Aidan McAuley’s love affair with an old yellow blanket began during an afternoon stroller ride. It started to rain, so his mother, Amanda, ducked into a thrift store and bought it to protect her then seven-month-old son from the downpour.
“I’d planned on it being just a throwaway, but then I noticed he was always lying on it or playing with it,” says the Brampton, Ont., mom. Now four, Aiden likes to bunch up his bedding and put his yellow blanket over top to make a mountain to sleep on.
It’s common and perfectly healthy for toddlers to develop a deep attachment to what psychologists call a “transitional object.” While parents might think of transition in terms of time and space — going from home to daycare or off to sleep at night — there’s more to it than that, explains child psychotherapist and Today’s Parent columnist Janet Morrison.
“We’re talking about the transition from outside to inside,” says Morrison. During her first year, when a baby needs something, she cries and her parents come to her aid. She understands comfort as something external. But over the next couple of years, she’ll internalize the good feelings she associates with her caregivers and learn to soothe herself — what psychologists refer to as “taking in the good object.”
To help this process, around their first birthday, many children designate something soft and cozy — a stuffed animal, a blanket — to be a stand-in and a repository for the comfort and security they associate with mom and dad. “In terms of emotional development, the object allows your child to feel secure in the temporary absence of the caregiver,” says Morrison.
Susan Rogers of Burlington, Ont., recalls how her daughter Julia, now two, first cottoned on to a small pink stuffed bunny she called Bunna. Julia liked to hold her mom’s fingers as she drifted off to sleep, but Rogers found leaning over the crib uncomfortable. So one evening, she put Bunna’s ear into her daughter’s hand. “After that, Bunna never left her side.”
Similarly, when Nauni Parkinson set out to wean 10-month-old Charlie from her breast, she recognized that “it was a void that had to be filled somehow. I would put Bear between us when we were nursing, and slowly Bear became what nursing was.”
Sleep time is often prime time for comfort objects, as Sally Kotsopoulos well knows. She’s manager of the Ryerson Early Learning Centre in Toronto. “We encourage children to bring what they need, especially at rest time. It’s not easy to lie down and close your eyes in an unfamiliar place.” Morrison adds: “What’s important is that the object is familiar. Kids are addicted to the smell or the way the blanket feels between the fingers.”
Kotsopoulos finds that children tend to loosen their grip on their loveys when they feel more at home at daycare. Nevertheless, she says some parents worry about how attached their kids are to an inanimate object. “We have this incredible need to be independent and mature, and we think there is something wrong with our children if they need a teddy or a doll to feel comfortable. It’s a sense of bravado that we want to instill in our children.” But, says Kotsopoulos, it’s not about confidence; it’s about feeling secure. “Adults have them too,” she observes. “You start a new job in a new office, the picture goes up, the favourite paperweight comes in — it’s a way of establishing your own space.”
When do kids outgrow their loveys?
“You don’t have to put on your resumé when you gave up your blankie,” says Morrison. “These things can take on a life of their own.” Parkinson knows this. Luna is a bunny puppet and the treasured companion of Charlie’s six-year-old brother, Kaiman, “who always carries things he needs inside Luna, like the phone number with area code when he goes far away,” explains Parkinson.
The soother Kaiman used since babyhood was also frequently tucked inside Luna. But when Kaiman was three, the dentist recommended he give up the soother because his teeth were protruding (see “Rule of Thumb”). Parkinson talked about it for a week to give Kaiman a chance to get used to the idea. The appointed day arrived and the family headed to the cottage from their Peterborough, Ont., home — sans soother. Parkinson recalls how her son poured out his heart to Luna that night: “If I knew how to drive that car, I’d go and get that soother… but I don’t know which way to go and my feet don’t reach the pedals.”
Both Kaiman and Aiden are very protective of their loveys, and their moms have made it a policy to respect this. Kaiman’s baby brother can hug and kiss Luna, but that’s about it. “He’s not allowed to carry her,” says Parkinson. McAuley thought Aiden would want his blanket when he started daycare, but she says, “he didn’t like other people handling it, so he started leaving it at home.”
The biggest challenge for parents may well be making sure a beloved blankie outlasts a child’s devotion. “Parents worry about the dirtiness,” says Kotsopoulos, “so make sure it’s washable.” McAuley says Aiden’s blanket gets pretty stinky, but he’s reluctant to wash it — unless he gets to put the money in the machine.
And, heaven forbid, if it should get lost. “You’re probably in for a rocky road,” says Kotsopoulos. “It’s like a day without underwear for your kid if you leave it behind.” Rogers managed to buy a couple of spare Bunnas “so if he gets left behind at my mom’s or the babysitter’s, there’s no panic.”
Can a child be overly devoted? If an attachment has become a fetish or, rarely, a child seems to prefer the object to the people in her life, that’s a concern, says Morrison. The same goes for comfort habits. “Thumb-sucking, hair twirling or rocking are all common,” says Morrison. “But if a child is rhythmically banging his head, or a habit is prolonged, bizarre or fails to soothe your child, that’s a worry, and parents should seek help.”
As you mend a tattered ear for the umpteenth time, or tear the house apart looking for a lost froggy, here’s a final thought from Kotsopoulos, a self-confessed thumb-sucker who took a blanket to kindergarten: “My father still has my blanket. Think of these objects as something to treasure.”
Rule of Thumb
Babies are born to suck. It’s how they get food and comfort. But, as they graduate to toddlerhood, should you discourage thumb-sucking or soother use?
“The most important thing is to limit use so that when the time comes to give it up, it’s not that difficult,” says Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., paediatrican who wrote the Canadian Paediatric Society’s statement on pacifier use. Accordingly, the statement advises parents to reserve the soother for comfort and sleep time during the first year. Then it’s time to gradually implement a plan for weaning a child from it, says Ponti. “That might happen at two, three or even four years.”
Ponti says that beyond this point, there’s a risk of a malformed mouth or protruding teeth. “When a child sucks his thumb, there’s pressure on the hard palate (the roof of the mouth) which alters the bones,” explains paediatric dentist Wa Sham Cheung, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. If children kick the habit around the three-year mark, the problem will self-correct, he says.
Raymond Lee, a paediatric dentist at the Children’s Hospital of Western Ontario, agrees that you want to encourage kids to stop before permanent teeth come in. Prolonged and habitual thumb- or soother-sucking can reshape the bones of the mouth to such an extent that the mouth is permanently open. “Then you get problems with swallowing or speech,” says Lee.
Is a soother preferable to the thumb? Only in the sense that you can control the soother; it’s more difficult to control thumb-sucking, say Lee and Cheung. In her practice, Ponti advises parents of kids who seem to have a high need for extra sucking to encourage the pacifier, rather than the thumb, because it’s easier to lose when the time comes.