Chris Radcliffe was getting desperate. The Vancouver father had tried everything to get his son, Chase, to sleep, but the weary-eyed toddler wouldn’t settle. “Nothing was working,” says Radcliffe. “Then I remembered that when we fold laundry, he always reaches out and grabs one of my T-shirts. I think he likes the feel of it. So I handed him my shirt and he instantly stopped crying, curled up with it and passed out cold.” From that point on, nothing comforted Chase quite as well as a ‘Dada’ shirt. “We felt like we’d hit the jackpot.”
Sound familiar? That’s because many kids develop similar attachments to comfort objects during their toddler years. “It’s a very developmentally appropriate thing for children to have a favourite toy or stuffie that helps them feel more secure,” says Cheryl Gilbert Mac Leod, a child psychologist in Calgary. “Kids need to learn how to develop self-soothing strategies even from a young age, and comfort objects often play a role.” They can also come in handy for helping children fall asleep on their own, or act as a friendly sidekick during stressful outings, such as a trip to the doctor’s office.
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Most kids prefer soft, feel-good objects like stuffed animals and blankets. But some wee ones never develop any attachments at all—or they covet non-traditional comfort items. “My son went through a phase where he would ask me for a piece of clean tissue every morning. He’d take it with him everywhere—even in the bath,” says Lauri Holomis, a Toronto mom. “By the end of the day, he’d have this little wet piece of paper that he’d go to bed with. And then he’d start all over again with a new piece the next morning.”
Regardless of which item they cozy up to, it’s always wise to introduce toddlers to a rotating repertoire of comfort objects right from the start. “We don’t want to send the message to a child that only one thing is going to make them feel safe and secure,” says Gilbert Mac Leod. “They should be able to find something else that will provide some comfort.” This strategy will also help prevent major meltdowns when a furry friend goes missing or a bedraggled blanket is in desperate need of a wash.
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Another smart idea? Always set limits on when and where your child’s trusted companion can accompany her. “Kids don’t need to have these things with them all the time,” says Gilbert Mac Leod. “So perhaps they can take their stuffie to Grandma’s house for a sleepover, but not to the breakfast table.” And when it comes to preschool? “It’s better if the stuffie stays home, but if your child really needs it in the beginning, it should remain tucked safely away in her backpack,” she says.
But there’s no need to wean your child off his treasured toy unless it’s creating significant impairment in his day-to-day life. “As toddlers begin to develop attachments to their peers, they’re less likely to need their comfort items all the time,” says Gilbert Mac Leod. “But if there’s still a lot of screaming and crying when their object of affection isn’t around, you need to gradually show your little one that he’ll be just fine without it.” Go for a drive around the block and leave the lovey at home. Or insist that he leave it in his bedroom and he can visit it there when he feels the need. “It should take about three months for the object to play a less prominent role in his life if you use this stepladder approach,” she says.
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These days, Chase, who’s now four, no longer needs his “Dada” shirt to fall asleep. “It took about two years for him to gradually outgrow his attachment,” says Radcliffe. But the doting dad will always remember the special bond it created between the two of them. “It was almost like he was taking a little piece of me to bed with him every night,” he says.
Expert tip: If a comfort object goes missing—and you didn’t stock up on multiples—don’t fret. “She may be upset for a few days and need consoling, but she’ll recover,” says child psychologist Cheryl Gilbert Mac Leod. “Tell her to close her eyes and imagine her lovey is right beside her, or have her draw a picture of it,” she adds. “It works very well.”
A version of this article appeared in our May 2014 issue with the headline “Comfort and joy,” p. 52.