband headphones are just like sweatbands with added thin, soft speaker inserts. The advantage of these is that they sit on your ear.
That way you can even combine them with regular foam earplugs for noise blocking. Two major brands are SleepPhones and CozyPhones.
I have written a complete post introducing my favorite sleep headphones. I highly recommend you read that post if you are looking for something optimized for sleep.
With a pillow that contains a well-positioned hole, I have no problem sleeping with standard earbuds, in-ears, and clip-on headphones.
I reckon this kind of pillow should work with nearly any kind of earphones and also earplugs that protrude.
If you want to sleep with full-size headphones or low-profile noise blocking earmuffs, I recommend you try a dense horseshoe pillow. While not as comfortable as a soft pillow with a hole, it beats anything else I have tried.