Mattress Topper Mania: What’s Behind Our Obsession With Dorm Bedding?

Suppose you’ve spent time in a Facebook group for parents of college students. In that case, you have inevitably seen — and maybe posted — questions about furniture configurations, room dimensions, and move-in day logistics. One specific topic tends to come up more often than others, generating dozens of rave reviews, cautionary tales, and follow-up questions.

Nothing dominates parent discussion boards quite like mattress toppers regarding dorm outfitting.

What parents are REALLY worrying about when they obsess over mattress toppers.

Thickness: 2 inches, 3 inches, 4? Memory foam? Cooling gel? Natural latex? And which density level? Who has sales and when? Should you feel it in person?

Shopping for the first year of living in a dorm can be overwhelming

Decision fatigue can be overwhelming. And don’t forget; the topper is only part of a bigger mattress accouterments calculation. Of course, there are the XL twin sheets and comforter (blanket or duvet). But should you also purchase a mattress pad? And is it better to put the pad under the topper or over? And do you need zippered mattress casings? What about allergies? Bed bugs? 

When we were starting college, did most people even use the term “mattress topper?” I seem to recall a rectangle of egg-crate-shaped mystery foam that reliably turned dark yellow and a little bit crunchy by sophomore year. I don’t remember my parents knowing about special dorm bed add-ons, let alone worrying about them. 

So why is preparing our child’s dorm mattress creating so much passionate discussion and anxious decision-making? Why is the mattress topper business booming? What’s going on here?

What parents are REALLY wondering

Parents wonder when we’re stressing about mattress topper options: Will my kid be okay? Will they be comfortable in a new environment? Will they get enough sleep? Will they feel my love from hundreds or even thousands of miles away? 

Parents, the mattress topper is us.

And it makes perfect sense. We have been their steady source of comfort, reliable support, and soft landing at the end of a hard day. 

We aren’t the cool posters or the twinkle lights. The important, practical ways we care for our kids haven’t been flashy or visible. And sometimes, the invisibility of our efforts was an essential part of the gift of the sacrifices we make for our kids, doing the little things they could take for granted, the behind-the-scenes ways we kept them safe showed our love even without saying the word. We were their foundation, the unseen but felt love and support. And we want some of that to go with them to college.

When I think of the logistical, inconspicuous work of raising kids, I recall one of my favorite poems, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” in which the poet looks back with poignant, delayed gratitude at his father’s daily pre-dawn tasks of caring for his family. The poem ends with these heartbreaking lines: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” 

Do we ever really appreciate what our parents do for us?

Today’s parents may not be bending over to shovel coal into the furnace, but we do many other things while our kids sleep to keep the household running. We’re working behind the scenes to keep our kids warm and safe even when we’re tired.

These are the acts of love, the symbols of our love, and the tangible representation of our love. And while we can encourage our kids to be grateful, we also know that sometimes, as with the speaker in Hayden’s poem, the more profound appreciation of a parent’s love only comes later. 

And what about this focus on the dorm bed itself? The image of mattresses piled high with cover, pad, topper, sheets, and pillows call to mind another literary reference, “The Princess and the Pea.” 

In the fairy tale, the title character is tested to see if she is a real princess. Our college freshmen may not be princes or princesses, but they are special and are being tested differently. As their parents, we already know just how sensitive they are.

As much as the media tries to reassure us that kids are “resilient,” we know they are more vulnerable now than ever. Many of them have been hurting. It’s been a bruising few years. They have been tested and threatened in ways we never imagined when we were their age. 

We are worried about sending them off into a harsh world

They are tired. They are world-weary. And they are a little fragile in their way.

So how do we send them off into a world that seems harsher and crueler than ever? What can we do to help them feel safe and loved? How will we sleep at night?

We can’t tuck them in anymore. We can’t know if they made their beds. We can’t make sure they go to sleep at a reasonable hour. 

We can’t be there for them in the same way anymore — nor should we. But with a dorm bed made soft and inviting, we can rest assured we have sent them a little bit of our love.

More Great Reading:

17 Things to Take Care of Before Your Teen Heads to College

About Oona Hanson

In education for over twenty years, Oona Hanson now works as a parent coach, supporting parents of teens and tweens. Passionate about helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, she runs the Facebook page "Parenting Without Diet Culture” and gives parent education workshops on body image resilience and eating disorder prevention. She has a Master's degree in Educational Psychology and a Master's degree in English. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: "Oona Hanson--Parent Coaching."

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