When she was diagnosed with COVID-19, writer Aileen Weintraub found comfort in an old friend: a stuffed dog with floppy ears named George.
“When I get into bed and find George, it’s a signal that it’s time to shut out the events of the day and try to fall asleep,” Weintraub says.
She knew she might face ridicule publishing a piece this past summer about sleeping with a stuffed animal given to her 30 years prior, but she never expected a wave of emails from people telling her the stories of their own emotional-support stuffed animals.
“It’s okay to show vulnerability sometimes,” Weintraub says. “It’s a small investment for a good night’s sleep.”
The Business of Comfort
Weintraub isn’t alone in wanting to hug something before bed. Anxiety is high because of the coronavirus pandemic and all the associated fallout (hello, layoffs!) and that anxiety often rears its ugly head when we’re trying to fall asleep.
It also doesn’t help that the line between home and work life has blurred, says sleep psychologist Sarah Silverman, Psy.D. "Many bedrooms have turned into offices, gyms, and home schools, which can create a negative association between our increased stress level and the place we sleep."
And as adults, when we struggle to fall asleep, it's not unusual for us to turn to objects that we positively associate with bedtime. This may be why a wide array of stuffed animals, weighted blankets, weighted stuffed animals, and even a sleep robot for adults have flooded the market.
“We have learned and made connections about what brings us comfort,” Silverman says. “And sometimes we feel solace by simply having our favorite go-to items nearby.”
In October of this year, adults needing support contributed more than $31,000 to a Kickstarter for Chonkers — a line of weighted stuffed animals with scented inserts. And that’s not the first time a company has targeted adults with stuffed animals.
In 2017, Build-A-Bear and Atomik Research found that 40 percent of adults still sleep with a stuffed animal. Build-A-Bear even has a section on its website called "Stuffed Animals for Adults.” Spokesperson Emily Fuhrman noted that more than 25 percent of the retailer’s stuffed animal sales are for “someone teen or older,” and that percentage is “trending higher recently.”
It seems that as our routines have been disrupted in the present, many of us have looked for solace in the past. For musician Steve Schofield, that came in the form of a soft, grey stuffed elephant named Nelle.
“If you’re struggling with loneliness or dealing with a complex emotional situation, having something for comfort can really help,” says Schofield.
Without the audiences and interaction provided by touring and the traditional support system of friends on the road, he’s turned to this cuddly buddy while he shelters in place.
“It’s just the support of knowing that it’s there and it’s not going anywhere,” Schofield says. “It’s my support against the world while I sleep.”
“A weighted blanket may gently push down on the body helping us feel safe, secured, or in a protected space,” Silverman says. “Just as a firm, warm and cozy hug can be a powerful agent for relaxation, comfort items can help us wind-down and de-stress before bed.”
Why a Stuffed Animal or Favorite Blanket Might Help You Sleep
If you slept with a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket growing up, it may have been because you needed a stand-in for your parent or caregiver. Stuffed animals are what psychologist Donald Winnicott calls "transitional objects," bridging an uncertain gap or difficult time for kids.
“For children, transitional objects such as a blanket, teddy bear, or doll can provide comfort as they transition from dependence to independence at night,” says Kevin C. Smith, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.
When you take that stuffed fox out of storage as an adult, you’re “attempting to relive that sense of security that [you] associate with a childhood bedtime ritual.” says Dr. Tracey Jones, P.C.
Similarly, a weighted blanket mimics the act of being tucked in by a loved one. “A weighted blanket can act as a modified swaddle for an adult,” says Dr. Jones.
While you want to be soothed, there’s also science behind why a blanket may make you feel calm. The weight and pressure of a weighted blanket engage your autonomic nervous system, the part of your body that controls your fight or flight instincts. The pressure from a blanket can slow your heart rate and breathing — similar to the technique of box breathing — and ease your transition into sleep.
In our search for comfort before bed, Dr. W. Chris Winter, sleep specialist and author of “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How To Fix It,” believes the key may be an unexpected sense: smell.
Smells travel directly to the olfactory bulb in the brain. And that bulb is connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which regulate our emotions and memory, respectively.
“Smell is such a strong trigger of memory,” Dr. Winter says. “And memories can help make you emotionally comfortable when you’re trying to sleep.”
You reach for that teddy bear because it smells like your childhood bedroom. And that weighted blanket? Maybe it still has a whiff of your partner’s perfume and that triggers memories of a loved one when you can’t be together.
Should You Break Up With Your Stuffed Animal?
If you’re worried about the stigma of sleeping with a stuffed animal, Dr. Winter suggests you reframe it in the context of a choice, similar to the kinds of sheets you prefer or the color of walls in your bedroom.
“We all do these things,” Dr. Winter notes. “A pillow is perfectly acceptable, but a life-size David Bowie doll is considered weird. You’re not in danger sleeping with a David Bowie doll.”
But he also suggests that you be mindful that hugging your Ziggy Stardust doll doesn’t become the only way you can fall asleep.
“You have to ask yourself, are you enhancing something, or dependent on it?” Dr. Winter says.
Weintraub knows that she doesn’t always need George to fall asleep. The stuffed dog is so fragile, at this point, that she no longer takes him on trips.
“One day George will have to be retired,” Weintraub says. “I doubt I’ll replace him, but you never know.”
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