Few things are more precious than seeing a little one snuggled up with a teddy bear. However, when the child is older — and still sleeping with stuffed animals — some parents find the idea more confusing than sweet. Here’s a snuggly secret, though: It’s totally OK.
“There is no specific age when a child must stop sleeping with a stuffed animal,” says Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, a board-certified pediatrician in New York City. “Tweens and teens often continue to sleep with a stuffed animal or favorite childhood blanket, as it brings comfort and helps relax them to sleep as it did in younger years.”
Concerned that your child is too old to be sleeping with stuffed animals? Don’t be. Here’s what the experts have to say about older kids and stuffed animals.
Is sleeping with stuffed animals normal?
According to Erin Hawks, a child and adolescent psychologist at the Oklahoma University College of Medicine, it’s safe for children to start sleeping with a stuffed animal after the age of 1 (not before, as it poses safety risks); and from then on, sleeping with stuffed toys is “perfectly normal,” even into teenagehood.
Lauren Schapiro, a psychotherapist at Liz Morrison Therapy in New York City, agrees. “There is no age when kids should stop sleeping with stuffed animals,” she explains. “Stuffed animals serve many different purposes for children and even adults. Some use stuffed animals to connect them to important relationships or past events in their life. Others may use them as a coping strategy when dealing with life stressors. Regardless of the reason, it is completely normal.”
Is it normal for a teenager to sleep with a stuffed animal?
Not only is it considered normal for teens to sleep with a stuffed animal, there are even benefits to sleeping with a teddy bear at 16 or so.
“Research shows that anxiety is on the rise for the teen population,” explains Meghan Sutton, a marriage and family therapist at Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. “Teaching teens coping skills is critical for building resilience. Coping skills are self-soothing activities that can help in the healthy management of emotions when life feels tough.”
“While we typically think of younger children using stuffed animals as a self-soothing practice during bedtime, it is not out of the ordinary for older children and teens to continue with this behavior,” Sutton continues. “The idea of a teen using a stuffed animal as a self-soothing skill is a completely acceptable, safe and appropriate response to dealing with life’s stressors, with no known, long-term negative effects.”
Why do children sleep with stuffed animals?
While young children are often given stuffed animals to sleep with, as it helps soothe them and aid with the transition to bedtime (more on this shortly), older kids continue to sleep with them for a number of reasons.
“Perhaps the stuffed animal was given to them from a significant loved one or it represents a positive memory from their childhood? Either way, stuffed animals can be a helpful tool in decreasing feelings of anxiety,” Sutton explains. “By holding the stuffed animal, tweens and teens are experiencing a feeling of comfort and calm and are able to self-soothe.”
Benefits of sleeping with a teddy bear (or stuffed animal)
Sleeping with a stuffed animal can be helpful for kids for a variety of reasons, regardless of age. Here are some of the benefits, according to Sutton:
- A more restful night’s sleep.
- An overall decrease in anxiety.
- Improved functioning throughout the day.
Do stuffed animals help you sleep?
Trachtenberg notes that, in many cases, kids haven’t honed the skill of falling — and staying — asleep without a stuffed animal, so having one can be key in getting a good night’s rest. “Often kids haven’t learned to self-soothe or put themselves back to sleep without a stuffed animal, so it’s not uncommon for it to become a habit or even ritual in order to sleep,” she says.
Does sleeping with a stuffed animal help anxiety?
Yes! Trachtenberg, Sutton, Hawks and Schapiro all agree that stuffed animals can all help alleviate anxiety. Soft, plush stuffed animals are easy for kids to hold onto, and here are some of the positive effects they can have:
- Help alleviate stress and provide a sense of calmness.
- Bring a sense of security and support.
- Lessen feelings of loneliness.
- Help improve attachment.
- Help people grieve.
- Assist with transitions. “Stuffed animals are transitional objects — objects that serve to resolve any discomfort children may have from separation from their caregiver,” Schapiro explains. “These transitional objects can also help kids move from one life stage to another.”
Stuffed animals can also be crucial for kids who’ve experienced trauma. “In one study, children between 2 and 7 years old who had been displaced to a camp during a war showed faster reduction of stress responses when they were given a stuffed animal and encouraged to care for it, compared with children who did not receive a stuffed animal,” Hawks notes. “This suggests stuffed animals may be helpful stress-reducers.”
What are the downsides to sleeping with a stuffed animal long term?
While sleeping with a stuffed animal doesn’t directly cause any negative long-term effects, there are a few things to keep in mind. “If a child is older and can’t sleep without a specific stuffed animal, it can be an issue if they lose it or it falls apart,” Trachtenberg says. “Additionally, it may draw negative comments from peers or friends at places, such as sleep-away camp.”
Schapiro adds that sleeping with a stuffed animal could be an issue if it is “damaging to one’s daily functioning and interpersonal relationships.” For instance, she says, “If an individual feels they cannot participate in daily activities or socialize because they are dependent on the stuffed animal or cannot leave the stuffed animal behind, then it would potentially become a problem. But in general, it is perfectly acceptable and normal to sleep with a stuffed animal.”