How to Upgrade Your College Dorm Bed for Better Sleep

School mattresses can be pretty bad. Here’s how to make your dorm bed feel like sleeping at home.

College student on a comfy dorm bed set up, filled with pillows and new sheets.

There are so many things to love about life on a college campus, but dorm beds are rarely among them.

Think about it: In college, your dorm room is pretty much your entire living space. It’s where you’ll eat, sleep, study, hang out, and gather with friends. And if you don’t have room for a separate living room area and dining area, you’ll do all of that eating, studying, and hanging in the same place you sleep: your bed.

And it's likely that very same mattress has been through years of other students’ sleeping, eating and other activities. If you look closely, that thin, liquid-resistant pad might be lumpy in strange places or stained. After all, it’s built to repel whatever you spill, drop, or heave in its direction — prioritizing function over comfort.

However, there is a LOT you can do to fluff up the situation towards more comfortable sleep. Though you won’t be sleeping in your childhood bed, you can apply what you know about your bed at home to your bed at school so that you don’t spend months tossing and turning. We spoke to a Sleep Expert about how to hack your first (or second) dorm room so you can start achieving the sleep you need.

Understanding Your Sleep Style Is Adulting 101

“You’re an adult and you need to start sleeping like one,” advises Stephen Ferguson, Sleep Expert at Mattress Firm.

“When you’re being educated, the #1 way to study is to sleep,” he explains. And though all-nighters are common in college, they might be counterintuitive for your academic success. “If you study all night long and don’t get R.E.M. or delta sleep, which is when memory happens, your memories won’t stick. That sleep is as important as the studying you did the night before.”

The most important component is to understand what works for you sleep-wise.

If you have a roommate, set rules that suit both of you, addressing quiet time, lights-out times, and when it’s ok to have visitors, so that you can both get good sleep and achieve good sleep hygiene.

To set yourself up for success, identify what does and doesn’t work for you sleep-wise. “What are you used to at home? How well do you sleep at home now,” asks Ferguson. If you love the feel of your mattress, or if it’s too soft or too firm, make sure to apply those learnings to your new bed and have ready in your dorm.

Dorm Beds Come with Triple the Trouble

It’s not just because we’re sleeping away from home around people we don’t know, in a place we aren’t familiar with. It’s also because dorm beds are built for utility, rather than comfort. Meaning: the purpose is to serve as a place to sleep, not necessarily a place to sleep well.

Other issues a dorm bed might bring? Well...

Problem #1: Dorm mattresses are hard

Hardness of a mattress may make sense for longevity reasons but it’s not your longevity that’s being taken into consideration. “Anybody who sleeps in a traditional side position is going to be uncomfortable,” explains Ferguson. “Tossing and turning less means you’ll get into deeper sleep, so your mind gets more rest.”

To achieve that, Ferguson advises making the mattress more pressure relieving with a quality pressure-relieving topper.

Problem #2: Dorm mattresses don’t offer great support

“Support is a big issue,” explains Ferguson. “Dorm beds are cheap mattresses without support.

If you’re over 150 pounds, you could have issues,” he explains.

When there is no support, your body won’t be in alignment. You might not notice it immediately, but over time, this discomfort and lack of support could develop into back and neck pains.

Problem #3: Dorm mattresses have seen some things

This one is best left to the imagination. “Don’t sleep on whatever people last year did on your bed,” Ferguson advises. Toppers, protectors and a pre-sleep cleaning should help here.

Pro-Tip #1: Get a New Mattress, If Possible

For people with breathing issues, including allergies or asthma sensitivities, you may be able to get a doctor’s note for an entirely new mattress, so that you don’t experience flare-ups from a shared mattress. You will likely need to work with your college on this, so reach out to your resident advisor, the head of your dorm, or your dean’s office to start the process.

If you don’t have an underlying condition, check if your college allows you to swap out your mattress. If so, ask them for the mattress size and measurements and make that purchase it. Discounted mattresses that are even up to 50% off can be a good, supportive option for the next four years as you move dorm rooms, or even apartments.

4 Steps to Making Your Dorm Bed More Comfortable

College student sitting on dorm bed, working from a laptop. Showing how frequently dorm beds are used for multiple purposes.
Peathegee Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Whether you can swap out your mattress or not, there are additional ways to hack comfort into your sleep. Start with the same way you’d make your bed, from the bottom up.

First: Get Cushy with a Plush Mattress Topper

The right topper can complement your mattress, adding the support and comfort that isn’t there.

“Go for a nice four-inch topper,” Ferguson advises, narrowing in on the 4" Bamboo Charcoal Memory Foam Mattress Topper, which has charcoal to keep the bed dry and fresh. “Charcoal has drying properties if it got wet, to prevent mold and mildew and keep it clean.”

