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Blankies & Bears

I have a confession: I'm 35 and still use a blankie. Actually, it's a blankie equivalent: When I'm particularly fatigued or stressed, I lie down on the bed, rest my head on the pillow, and absentmindedly rub the edge of the case against my cheek, just as I used to do with my pink blanket when I was little. This calms me and brings me back to simpler times.

My daughter Maggie, now 5, took up with Snake at around 6 months  -- as simple a time of life as she's ever going to have  -- and clung to it for three years. We can chart its slow fade from vivid green to washed-out lime in family photos. Snake survived about a hundred washings, three emergency surgeries, and uncountable hours of being dragged along sidewalks and across streets. Snake was her constant companion and playmate. And, it turns out, that was a good thing.

"Our species needs intimate contact during infancy," says Peter Gorski, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and child development at Harvard Medical School. "We know that brain growth, emotional regulation, and cognitive and physical development are dependent upon positive, loving experiences in the first months and years of life. So most children, even as young as 6 months, often seek out a blanket or a plush friend to serve as an extension of an intimate relationship."

"Many kids choose objects that remind them of their mother's hair, skin, or scent," says Stephanie Pratola, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Salem, VA. By making the association, the child can take a little bit of you wherever she goes. This is why soft companions are referred to as "transitional objects"  -- they allow the child to make the transition from the safety of your arms to the wide world (or the other side of the room).

Not all children cling to stuffed surrogates. My daughter Lucy, now 2, has never shown any leaning toward a toy or blanket. I tried to push a cute green bear at her, but she just flung it to the floor. Still, most kids do have a security object for some period of time, says Robert Walrath, a child psychologist in Manchester, NH, so it's important to understand the benefits one can provide for your child  -- and you.

Valerie Frankel writes often on child development for Parenting. Her most recent novel, Smart Vs. Pretty, was published in February 2000.

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Before 6 months of age, an infant's sole preference is for Mom or Dad. But at around 6 months, a baby who believes the world is a trustworthy place may also reach out to an object as another source of emotional connection. Considering that the object may seem to be physically attached to her for the next several years, the choice could feel enormously important. The complex developmental mechanism by which this crucial selection takes place? The baby looks at the dozens of toys and blankets around her and picks one. It's a fairly arbitrary process. Maybe she's attracted to the texture or color. It could be the shape. Or perhaps the baby believes the object has chosen her. "At this age," says Dr. Gorski, "a child can hug a toy and imagine the toy is hugging back." Try as you might, chances are you can't influence the selection.

The child will establish a ritual with the object at this stage. Maggie took to rubbing Snake's tag on her cheeks and under her nose. "Our son David has a blanket with a dog's head on it and a little bow tie on the neck," says Cathy Lappin, a mother of three in Chicago. "David rubs the bow on his face." Cathi Hanauer, a mother of two in Northampton, MA, describes her daughter Phoebe's ritual: "When she was a little baby, she'd flick a stuffed pink polar bear's tail while she sucked her thumb. She flicked it so much that the tail almost fell off and we had to sew it back on."

Repetitive actions like these soothe and feel good, for whatever reason. The focus tends to be around the mouth or the nose: "The object may smell like Mom or just have its own calming scent," says Pratola.

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A toddler's quest for independence from his parent deepens his dependence on the object. Most kids start walking at 12 to 14 months, says Pratola, and it's around then that a child grasps the concept of object permanence  -- even if he can't see Mommy, he knows she still exists: "The toy he associates with her provides comfort when he takes steps away from her." Without that support, the toddler may not feel the necessary confidence to boldly go where he's never gone before.

Since a 2-year-old is not the world's most consistently responsible creature, it can be a challenge to keep track of your child's cushy comrade. Lisa Fagin Davis, mother of Zoe, now 6, and Marc, 3, in Newton, MA, learned the hard way: "We went to France when Zoe was eighteen months and hadn't figured out that Paddington should never, ever leave the hotel room," she says. "One day, in a small French village, Paddington bounced out of Zoe's stroller. We searched for the entire afternoon. Zoe was heartbroken, and I wound up sitting on the ground crying as if I'd run over the family dog." They managed to find an exact duplicate in Paris, but Zoe wasn't fooled. "She knew, by touch or smell, that it wasn't the same one," Davis says. Luckily, after a few weeks, Paddington II was finally accepted.

When we lost Snake and tried to replace him with Snake II, Maggie knew immediately that she was dealing with an interloper because his precious tag hadn't been softened by hours of cheek rubbing. If you have to replace a lost toy, prepare for a bumpy acclimation period. After a week, it will either gain acceptance or be rejected. Usually, your child will form a new attachment quickly, though he may switch his allegiance to Frog rather than Duck II. (Considering the mountains you may have climbed to find Duck II, this could be harder on you than on your child.)

