Big spoon or little spoon? Here's how cuddling may help you sleep better
Go ahead and snuggle up—at least before you doze off for the night.
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Sharing a bed with a partner may feel like a no-brainer to some, or a complete affront to others. While most couples who live together seem to opt to share a bed overnight, at least a quarter of American couples report sleeping separately from their boo.
So, just how big of a difference does sharing a bed make in your sleep quality? The answer might surprise you.
What is co-sleeping?
Co-sleeping is the blanket term for sharing a bed with just about anyone or anything—whether it’s a partner, your pet, or your kid making an appearance during a thunderstorm.
Sleeping alongside your partner or child doesn’t necessarily entail cuddling, but they’re not mutually exclusive, either. A number of studies have shown that co-sleeping among couples has significant benefits—even if you aren’t touching all night long.
What are the benefits of cuddling?
You probably know the classic curled up position: big spoon and little spoon. But there are plenty of other ways to cuddle, and many couples have their own ways of navigating physical touch while asleep.
Those who like to be in contact with their partner may start the night cuddling, only to eventually drift away as they get warmer from the other person’s body. (Heat isn’t known for aiding in sleep, so this isn't entirely surprising, though there are some sleep stages where it could prove beneficial.)
Cuddling before bed could produce benefits, such as oxytocin release. Sometimes called the “love hormone,” oxytocin is associated with bonding and trust. Higher levels of oxytocin have also been linked to falling asleep more quickly and staying asleep overnight, according to Penn Medicine.
Cuddling can also lead to reductions in cortisol, a hormone largely associated with stress. Feeling at ease is essential to getting a great night’s rest. Cuddling before bed could give you a boost that doesn’t require constant contact.
Unfortunately, research in this area is lacking—there’s nothing to scientifically prove that cuddling overnight, in particular, is going to make you sleep better. However, there are a number of perks to sleeping alongside your partner.
Simply sharing a bed with a partner may improve sleep
Even non-cuddling couples who co-sleep can see benefits. “Indeed, people with partners—with whom they also share a bed—have better sleep hygiene as compared to individual sleeper,” says Henning Johannes Drews, who was previously a postdoctoral fellow specializing in sleep and mental health at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and now works in epidemiology at the University of Copenhagen. In this case, those who slept with partners had improved scores on classic markers of sleep hygiene, including bedtime regularity.
There’s just one caveat: The benefits only arise “if the couple has a routine of sharing a bed with the same partner of approximately a year and more,” he says. In these couples, the partner was even more important in facilitating good sleep hygiene than self-control, according to Drews. In this context, the partner acts as a “social control."
Drews’ research has also shown that couples who sleep together generally have higher levels of REM, or “rapid eye movement,” sleep. Researchers are still learning about REM sleep (and sleep, in general), but it’s hypothesized that this part of the sleep cycle is key for memory formation and mood regulation.
The question of why couples tend to get more REM sleep is where things get interesting. “REM sleep is very vulnerable to stress and a partner might help to provide a safe and comfortable sleep environment, which in turn helps that REM sleep takes place uninterrupted,” Drews says.
Another possible explanation? “During REM sleep the body's ability to regulate its temperature is impaired,” Drews explains. “A partner might help to stabilize ambient temperature and thus help REM sleep occur and be maintained.”
In other words: Your body isn’t as good at regulating its own temperature, so having someone else nearby could provide another source of warmth during this phase of sleep, specifically. His research controlled for other potential variables that could impact sleep and ultimately concluded that the partner was a defining factor.
These benefits likely only apply to those in solid relationships—the story could look different if a partner is a source of conflict or anxiety, he notes. Results could also differ for folks who “suffer from insomnia and interpret every external stimulus as something that disturbs [their] sleep,” he says.
Does cuddling at night have known drawbacks?
There isn’t much byway of scientific data or research into cuddling overnight. A lot of it is based on personal anecdotes—and for Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep, factors such as an increase in temperature or another person’s movement would disrupt his sleep.
However, there is one surprising downside to cuddling at night, according to an article published by the University of Toledo: nerve problems. More specifically, the condition is called “Saturday night palsy” or “honeymoon palsy,” when it’s caused by overnight cuddling.
The condition is caused by direct compression of the radial nerve in the arm following sleep. The radial nerve runs from the armpit to your fingertips, where it branches out into smaller nerves. Sleeping on top of your arm in the wrong way, dozing off with an arm draped over the edge of a chair for a long period, and, of course, cuddling can all lead to symptoms.
In honeymoon palsy, another person lying on top of someone’s arm compresses the radial nerve. According to the University of Toledo article, the condition got its name from the fact that newlyweds, in particular, like to sleep closely snuggled. If you fall asleep in a position where your upper arm is compressed for a prolonged period, you may notice numbness, tingling, and maybe even restricted movement in the hand. Fortunately, the condition can often be addressed with physical therapy and a brace or splint to support the wrist.
The article advises choosing your sleep position carefully, and avoiding positions wherein one partner dozes atop the other’s arm.
What can you try if you sleep alone?
Not to fret if you live or sleep alone—or just hate cuddling. Weighted blankets can create a similar effect, and may trigger the body to release some of the same hormones as cuddling, like oxytocin, according to an article published by New York Presbyterian Hospital.
We’re fans of the Gravity Blanket because of its high-quality feel and make that evenly distributes the internal glass beads across your body. But if you sleep hot, we’ve also reviewed the Nuzzie, which features a chunky, open-knit that sleeps cool—at least when it comes to weighted blankets.
If you like the sensation of cuddling, and want another potential substitute, a body pillow could fill the bill. These pillows may not serve as a warm, “big spoon,” but they could be a great substitute if you like to be the big spoon, and wrap your arms—and even a leg—around something at night.
Of course, there are other stress-reducing activities out there that can help boost your sleep. Meditation can also lower cortisol. With an ample selection of meditation apps out there, the practice is literally at your fingertips. Try our favorite, Headspace, which has a mix of daily meditations, nighttime stories, and short to long sessions. In our opionion, there’s something for everyone.
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