Here’s Why People Say ‘Don’t Let The Bedbugs Bite’

“Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

For most adults, it’s a familiar little rhyme, a throwback to childhood. For those in major cities like New York ? where real bedbugs turn once-happy people into balls of despair and anxiety ? it can also conjure a visceral sense of terror. Say it to anyone who’s dealt with the nightmare of bedbugs and watch them visibly flinch.

But when did this little rhyme appear on the scene? And what did it initially refer to?

Fossils and early texts indicate that bedbugs existed as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome under various names. Colonization and industrialization fostered their spread in North America, until DDT and other pesticides wiped out most of them in the mid-20th century.

The cutesy bedbug rhyme predates the DDT era, but today, it again has a too-real connotation. Over the past two decades, bedbugs have made such an aggressive resurgence in the U.S. that CBS deemed 2010 the “Year of the Bed Bug.”

There are multiple origin theories around the rhyme, specifically the “sleep tight” portion and its relation to “don’t let the bedbugs bite.” One popular theory suggests that it relates to the way beds were made during the 16th and 17th centuries. Before the introduction of spring mattresses in the 19th century, mattresses were often filled with straw and feathers and sat on a latticework of ropes.

Because it was necessary to tighten the ropes regularly to prevent sagging, many have suggested this practice is the origin of the phrase “sleep tight.”  

This antique Shaker-style bed uses a rope lattice support. 
WoodyUpstate via Getty Images
This antique Shaker-style bed uses a rope lattice support. 

Tightening the ropes would both allow for a good night’s sleep and keeping the mattress off the ground to avoid bedbugs, so the story goes. (A related bit of folklore is the tidbit that if guests had overstayed their welcome, their hosts would drop a passive-aggressive hint by loosening the ropes under guests’ mattresses to make their accommodations uncomfortable.)

Some have proposed that the “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite” portion is a reference to bedding, and the goal of making your bed tightly to keep bedbugs out. But, given that bedbugs typically live in mattresses, it seems that would be ineffective, which casts doubt on that theory. 

Another theory is that the phrase refers to tying sleepwear tightly to keep bed bugs out, but that one is similarly dubious. 

Historians refute these origin theories on the grounds that they lack definitive proof and don’t line up with the timeline of the rhyme’s earliest appearances in text. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the phrase “sleep tight” simply means “sleep soundly,” as the adverb “tightly” once meant “soundly, properly, well, effectively.”


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