A child sleeping in a strange place or away from his mother, cries out for his “blanket” or special doll. Receiving it, she clutches it desperately, and begins to calm down. She then goes back to sleep.
What is it about the special object– a transitional object– that comforts a child in such a soothing way? Why is it desirable for every child to have one? How do you help a child develop an attachment to one if he doesn’t develop one on his own? What are some of the special problems involved with transitional objects?
Security objects are used by toddlers to relieve tension and anxiety. They are usually soft, cuddly things, like a blanket, a diaper, or fuzzy teddy bear — something that a baby can hold close to his nose and his mouth. Children seem to need them most when they are going to sleep or visiting new places, or when they are away from their parents. During the first few months of an infant’s life, a mother and child form a very close bond. We think an infant experiences his mother as an extension of himself. Beginning around the third month, a baby’s increased alertness to his surroundings make him aware that he and his mother are not one but actually two separate people. A baby, who is dependent on his mother for every need, can become frightened when his mother leaves. He doesn’t yet know that she still exists when she is out of his sight and will come back again. He is afraid she will not return. This fear increases from the fourth month on. A transitional object reminds a baby of his mother because as she holds him and cares for him, he is holding the favorite object. The baby will cuddle it, and begin to associate it with his mother. It is a symbol of her, so it is extremely comforting to a baby when his mother is not available. We think it’s a good idea, and in fact, very important for a baby to have a security blanket or something like that for comfort. It will be particularly helpful for her later on in many different situations. Right now, you’re probably with your child most of the time, but as she gets older you’ll want to leave her once in awhile. A security blanket can be like a bridge to you. Later on, if she misses you when you’re not around, she can cuddle with her blanket and be comforted because it will remind her of you. When she begins to favor an object, it will slowly begin to represent you because as you’re holding her, the blanket will be with you, too. It will take on your special smell and begin to be associated with the way you feel to her. There are ways in which you can help her get attached to something. Start by noticing her reactions to objects around her. Maybe she already has a preference for a certain blanket or a soft cuddly animal. You could start putting some special things in her crib. When you see her becoming attached to something, have it around when you’re caring for her. Hold it when you’re feeding her or rocking her. You could put it in her hand or stroke her cheek with it gently. When she goes to sleep, remove everything else from the crib and put the blanket that she has selected in her hand. It shouldn’t take long for her to automatically reach for it herself, but some children have a harder time than others finding that special thing. Keep trying even if it takes awhile, because it will help her a lot later on. Be careful not to have your baby choose an object that is part of your body like your hair, because he cannot use it for comfort when you are not available. Once you find something your baby likes you should start keeping it with you all the time. Make sure he holds it when you’re nursing him and certainly when he goes to bed at night. Put his hand on it and show him how to stroke it. We’ve found it important to have more than one blanket if possible. When your child takes to a particular blanket we suggest that you cut it into several pieces and put satin binding all around the edges. It’s usually the binding that babies love to touch. Let her use all of the pieces so you’re not relying on one piece, just in case it gets lost. It’ll be smaller, so it will be easier to carry around. But don’t wait too long because as she gets older she’ll get very upset if you cut up her special blanket. Children use their security blankets at many different times, like when they are with a new baby-sitter, when their mother is busy, or when they are teething, cranky, or hurt themselves in anyway. Children vary when they need it but it seems to be universally helpful at sleep time. We think that special objects are very important to have. The main reason is that there will be times when you’re going to want to comfort your baby but you won’t be physically available to him. While thumb sucking is comforting, he needs something to remind him of you. His special object will do that so that he can feel comfortable even when you’re not around. Once a child forms an attachment to an object, it is very difficult to change the pattern. The attachment is very intense because it represents the bond with the mother. Your patience in allowing him time to become attached to an object will pay off. Sometimes you may have doubts when your child gets older about the value of a transitional object. While having a transitional object is a definite advantage to children, it does bring with it some problems such as remembering to carry it with you and being careful not loose it. Sometimes they can look pretty awful, children may insist that you don’t wash them at all, and parents may feel embarrassed and worry why their child needs a blanket. There is also the question of when and how your child will gradually give it up. This can be a particularly trying problem if your child’s nursery school or day care center has a policy against these objects. We suggest to parents that they try to influence their school or center and explain that your child gets a great deal of comfort from the object. It will actually save the teacher trouble rather than cause it because a child will be able to takes naps more easily and will be calmer in general. When your child is older and you are finding it difficult to manage a security blanket a good idea is to begin to limit it. That way you won’t have to worry so much or get embarrassed, and she can still have her blanket when it’s important to her. You can say for example,” We’re going to start leaving the blanket at home except for special times like when were going to Grandma’s house. Or you could limit it to when she goes to sleep at night or takes a nap. These are all preferable to getting rid of it entirely. Some situations may trigger an increased need for a security blanket. For example, often when there is a change like a new baby, moving to a new house, or even if you come back from vacation, you might notice that your child has gone back to his teddy bear or blanket for extra comfort. We recommend allowing him to have it as long as he needs it. Gradually he’ll just give it up again. His increased neediness might also suggest that you think of other ways to meet his need. We highly recommend something we call Special Time. It’s not a lot of time, just ten or fifteen minutes during the day. You can say, ” We are going to pick out a special time when you and I are going to be together”. It can make a big difference. To review, we think it is very important for a child to have a transitional object. Children use them and find them comforting because they are a reminder of you. Some children develop attachments to security objects on their own, while some need help from their parents. Remember too that it may take a little while for your baby to become attached to an object, but hang in there and continue to help him with it.
If you would like guidance on this or any other non-medical child development question, and you live in the Los Angeles area, you can call the Warm Line free of charge at 310-310-8646. A child development specialist will return your call within just a couple of days.
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