How Sleep Number Beds Work

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.

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Ernest Koncaba

    I sleep on a pallet on the floor. My injury will no longer alow me to sleep in the bed.

    • Hardy e

      I used to sleep right on the floor on my hard futon at hotels or traveling, directly on the floor. I love the sleep number bed (level 3?) it could have a bit more padding, which I think I will get. Unfortunately my husbands side has always lost air (currently looking for a solution/troubleshooting on the web). Always a bummer to get something that doesn’t work right. We have been to lazy to pursue a solution. My bad. Like I said though, I’m sleeping like a babe for the first time in 30 years.

  • JSS

    Interesting article. I have a regular spring mattress and bought a memory foam mattress topper. Don’t think I would get a sleep number bed.

  • dar

    hi- nice article, Prof Matt
    -a super plus of the SN bed is it’s sooo easy to shift: no subluxations as with the primitive&heavy boxsprings 
     @twitter-459591968:disqus  ErnestK
    -for 40 yrs,only h20 mattresses kept my motorbike/car,racing&roofing mishap broken body in relative comfort…then the leaks made me go for a SN…wow…it is superb [plus no bladder stimulating sloshing]…worth every penny,you betcha

  • Timmonsr

    Sleep number is the only way to go, but needs a plush top.  Best sleep and most comfortable. But not without a few problems.  I’ve had one of the plastic support beams break though the side rail.  Also one side will now no longer fully inflate.  It now says it is 100 when it is more like 60.  Fortunately, that is where I had it before the setting started drifting.  The other item is that if you  have the bed at less than 100, when it is made up, it looks like you have an old worn out mattress, because with nobody laying on it, it sags in the middle.

    But I still highly recommend it.

  • Kevin Theobald

    Check around for annual mold maintenance issues. Think about it, they are air beds, which means they basically suck humidity into an enclosed dark space. Also, Sleep Number beds being air beds means their bed cannot be as breathable as others. I owned a 2007 Sleep Number bed for three years. The remote on my side would change numbers on its own, even though the air bladder had not changed at all. My wife had to pump her side back up once a week. It annoyed my wife that her number was so low and mine was high that we had an instant ridge in the bed. Make sure you read the warranty on these beds. Twenty years is what you see at a glance, but look at how it is broken down. Three years is fully covered, after that labor and parts start not being fully covered. If you buy one, know what it will cost you to return one.

    Just so this does not come across an advertisement, I will not say which mattress retailer I work for, but I will say there is no one perfect bed. I have met Select Comfort owners who love their bed and other who hated it. If you look at the last mattress round up tests with Consumer Reports, Tempurpedic came out on top. In the years I have been selling mattresses it has been interesting to hear the experiences of my customers. The same model of bed can be heaven for one couple and hell for another.

    Try not to go to firm, because the causes more pressure against your body. Going to soft also has its issues. If a bed is slightly too firm, that maybe okay because it will only get softer over time. If a bed is super soft now, it could be a sink hole in a few years. Some beds are designed to sleep cooler, but keep in mind it is not air conditioning, so you may still get hot in a cooler sleeping designed bed. Watch out for high thread count sheets, because that can trap air, thus trapping heat. Try to stay in the 400-600 thread count and look for Egyptian or Bamboo sheets. They breath better and have better durability.

    When you are shopping mattresses, take the time to do your own research. Remember that angry people are more likely to post something than happy ones. Also keep in mind the sheer volume of mattresses sold. I know you can find at least a hundred negative posts about any major brand of bed. Try to lay on a bed for at least fifteen minutes at the store before you buy. Beware of online retailers. There are some who sell beds that are defects or that do not have the factory warranty. Many have loop holes in their refund policies or do not provide the kind of service you might expect upon delivery.

    The place I work for allows for exchanges or refunds with no restocking fees or hidden charges. They also offer a price match, but some websites are not counted in that mix, but they are just fronts or sites that violate factory policies.

    The key for the consumer, is do your homework. Try not to make a snap judgement. Remember, where you buy can effect more than just you. I encourage people to buy locally as much as possible with any type of product. Help keep as much of your money in your community by buying in your community.

    For a good queen size mattress, expect to pay around $1500 before taxes. Some people can sleep on cheaper beds and be just fine, but there are others who have to spend a few grand to find the support they need. Also consider adjustable bases. The ability to raise and lower head or feet can help with ergonomics and provide pressure relief. I use it to help with my acid reflux. Do not over look the pillows. Those should be replaced every three years as a rule. Are there exceptions to the rule, sure.

  • HeatherRockStew

    I’ve heard so many great things about this bed that we are looking at it for our next purchase.  Thanks for the info it will certainly help us to make the decision …

  • Gremlin

    Personally, I’ve got a waterbed measuring six feet by seven. Standing up, I’m about 6’5″; laying down, without gravity working against me, I spread out to about 6’8″. So a bed seven feet long is fairly important to me.
    Then, my bloodtemperature averaging around 102F, I’m usually colder than everyone else; in the middle of summer, when everyone else is sweating to death, I can’t get away with a simple TShirt: I need another shirt over it and probably a jacket to feel warm enough. So, my bed being around 110F is also important.

    I’ve actually got the cheapest possible mattress for the thing. People warn against that, since it’s too soft and comfy to provide any support at all. But, about once a week, I fall asleep on the sofa and retighten my spine. So that all works out.

    If I mention all this to someone selling SleepNumbers, he’ll either agree that he can’t help me, or he’ll tell me that everything I do is wrong, expecting me not only to give him five thousand bucks but to change all my habits.

    SleepNumbers are probably good for most people. But they’re evidently useless to me.

  • jwmort

    I sleep on a Tempur-Pedic mattress and love it!

  • Bill Bagwell

    I’ve got both .. sleep number and tempurpedic bed. My wife and I prefer the tempurpedic. We did opt for the hospital bed features that were available with vibrator where the sleep number is a standard base. Try both before you buy.

  • Gkmarsh

    I have a solid foam mattress and it’s now 18 years old and I love it and have no plans on changing it yet.

    • Timmonsr

      The old style heavy duty high density foam mattresses were very good.  But when last time I went shopping, the only foam mattress was low density junk.  I don’t think they make the high density foam ones any more.

  • Connie

    I’ll take anything that isn’t 20-years old and lumpy :)

  • RTimmons

    Still looking for the perfect bed. Sleep number would be if it would last more than a few years without problems such as support beam breaking thru side rail, one side not pumping up to pressure (floppy soft on highest number), etc. Tempur-Pedic gets soft where you sleep in just a few months.