When I was 18, my high school boyfriend gifted me a stuffed 16-inch Bengal tiger with a squishy bean bag stomach. I named him "Tummy" after his soft paunch. When I went off to college, Tummy's first job was to remind me of my boyfriend back home. But when we broke up seven months into my freshman year, Tummy's new job became general moral support.
He's since seen me through it all: stretches of unemployment, personal upheavals, and soul-crushing heartbreaks. Unlike the stream of men I dated in my 20s, Tummy didn't snore, complain, or tune me out. As long as I had him to cuddle at night, my world was OK.
Now I'm in my 30s and married. And I still sleep with Tummy every night. I've been cuddling him for so long, it's become part of my bedtime routine, and I'm reluctant to give him up. It's not something I talk about often or openly.
But recently I went to a friend's housewarming party, and as she was giving me the grand tour of her new home, I noticed she had a stuffed animal on her bed, too. "You still sleep with your stuffed animal?" I asked. "Oh my God, yes," she said. "Every night. He's my most prized possession."
"Most prized possession" may seem like a bit of an oversell, but people's emotional bonds with their stuffed animals are very real, and can even be good for them. A study by researchers at UV University Amsterdam showed that touch—including even that of a Teddy Bear or other stuffed animal—has heath benefits, and can even help relieve existential angst. "Anyone with a beloved stuffed toy or teddy may believe they have genuine healing powers, but this is the first time science has confirmed it," the Daily Mail wrote of the study. As infants and toddlers, our stuffed buds act as "transitional objects," which help ease the stress of separation while "they soothe and comfort the child," as this piece—"More Than Just Teddy Bears"—in Psychology Today put it.
Of course, I'm not a child anymore. Neither was my friend whose house warming I attended. I wondered how common it is for people with crow's feet to still sleep with a stuffed animal. Should I be concerned or embrace it?
According to licensed therapist Robert (Bob) Ryan, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and Registered Art Therapist (ATR), not really. There are "thousands" of reasons adults might choose to sleep with stuffed animals. "It's a sign of a need," he said. "If you're alone in life and you have a big stuffed animal, there's somebody in bed with you. Sometimes it's very comforting to cuddle a pillow, and it might not be anything more than that."
As long as it's not interfering or impairing a person's ability to function normally in work, love, and life, Ryan thinks it's probably OK to keep Teddy around: "Is it keeping you from bringing someone home because you really don't want someone to know this?" he asked. "Then it's interfering, and it's time to give him up."
Frequent VICE contributor Sophie Saint Thomas sleeps with her two stuffed seals, Big Seal and Little Seal, every night. The 29-year-old Brooklynite has been fortunate enough to have a supportive partner who doesn't mind Thomas's stuffed animal friends. He also seems to understand that their inclusion in their bed is non-negotiable. "We live together, so he has no choice but to sleep with the seals every night," she said.
The only blowback she's received was from an ex-boyfriend in college, who was with her when she bought Big Seal: "He was so embarrassed to be seen with me marching around the streets of New York carrying my giant new seal. But he didn't understand New York and didn't know how that's like the least weird thing you'll see on any given block."
Justin Berry, a 36-year-old skateboarder in Philadelphia who works in the buying department of Urban Outfitter's corporate offices, sleeps with his three-foot-long stuffed shark every night. He's had his stuffed companion for over five years. As a child, he had two stuffed animal companions: a Teddy Bear named Big Ted, and a Popple named Puzzle. But his shark isn't a replacement for those long lost stuffed friends; he sees it as being more of a pillow.
He's quick to brush off anyone's concerns that grown men shouldn't sleep with stuffed animals. For him, "it's just a comfortable thing to sleep with at home."
A recent survey by Best Mattress Brand shows Berry isn't alone in this sentiment. The brand polled 2,000 Americans and discovered 37.5 percent of respondents slept with a stuffed animal as a child. Of those, 7 percent of adults said they still slept with their stuffed animals at night, citing comfort and habit as the main reasons. Millennials are twice as likely to sleep with a stuffed animal as Gen Xers, according to the small brand-sponsored survey. All generations agreed that bringing a doll to bed would be a deal breaker. (Dolls are spooky.)
Jenna Walker (who asked to change her last name to have it avoid being the first thing people see in a Google search) is a 35-year-old fashion designer who has had her stuffed bear (named "Bear") for 30 years. "My dad bought him for me when we were at the mall together," she told me. "When I came home with it, my mom said it would just collect dust, and I really didn't need another stuffed animal. I think I loved it even more out of spite." She insists she'd die if she ever lost him, and doesn't care what anyone thinks about it. Honestly, I admire Walker's "old bear, don't care" attitude.
I finally asked Ryan point blank: Is sleeping with a stuffed animal as an adult something to be concerned about? Is it evidence of stunted maturity or any latent mental health issues?
He waited a beat before he answered. "If it's not interfering with any part of your life, love those animals like they were your own."
I think that's great advice. And I plan on taking it.
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