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During the preschool years, a child is more independent and has the mental and social resources to help him make the transition from parental safety to the unknown territory of the swing set. But he will have to deal with the alien forces he'll meet at the swings  -- namely, other kids. "As soon as a child begins social interaction with other children, he'll start to have his own complex feelings  -- not all of them positive," says Dr. Gorski. "At 2, he feels the pain of rejection. At 3, he begins to understand the rules of behavior. The object can play a useful role as a sounding board or provide a way to reenact and correct hurtful social interactions." If the big kids push him out of the sandbox, he can reenact the incident through role-play, with Frog suffering the indignity and sharing the hurt.

As a child's communication skills improve, her relationship with her stuffed sidekick evolves. "It goes from being a mom figure to a peer figure," says Pratola. The toy takes on characteristics and a personality. It becomes a friend."

Many times, I overheard Maggie and Snake having deep conversations:

Maggie: "Are you hungry?"

Snake: "Yes."

Maggie: "Do you like candy?"

Snake: "Yes."

Maggie: What kind of candy?"

Snake: "Cookies."

Maggie: "Me too."

Scintillating stuff. The topics of conversation seemed always to be likes and dislikes. "Giving the toy opinions is a way to express thoughts and emotions without having to own up to them," says Pratola. For instance, if Snake hates riding in the car, Maggie doesn't have to admit that she does too.

"It's also a way to experiment with limits," says Pratola. "The toy is a projection." Mr. Bear says he refuses to eat spinach. How will Mom react? Mr. Bear knocked over the garbage. What'll happen to him?

Cathi Hanauer recalls overhearing exchanges between her daughter and Big Bay, a pink bear. "She'd tell Big Bay what it was feeling. 'I know you're very tired, Big Bay, so you have to go to sleep,'" she says. Such conversations are usually in the realm of play. You're not likely to hear a 3-year-old ask his bunny, "What did you think of Mom and Dad's fighting last night?" says Pratola. So spying on these chats to plumb your child's soul is fruitless.

Of course, this new relationship with a toy won't completely override the old comforts. "Cuddling at bedtime is probably a habit by now," says Pratola. "And you shouldn't discourage it. Preschool children still need a reliable means of warm feelings." Kids facing a crisis at home (divorce, birth of a sibling, illness of a parent) will need their security objects more than ever or may reunite with an abandoned one.

If everything is stable at home and you're concerned that your child's too dependent on his security object, you can start limiting access at age 4. If your child goes to preschool, establish some rules, such as "Spider stays at home when you're at school" or "Spider can go to school in your backpack, but he has to stay there when you're in class." It makes sense: "The kid who is holding a toy can't climb or paint or participate in school activities as well as he can if he has the use of both hands," says Walrath.

"Taking Paddington to school was a definite impediment to Zoe," says Davis. "But she had a terrible time leaving the bear behind and would spend half the day sulking and crying, which was an even bigger impediment. So we started to leave Paddington in the car with a blanket over her as if she was asleep. Zoe instructs me on her care, and I tell her about Paddington's day when I pick her up."

As much as possible, follow your child's rules and activities for the object. Call it trickle-down regulation: If you say not to throw food at dinner, your daughter can make the same demand of Binkie. "She'll feel like she has some control and will be more open to following household rules," says Walrath. When you issue instructions, include the object ("Susie, don't pick your nose. You, too, Binkie.").

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By the time your child enters kindergarten, the blush of romance for an object is likely to have faded. He'll have made real friends, flesh-and-blood companions who voice their own opinions.

But the object still has a purpose: familiarity. "Some kids will tuck a piece of their blanket in a school knapsack to remind them of home. Knowing it's there can make them braver and more comfortable," says Pratola. Though most first-graders get the security and interaction they need from friends, it's not pathological if a 6-year-old occasionally drags a blanket around. You might lightheartedly try to get him to move away from the baby toy and replace it with an age-appropriate item  -- whether it's a coveted baseball mitt or a tutu.

Continuing to sleep with a security object isn't much cause for concern, even for kids as old as 12. When you should consult with your pediatrician: if your child's attachment to a security object interferes with his ability to interact with people (he talks to the blanket but not to other kids; his classmates make fun of him for always holding Elephant).

School-age kids might adopt a whole group of toy friends. After Maggie gave up Snake, my husband and I noticed the emergence of a new clique, a group of about six Beanie Babies who'd play and talk with one another. She'd rotate them as sleeping buddies and take them on overnights and vacations. Dr. Gorski calls these "temporary security objects" because they're interchangeable. "She uses them to experiment with feelings of exclusion and social coolness," offers Pratola.

Lately, her gang of six has expanded yet again, to include 150 Pokemon characters. But Dr. Gorski's pretty sure this fascination won't last because Maggie didn't make them real. Toys worth having are the ones kids, not manufacturers, endow with meaning and personality, he says. "It's not always a doll  -- it could be a stick." Make that Stick.