Blankies, thumbs, pacifiers, and tattered old teddy bears – these objects provide comfort and a sense of security, helping children soothe themselves and cope with many everyday feelings and experiences.
From infancy through toddlerhood and often beyond, many children become attached to comfort objects. Whether it’s a pacifier, a special blanket or a stuffed animal, these objects are a great asset for both children and parents, says Claire Lerner, a child development specialist with Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the healthy development of infants and toddlers. “They provide comfort and a sense of security, helping children soothe themselves and cope with many everyday feelings and experiences.”
A familiar object can help when your child is separated from you or experiences anxiety or fear – even when you’re the source of his dismay, as Lerner points out, “such as when you deny him a cookie before dinner.”
Not every baby latches on to a suckable or luggable item. Nor do such attachments (or lack of them) indicate anything about a child’s personality or future, according to child development experts. The persistent use of a handy object to provide comfort is purely a matter of individual temperament. Research suggests these differences may even show up even before birth. Sonograms have shown some fetuses sucking a finger while in the womb.
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Parents often wonder whether they should encourage the habit by actually putting their infant’s thumb into the mouth when the baby is fussy, or whether they should try to promote a pacifier instead. There is little consensus among experts on which is better for baby. Some professionals recommend the pacifier, especially brands with a specially curved shape, believing that they are better for proper dental development. Pacifiers have another possible advantage: the habit may be easier to break because you can take it away later on.
“Pacifiers are a nuisance for the parent, though, when your child cries in the night and you have to find the darn thing,” points out Stephanie Shine, Ph.D., a professor of the human development and family studies at
During your baby’s first year, but after breastfeeding is already well-established, you can relax about whether her thumb or a pacifier becomes a habit, or whether she prefers a combination of sucking and hair twirling or nose-rubbing. (Just be sure she gets to suck long enough at mealtimes: use a slow-flow nipple or allow extra time at the breast.)
In fact, non-nutritive sucking can be very important for early brain development, according to Lerner. “When babies are agitated, their focus is on their physical discomfort, taking energy away from paying attention to and engaging in the world around them. For many babies, sucking helps them feel calm and more organized, which allows them to focus on taking in sensory stimulation and connecting with their loved ones. And that, of course, is a major part of early cognitive and social/emotional development.”
As they enter their second year, children go through some major transitions, including learning to walk and using language. They begin to separate from their parents. If you try to take away something that gives your child a secure feeling at this point, it may increase her feeling of anxiety. However, by the time your child is 2, you can start to see if something else will comfort or interest her first before you stick a thumb or pacifier into her mouth at the first sign of irritability or boredom.
Blankies and Other Transitional Objects
As your child ventures into a new sandbox, inches toward a potential playmate or dares to explore an unfamiliar room, he still wants to know he can return to you for reassurance. One way many children manage this back-and-forth dance between adventure and comfort is by choosing a “transitional object” or “lovey.” Whether it’s a stuffed animal, a blanket, an item of a parent’s clothing or a toy, such an object is a way to remain tied to the caregiver as the toddler ventures forth.
The growth and change that toddlers undergo can give them a sense of mental chaos and uneasiness, and a familiar object can be comforting. Its appeal may be sensual, too. Since loveys are often soft, they retain the smell of a parent and remind the toddler of home.
Spend a few minutes in any group of 2-year-olds and you’ll find that nearly every child has brought something comforting from home. It could be a little pillow from the family room couch or a beloved stuffed animal. One mother reports that, to her great embarrassment, her son liked to carry around a square of her nightgown – since she couldn’t stand to have him carry around her whole nightgown, she had cut it into smaller pieces.
The child who has a lovey has something to provide security when the parent’s not there. “Clearly,” Shine notes, “that child has an edge over the child who will be satisfied only with the parent.”
And if your child doesn’t choose a transitional item? “It just means she hasn’t come upon that particular method of handling distress,” says Shine. “When I thought my daughter preferred a certain toy, I would bring it to her when she was upset,” she says. “I’d say, ‘Look, hold onto this. I think you’ll feel better.’ But she didn’t become attached.”
Once your child is older than 1 year, it’s better to encourage an attachment to a lovey than to offer food or drink for comfort, Shine advises. Turning to food to handle stress can be a hard-to-break and unhealthful habit.
When Should You Worry?
Children almost always outgrow the need for comfort objects on their own. It happens inevitably once they attend preschool or kindergarten and they’re asked to put away their scruffy pillow or stuffed animal. At such times, just knowing it’s in the cubby – available to be looked at – can be helpful. Some parents have tried taking a picture of the object, or cutting it up into smaller pieces so it can be carried unobtrusively. Sometimes parents who want to ease the weaning process will set limits, such as allowing the special blanket only in the car or in the bedroom.
Ultimately, peer pressure usually puts an end to thumb- and pacifier-sucking, so there’s no need to take a hard line there. Parents set the rules for their children in so many areas, Shine says, “at least let children decide how to handle the big love of their life, be it their thumb or a toy.” Shine reports that her daughter finally gave up her blanket when she was 8, “on her own terms!”
If your child is nearing age 2 and prefers his lovey to anything else, should you take action? As long as there’s plenty to do in his environment, the child’s natural inclination is to be curious, explore and play. If he’s dragging his blankie around and still interacting with his environment, there’s no need to worry. But if your child is involved with his comfort object to the exclusion of other activities, then it might be time to be concerned. If you are worried that something is interfering with your child’s sense of security, talk with your child’s pediatrician and ask if a consultation with a child psychologist is in order.
Most kids eventually rely on their comfort object less and less over time, and parents do best to let it run its course, Lerner says. “It usually gets retired to the bed, where it stays – sometimes for many years. Taking it away prematurely can have the opposite effect of making the object more important to the child and can create unnecessary power-struggles.”
Be aware that children may return for years to such habits as thumb-sucking or nose-rubbing or blankie-cuddling when they’re tired. Whatever helps your little one cope with stress is usually harmless. For parents, the best attitude is a relaxed one.
• Creature Comforts: People and Their Security Objects, by Barbara Collopy O’Halloran, Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Presents a range of stories on special items that children have turned to for comfort.
• Baby Duck and the Cozy Blanket, by Amy Hest, illustrated by Jill Barton, Candlewick Press, 2002. For babies and toddlers. Baby duck’s blanket needs a wash.
• Geraldine’s Blanket, by Holly Keller, William Morrow and Co., 1988. For toddlers. Geraldine keeps her blanket, despite her parents’ attempts to get her to give it up.
• Owen, by Kevin Henkes, Greenwillow, 1993. Ages . Owen’s mother hopes he won’t go to kindergarten with his blanket.
Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and the author of the activity guide for families Playing Smart. Her latest book is Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way. Visit her on the Web at www.BunnyApe.com .