When Mary Claire, 8 months, is ready for a nap or bedtime, her mom better have her silk, pink blankie on hand -- or else. Sound familiar? Comfort items, such as blankets, stuffed animals, bottles and pacifiers, take center stage for many children, starting around six months. As infants begin to first discover they are independent people from their parents, they often attach to one special item that helps soothe them when they are feeling cranky, hungry, sick, or tired. (This is different from a newborn's attachment to a pacifier, bottle, or nipple which satisfy the need to suck.)
According to S. Donald Palmer, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' early childhood committee, "Comfort items provide a child with a sort of familiarity and reassurance that a parent cannot provide every minute of the day and night."
When a baby learns to calm and reassure himself, the parents also benefit. So rather than cry out for you in the middle of the night, your child learns to hug his special teddy bear to ease himself back to sleep. Or instead of begging to be held while you're trying to navigate a crowded mall, your child just clutches his tattered yellow blanket.
Another plus: Parents can use these items to help ease their child into a new or strange environment, such as leaving them with a new sitter or dropping them off at daycare.
As for negative implications, experts say that parents should be careful not to become too attached to these items. For example, don't give your child her blankie when it's a hug from you that she wants, or don't plop a pacifier in your baby's mouth it's a bottle she needs. Although physicians and dentists still debate the possible detriments from over-use of pacifiers and bottles, Dr. Palmer says they are probably safe until about age 12 to 15 months. After this time, you should begin to wean the child from the pacifier and bottle. (To keep gums and teeth healthy, a child should never fall asleep drinking his bottle). At around age 2, it's also a good idea to start encouraging your child only use the comfort item at home so that he learns to cope without it.
Because blankets, binkies, and stuffed animals that travel everywhere with your infant are bound to get dirty or misplaced, do yourself a favor and have a duplicate available. This guarantees that laundering the item or losing it won't be a traumatic event for the both of you.
And what if your little one hasn't latched on to any one item? Don't force it. Child development experts have found no differences in between children who have comfort items and those who never take one on.