My niece had a blue blanket when she was a little girl -- a "binky," as they're often called. She put up quite a racket when she couldn't find it, then quieted right down when her mother put it in her arms. On long trips, this familiar bit of home made her feel easy enough to sleep.
Some savvy adult travelers are like my niece, only the binkies they take on the road are their pillows.
Even in luxury hotels, with half a dozen pillows invitingly plumped up on the bed, they sleep best with the one they know.
In tight, uncomfortable seats on airplanes or in budget hotels with substandard bedding, the pillow they bring from home is the only thing that gives them a good night's rest.
Travelers too often spend endless nights in hotel rooms, tossing and turning, throwing the hotel pillow across the room, wadding up towels as an unsatisfactory replacement.
When they manage to fall asleep on pillows that are too cheap, hard and flat or formlessly soft from overuse, they end up with kinks and pain.
"When I wake up with a neck ache, I'm cranky," says Annette Zientek, owner of Christine Columbus Inc., an Internet travel gear company based in Portland, Ore. (www.christinecolumbus.com). "I'm with my pillow seven or eight hours a day. It's a personal thing. I'm bonded to it."
Roger Cadieux, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Penn State, says that getting a good night's rest on the road depends partly on maintaining a bedtime routine that includes such things as using a favorite pillow. "When you go to a hotel," Cadieux says, "everything is brand new. It can take 24 to 48 hours of getting used to."
Of course, pillows are space guzzlers in suitcases. Zientek puts them in zippered travel Space Bags (available at the Christine Columbus Web site for $5.95 carry-on size and $7.95 regular luggage size), which allow you to squeeze out excess air, thus conserving space.
Others buy small travel pillows, available from the Internet sites of such companies as Brookstone (www.brookstone.com) and Seattle-based Pacific Coast Feather Co. (www.pacificcoast.com).
And then there are the U-shaped plastic blow-up pillows preferred by frequent fliers who don't relish the saggy, dingy ones provided on planes. The inflatables are clean and keep the head from flopping to the side, which tends to result in kinked necks.
"One reason so many people get sick on plane trips may be the pillows, so a huff and a puff keeps me healthy," says Rob Sangster, author of "Traveler's Tool Kit." "An inflatable pillow also provides comfort on a marble bench in a Russian train station or when absorbing the buffeting from corrugated roads aboard a Nepali bus."
There is, however, a use for airplane pillows. Orthopedist Scott D. Boden, who directs the spine center at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, recommends stuffing one in the small of the back to relieve stress.
Hotel pillows are another matter: small and bean-filled in traditional Japanese inns, square sometimes in Europe or mounded in great piles at fancy places where the number seems to correspond to the price of the room. On king-size beds, four pillows are standard at Wyndhams and Ritz-Carltons, five on Westin's so-called "heavenly beds."
Those pillows, however, are mostly for decoration, says Serena Hu, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at UC San Francisco. "The purpose of a pillow," she says, "is to keep the neck in a neutral position. If the pillow is too large, the head flexes forward. If it's too small, the head drops backward."
Thus, big and fluffy is not necessarily better.
At Wyndhams, Ritz-Carltons and Westins, the standard pillows are usually a blend of goose down and feathers, though the synthetic version also is available for people with allergies. Danielle Ebert, a marketing director at Pacific Coast Feather Co., which makes the pillows for Ritz-Carltons, explains that feathers have quills and are somewhat firmer than down. Both are used in high-quality bed pillows, in differing proportions, depending on how much firmness or sponginess is required.
"There's no one formula for selecting a pillow," says orthopedist Boden.
He recommends a small pillow underneath the neck for people with neck problems, a bigger pillow under the head for side sleepers and a pillow between the legs to keep the knees flexed for those who tend to wake up with achy backs.
High-end hotels try to please everyone by offering myriad pillow options. Westin beds have a decorative pillow, two down and feather pillows and two synthetic pillows to accommodate the allergic.
At Wyndhams a guest recognition program (Wyndham by Request) allows people to preorder the kind of pillow they want to find on their bed when they arrive.
Five hotels of the 51-member Ritz-Carlton chain have pillow menus; the choices include pillows filled with anything from buckwheat hulls to water.
At a basic roadside motel or Italian pension, the road warrior may fare much worse. So take a travel tip from my niece and pack a pillow, which is almost as good as a binky.