As for thickness, don’t just go for size: Choose the height based on the position you sleep in. “Toppers go from two to four inches,” he explains. “Four inches will be pretty plush, so great for side sleepers. Stomach sleepers will want something on the thinner side, and back sleepers can be somewhere in the middle.”

“Toppers can get pretty hot, because you’re sleeping on foam,” Ferguson warns. “So it’s important to get cooling elements in the topper or add something that keeps you cool.” The bamboo of this topper will add a cooling element.

Second: Keep Spills Away with a Mattress Protector

Put the protector over both the mattress and the topper, to protect both from spills and sweat.

A protector is always a good idea for keeping your mattress safe from spills and sweat, but it’s especially necessary when you’re sleeping on a mattress that’s been used by prior students as their central sleep-study-etcetera hub.

“You’re eating, working and living on this bed. This protects you from the bed, and the bed from you,” he says.

If you have a thick topper over the mattress, Ferguson recommends the 5-sided Freo Protector. “If you’re eating and drinking, you don’t want food and spills going down the side, so 5-sided is the way to go.” Plus, the fibers help keep it cooling.

Third: Get Comfy with Quality, Hypoallergenic Sheets

Quality during college isn’t defined by feel or thread count but rather your needs. Aim for the same sheets you had at home, or find one that checks off your needs, such as being breathable and hypoallergenic.

Malouf’s Woven Rayon Bamboo Sheet Set, Sleepys Basic Soft Sheet Set, and PureCare Elements Premium Modal Sheet Set are all good choices for those needs. Each has deeper pockets, thick elastic, and great durability, meaning that your fitted sheet will easily work with your topper and protector, and the sets should last you through all four years.

Finally: Rest Peacefully on a Great Pillow

“If your head’s not comfortable, nothing else is,” Ferguson says. “This is a bed for your head; if your head is cool and in alignment, the rest of the body follows.”

Though you can get super-cheap pillows anywhere, keep in mind that your pillow might not be the place to go lower end. It is, after all, where you’ll rest your head for four years. Plus, if you study, it may also be the thing that offers back support as you sit on your bed or by your desk. So it’s worth making sure you get something that will support you and last.

The PureCare Chill Softcell Hybrid Pillow has different types of two firmness, a cooling gel sheet on one side, and plus inserts, so you can adjust the height to suit your needs if you’re working in bed.

Stock up on a few additional pillows, like the Comfy Pillow by Sleepy’s to have on-hand if friends stop by or you want to prop yourself up while you study.

More Tips to Optimize Your Dorm Room for Sleep

College student working from desk to avoid working in bed.
zerothree/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sometimes the leeway for bed makeovers and room arrangements is limited to the size of your room and what your roommate also has. Thankfully, there are a lot of tiny adjustments to help make your dorm room a pleasant place to rest.

  • Temperature regulation: Dropping temperature is what stimulates sleep, so if your dorm room seems to run hot, get a cooling pillow and sheets or a topper with cooling technology.  
  • White noise machines: If your roommate is a snorer or an all-night-studier, a good sound or white noise machine may help your brain focus away from the studious, frequent tapping noises, or help if you’re near the showers or a common room.  
  • Set hygiene rules: Be clear with your friends about what can go on your bed and what can’t. Do you want shoes on your bed? Bare feet? How about backpacks and bags that have been on the quad?  
  • Build a sleep kit: Worried about thin walls or noisy dormmates? Earplugs, eyemasks, black-out curtains, and even a circadian rhythm lamp are good items to help you have restorative sleep.  
  • Block hallway light: An old towel or a t-shirt can help with blocking the ultra-bright, fluorescent lights from the hallway seeping in. Definitely give your roommate a heads up about this trick so they aren’t tripping over your items.  
  • Air diffuser: Colleges in more humid and hot areas might have a funky smell that you just can’t help but notice while you’re sleeping. A diffuser can help with that, especially if you use essential oils that promote sleep. But check with your roommate for any allergies before plugging and misting away.  

By now, you’re also probably familiar with the bedroom-as-a-home-classroom-or-office life. Well, your school dorm room won’t be too different. As easy as sitting on your bed to do everything will be, you should take advantage of all the other resources your school as to offer.

Use the library or common areas as much as you can for studying, and common rooms, cafeterias, and quads for socializing or relaxing. If you must stay in your room, try to use your desk for everything, so that you continue to associate your bed only for sleeping.

Consistency, whether it’s mimicking the feel of your childhood bed or keeping the same sleep-wake schedule, is going to the foundation to great sleep after college.

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