With a pet, a partner, or alone—what's the best way to sleep?
We have the ups and downs of each sleep arrangement.
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Some surveys say that about a fourth of couples sleep separately—and likely for good reason: Sharing a bed with a partner (or even children and pets) can be disruptive at night.
There’s no right way to sleep when it comes to sharing space. Bed sharing norms, such as married couples in twin beds, have varied in different times and cultures. But there are some benefits to having a bed partner. Humans are social creatures by nature, after all. Many people like to be around others when they eat, when they exercise, and yes, even when they sleep.
The good news is that we can recreate some of those benefits even if we’re flying solo, whether a partner is out of town or we’re choosing to sleep alone.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of sharing a bed?
Bed sharing is somewhat paradoxical when it comes to sleep quality.
Sleep is a vulnerable state to be in: You’re lying down, semiconscious, with your eyes closed, says Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers.
One of the primary ways humans derive a sense of security is through connection, she says. Many people feel secure and comforted by the presence of others during the night. Children, for example, often want to sleep with a parent or sibling when they’re afraid. Adults can reap these psychological benefits as well.
But Troxel says people sometimes sleep worse when sharing a bed, pointing to studies that measure motion during the night. If one partner has poor sleep, their sleep issues can influence their bedmate. Women with partners who snore, for example, are three times more likely to have insomnia than women whose bed partners don’t snore, Troxel says.
Even so, if you ask people whether they like sleeping with a partner, they’ll usually say yes.
“Studies are showing that [women] feel safer sleeping with a partner even if they don't sleep very well,” says Kneginja Richter, a sleep specialist at Paracelsus Medical University in Nuremberg, Germany.
Richter, who notes that most sleep studies focus on heterosexual partners, adds: “Men usually have better objective sleep quality if they don’t sleep alone."
Can you share your bed with a pet?
Not everyone is snoozing next to a fellow human. People who aren’t sharing a bed with a partner are somewhat more likely to co-sleep with a pet than people who are partnered, research suggests. If you want to let your dog sleep in your bed, it’s OK to do so.
“We do have research suggesting that sleeping with pets can provide feelings of comfort and security, which in turn can help to lower anxiety and promote sleep,” says Christine Spadola, a counselor at Florida Atlantic University's College of Social Work & Criminal Justice. Spadola is currently researching the impact of pets in the bedrooms of veterans.
Some research suggests sharing a bed with a dog is actually less disruptive than sharing with a human.
“Survey data we collected suggest that dogs commonly rate as better bed partners than cats and human bed partners and may enhance sleep quality,” says Christy Hoffman, a professor of animal behavior, ecology, and conservation at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. “This is not surprising since dogs’ major sleep periods tend to coincide more closely with humans’ than do cats’. Also, unlike human partners, dogs don’t bring noisy and/or bright electronic devices into bed with them at night.”
A dog might provide psychological comfort by making people feel less afraid of intruders, Hoffman says. Just as with human bed-sharing, there's evidence that people move more in their sleep with a dog in the bed. Many of Hoffman’s study participants were unaware of these disruptions or didn’t remember them in the morning.
Still, a pet who is especially restless might ultimately be bad for a person’s sleep.
What if you sleep alone, but want the benefits of sharing a bed?
There are many reasons why someone might sleep alone. You might be single. Your partner could be traveling or deployed. You could be allergic to pets. Or, maybe you just want your own space.
Any or all of those reasons are completely valid. If you’re looking for a little extra comfort in bed, there are measures you can take.
Establish a relaxing routine
Because one of the benefits of sleeping beside either a human or pet is a feeling of security and protection, you can take other steps to reduce anxiety before bedtime.
“Many parents know you want to have a routine before your child goes to bed,” Troxel says. “You don’t just plop them in a crib and walk out… In adults, I think we sometimes forget how important a sleep routine is and we just race off to bed.”
A relaxing routine can help signal to the brain that it's time to go into a restful state of sleep, she says. As part of a nighttime routine, she suggests reading a book, listening to calming music, or meditating before climbing under the sheets.
There are a number of meditation apps if you’re looking to pick up the practice. Headspace offers plenty of beginner-friendly sessions, even ones specific to settling down before bed. There’s also screen-free devices like the Morphée, which plays breathing exercises, soothing soundtracks, and more from a bedside table. But if those options aren’t in your budget, there are free meditations for sleep online.
Taking a bath before bed can help calm you since the hot water causes your core body temperature to rise, Troxel says. When you leave the bath, your body temperature falls. This mimics the decrease in temperature that occurs during sleep, which sends a message to your body that it's time for bed.
Spadola suggests journaling or rolling out your yoga mat for a relaxing routine before you go to sleep. She adds that general healthy sleep behaviors such as having a consistent sleep schedule can help improve sleep if you feel lonely. This also includes avoiding screens in the hour leading up to sleep and eliminating alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine before bed.
Consider a comfort object
For people of all ages, hugging a stuffed animal or body pillow can be comforting, Troxel says. “We can, to some extent, substitute objects to help fill that need in the absence of a physical partner,” she explains.
If you’re in a relationship but your partner is away, consider holding an item of clothing with their scent. This has proved useful at night for military couples Troxel works with. Children who are learning to sleep alone can also benefit from a transitional object.
Think carefully about what time you’re making calls
It might be tempting to call your partner before bed if you’re apart, but Troxel urges you to think twice. For some people facing separation, calling before bed is a way to wind down. For others, it could serve as a reminder that you’re alone. It might also lead to anxiety about your partners’ well being, something Troxel has observed with military couples.
You might consider calling your partner earlier in the day and then establishing a relaxing solo routine at night. It’s all a matter of experimenting with what works best for you.
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