The Case for Sleeping With Stuffed Animals as an Adult

15 Mar.,2023


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I have always envied people who can slip right into sleep. Bedtime is rarely so calm for me: Just when I wish I could drift off, I find myself up against looping, anxious thoughts. Counting sheep is no match for my mind’s nightly churn—but cuddling one is.

I rediscovered the habit of sleeping with stuffed animals in the terrifying early days of the pandemic, when I grabbed a polar bear from my childhood bedroom to ward off the onslaught of bad news and fear. I had never been particularly attached to him as a kid—he may actually have been my brother’s—but he was the perfect size to hold in my anxious adult arms.

Although I can’t be sure how common this is, I’m probably not alone: In a 2017 survey of US adults commissioned by Build-A-Bear (so, yes, possibly biased), 40% of respondents who own, or once owned, a stuffed animal said they still slept with one. But before writing this article, I couldn’t name a single other grown-up who shared this part of my bedtime routine. Maybe that’s because I was too reticent to divulge it: Talking with friends and coworkers about mattress toppers or humidifiers is easier than discussing the childlike whimsy of a stuffed polar bear.

Once I asked them, however, I was flooded by enthusiastic responses and tender insights into people’s stuffed seals, amoebas, pickles, and hedgehogs (even robots). For my part, since rediscovering that polar bear, I’ve settled into rotating a cast of salvaged childhood favorites and a lightly weighted, heatable Warmies cow I bought for myself.

It is perhaps no surprise that I turned to stuffed animals during a period of heightened stress. Max Genecov, author of a 2018 New York Times Magazine ode to his plush friends and a clinical graduate student in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out in an interview that stuffed animals can be transitional objects (PDF), a psychological term often used with regard to children for an item that provides comfort during times of anxiety or change. Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM, a board-certified sleep psychologist and researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, told me that she began sleeping with her older child’s stuffed alligator during pregnancy, when it soothed her after vivid nightmares and also made side-sleeping more comfortable by helping to support her growing belly. Companies have also taken note of adults’ childlike tendencies in this regard and are incorporating these ideas into their marketing of things that can help adults sleep.

If all of this seems rather childish, it is! As Wu explained, “Kids love stuffed animals. It’s because they’re cozy and ... just personified enough to provide a bit of social comfort. That’s a great way for kids to self-soothe. We adults can do the same thing.” Jennifer Goldschmied, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, told me that when people go to sleep, self-soothing reduces “cognitive arousal,” the type of active thinking that dominates a person’s waking hours. She elaborated that while it’s a myth that the human brain shuts off for sleep, people still have to enter a more relaxed mindset in order to drift off: “Your brain is always active, but it’s active in a different way during sleep. If you’re thinking and cognitively aroused, that kind of change in activity in your brain isn’t going to happen.”

Though there is no robust scientific literature on the effect of stuffed animals on adult sleep, several studies have shown that plush companions can help adults self-soothe. A 2016 study observed that holding a stuffed animal during group therapy allowed college students to better comfort themselves. The act of hugging has also been associated with stress relief, and a 2013 study found that interacting with a huggable communication device lowered stress hormones in blood and saliva. Maybe that’s why I reached for that polar bear during a stressful time.

Stuffed animals have improved my sleep in the long term by establishing a calming bedtime routine, which Goldschmied emphasized is “probably the single most important thing in getting a better night of sleep.” She encourages patients to embrace any practice—from reading to using sheets they love—that teaches them to associate bedtime with comfort and relaxation instead of with anxiety.

Over time, the brain will come to expect that these rituals lead to sleep, and that performing them can help transition the body into a restful state. In my case, putting down my book or phone and picking up my stuffed animal creates a boundary between sleep and other activities, prompting me to unwind. Even though I often violate the advice to use one’s bed only for sleep, once my stuffed animal comes out, I know it’s time to doze off.

I can’t end with a specific stuffed animal to recommend, or any guarantees, but I can extend to you my permission to indulge in some childlike comfort. Maybe it’s as simple as taking your old teddy bear off the shelf or raiding your child’s bedroom. If you’re seeking a fresh start, you have lots of options: Some friends and Wirecutter colleagues love stuffed animals that also serve as bolsters, wedges, body pillows, and travel accessories. Others lean toward more traditional plush toys, including a “wee” bunny, a realistic arctic fox, a classic teddy bear, or these cute rabbits we recommend in one of our gift guides. I’m personally enchanted by lavender-scented Warmies. Whichever one you choose, you might end up with only a piece of cute decor, but you might also reintroduce a bit of joy, gentleness, and comfort to your nightly routine. Either way, don’t forget to wash them!

It’s Sleep Week at Wirecutter! Read more about the best Sleep Week deals on our expert-recommended mattresses, bedding, and more for your bedroom.

This article was edited by Daniela Gorny and Christine Ryan.


1. Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM, psychologist and researcher, phone interview, December 19, 2022

2. Jennifer R. Goldschmied, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Zoom interview, January 11, 2023

3. Max Genecov, PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Zoom interview, December 20, 2022

4. Max Genecov, Letter of Recommendation: Stuffed Animals, The New York Times, December 13, 2018

5. Tammy Smitham, vice president of communications at Spin Master, phone interview, December 21, 2022

6. Lauren Sullivan, Teddy Bears Are Here For Your Kids During Coronavirus. Use Them, Fatherly, March 27, 2020

7. Hidenobu Sumioka, Aya Nakae, Ryota Kanai, and Hiroshi Ishiguro, Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels, Scientific Reports, October 23, 2013

8. Yuge Zhan, Qin Wang, Zheng Yang Chin, and Kai Keng Ang, Investigating different stress-relief methods using Electroencephalogram (EEG), 2020 42nd Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society (EMBC), August 27, 2020

9. Anna Lena Dueren, Natalie C Bowling, Aikaterini Vafeiadou, Juan J Madrid-Valero, Claudia Hammond, Alice M Gregory, and Michael J Banissy, Perspectives on interpersonal touch are related to subjective sleep quality, Journal of Sleep Research, November 9, 2022

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