Toddler     Early Childhood    

Why comfort objects work for kids



In the early life of an infant, he forms a very close bond with his “mother”, virtually experiencing his mother as an extension of himself. Soon afterward the infant becomes aware that he and his mother are two separate people; being dependent on his mother for complete survival, he becomes anxious and fearful when his mother leaves or is even out of sight. The infant or young child doesn’t have the capacity to realize that his mother will return shortly, so he is fearful at this age that out of sight means gone for good.

 

A transitional object or security blanket “reminds” a baby of his mother because as she holds and nurtures him, he is usually holding the favorite object and cuddles it while this attention is occurring. Therefore, the baby begins to associate the object with the mother; it literally becomes a symbol of her and her warmth, and is comforting to the baby when the mother is not available.

 

During early infancy the mother is always with the child, but as the child gets older, the mother will want to leave the child for a time. This “transitional object” can help with the process of separation, as it is a constant, tangible reminder of his mother.

 

Many researchers and child development specialists believe it’s important for a young child to have some type of security blanket or object for comfort. A recent study by doctors Richard Passmen and Carl Eisenberg from the Milwaukee Medical Clinic was performed to determine whether security blankets could reduce stress during a routine physical exam. After their observations of 83 three-year-olds, the doctors came to the conclusion that, in the absence of the mother during the examination “if the child was attached to a security blanket, then it served as a useful substitute for a mother and helped the child get through the exam with little distress.”

 

Additional research has indicated that in preschool settings security blankets not only reduced children’s anxieties in novel situations, they also frequently increased children’s capacity to stay on task and learn at a greater level. These and other studies have prompted early child specialists to encourage and teach parents to help their child develop this intimate object attachment. They advocate that when the child shows an attachment parents can help foster this attachment by keeping the object available when the child explores new experiences and putting it in the child’s hand.

 

Some parents are anxious that once this attachment takes hold it will be difficult to be broken and their children will grow up to be like the Leo Bloom character in the Producers who as an adult carries a piece of his blue blanket in his pocket to soothe him during stressful times. Most researchers examining children who had “object attachments” suggest that these children reflected a greater sense of confidence in their ability to deal with different situations than other children and were aware of parents’ rules regarding use of the objects. It was concluded that parents need not be anxious if a 5- year-old has an attachment to a blanket or soft toy.

 

Most children give up these objects naturally as they age, but parents can help this “giving up of the blanket” by slowly starting to limit the attachment. For instance, talk to the child about leaving the blanket at home and limit when and where it travels with the child. Rarely is this “desensitization” a problem.

 

Sometimes, after a child no longer has a need for a security object, a dramatic change in a child’s life may bring about the child “revisiting” his blanket. Normal developmental changes such as a new baby, moving, or any other dramatic change for the child may warrant the child using his object again for “extra comfort”. This is rarely permanent and most often is a short-lived regressive pattern.

 

Having these transitional objects as infants and young children teaches us a useful skill throughout our lives. As children when we went to camp, taking our blanket or pillow with us may have helped make the “transition” from home somewhat easier. When we discuss this topic in my child psychology classes, I ask the resident students how many have teddy bears or other stuffed animals from home on their beds in the dorms. Those who answer in the affirmative usually do so while taking on a “child like” smile. As adults we bring things from home – pictures of our families as well as other objects – to hotel rooms on business trips or to the office. They help make strange, new or stressful environments something like the comfort we feel at home.

 

The warm comfortable associations we make with home, family and especially what our “mothers” provided us are a normal, integral and important part of early development and are used by young children to ease stress, but the comfortable associations these objects provide can be useful at any age.

 

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He is available for group speaking engagements. He can be reached at editor@excitingread.com.

 

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