Originally posted on the UMN Press blog.
Sure, sharing a bed can be a nuisance from time to time.
And spending the night in a hotel alone while traveling can be a vacation in itself.
But there’s been some recent attention paid to Wendy Troxel’s research with her colleagues on bed-sharing and its benefits, which builds on a decade of research on gender disparities in nightly sleep and who gets what out of sharing a bed with whom. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey a few years ago on women and sleep in the United States, and Jenny Hislop and Sara Arber have been conducting ongoing research on women’s sleep in the United Kingdom. A few years earlier, Paul Rosenblatt published a nice, qualitative book on couples’ experiences of sharing a bed, Two in a Bed. According to this varied data, women are more likely to experience symptoms of insomnia and disrupted sleep. It’s not that women are innately predisposed towards insomnia, but rather, according to research, that they’re more likely to be woken up in the middle of the night – to tend to the needs of a child, perhaps, or to be disrupted by their sleeping bed partner, say with a snore or an apnea event.
Infants and toddlers
Despite recurrent concerns about sharing a bed with infants and toddlers, there’s also a fair amount of research – mostly from James McKenna’s lab at Notre Dame – on the sleep-related benefits of sharing a bed: co-sleeping parents report getting up to 2 hours more sleep each night than their counterparts who place their kids in separate rooms. This is especially the case for young children, especially while they feed at night; as children age, the benefits of sharing sleeping space decrease. And recent interest in Troxel’s research has been related to her findings that sharing a bed can result in heightened levels of stress-reducing hormones, implying that one of the reasons why we sleep better together is a sense of security – which makes a certain amount of logical sense. If adults get benefits from sharing a bed, shouldn’t young ones receive the same benefits? As I talk about in my book, the fears about bed-sharing usually revolve around accidentally smothering a child, but what evidence there is shows that more children die alone in their cribs than in beds with parents. And for parents who are anxious about sharing a bed, there are all sorts of things to buy to ease their concerns. If you could get 2 more hours of sleep each night and ease your child’s anxiety – and your own – wouldn’t you want to?
My partner and I have often wondered about the benefits of sleeping with dogs (in part because our border collie-pit bull, Turtle, often shares a bed with us and we want to imagine that we get something out of it more than cramped legs). Does sharing a bed with a watchful canine help our sleep be less anxious in much the same way as sleeping with another adult? Following Donna Haraway’s long-standing interests in multi-species encounters and the mutual shaping of one another’s development, especially in the case of humans and canines, it seems sensible that having a dog we trust sleep nearby might alleviate our nightly need to be vigilant.
This all changes when we move indoors, and to bedrooms far removed from entry doors with locks and alarms, but for many contemporary societies and throughout history, it may be that our co-species investments in dogs have had a lot to do with our desire to sleep without having to keep one eye (or ear) open. A dog sharing a bed might be an alarm system, but in parts of the world where such vigilance isn’t quite so important, they may be a hindrance as much as a help – Turtle is more likely to wake us up when he hears deer in the yard than criminal activity, for example . . . and despite his concerns, the deer are no danger to us.
All of this follows up on a piece in the Star Tribune on couples that sleep in separate bedrooms. For some sleepers, being at odds a with partner’s sleep behaviors is fairly stressful; larks want to go to bed early, and owls want to go to sleep later. When they go to bed at the same time, owls can lie in bed awake while their lark partner fades off to sleep; and when the lark wakes up early, the owl might be roused by its partner’s activity. Or, larks that go to bed early might be awoken by a late-to-bed owl partner getting into bed. And despite a history of some couples sleeping in separate beds – if not separate rooms – as the article mentions, the marital bed looms large as a normative space that couples seek to inhabit together. This can cause all sorts of tension, but maybe the benefits are worth it.
But if you plan on sharing a bed with a partner, a toddler and a dog (or two), investing in a king-sized bed might become a necessity.
We don’t always have the option to populate our beds with our kin, and for sleep apnics who sleep with their CPAP and BiPAP machines, they don’t have the option to not populate their beds with machines. For some, as I talk about in The Slumbering Masses, this unwanted bed-sharing can be its own source of stress and tension. What sharing a bed requires – and this is fundamental to sharing a bed with a partner, a child, a pet, or a machine – is some kind of intimate investment.
Sharing a bed with someone or some thing we are anxious about isn’t particularly restful. And when our beds become sites of anxiety and stress, we’re likely to not enjoy going to or staying in bed – regardless of the high-tech features of our chosen beds.
Outside of the bathroom, our beds are one of our most intimate spaces. Who and what we sleep with say as much about ourselves as our relationships in the world.