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Objects of Desire

At 18 months, my daughter Harper insists on taking Barkley everywhere. Once a soft, downy stuffed dog, Barkley has grown matted and ripe with the smell of stale milk and cheddar cheese. But to her, Barkley's just heaven. She often grabs tiny fistfuls of his fur and hugs him to her face while squealing. Anytime Harper leaves the house Barkley goes with her: in the stroller, to the doctor, on the slide at the park, and, to my dismay, on the New York City subway, where people spit on the floor for sport.

On the train one morning, Harper tried out her new game  -- drop it and Mommy will pick it up  -- with Barkley. So instead of giving him back to her, I put him in my bag to wash him when we got home. She howled.

I knew my daughter loved her dog. I understood the need. When I was a little kid, I'd carried a nearly headless doll around everywhere, too. But the fury and tantrum that erupted on the subway that morning? I simply was not prepared.

While not all kids fall in love with a specific stuffed animal the way Harper has, most do pick a lovey (or two) of some kind. Pacifiers, blankets, even favorite shirts can all turn into security objects for young children  -- and sometimes a headache for you.

"It's a mixed blessing," says Ginny Read of Midland, Michigan, whose son and daughter slept with thermal knit "blankies" well into elementary school. "It helped to comfort them, but we were forever trying to keep track of them!"

So how do you know if you should buy backup blankets or tell your child it's time to leave her doggie at home? Here, moms and experts weigh in:

My son wants his lovey with him all the time, but it's driving me crazy. What can I do?
Jason Krever's 4-year-old son, Noah, wants to cart Hassie, his stuffed hippopotamus everywhere  -- and Hassie is more than a foot long. The hippo sits next to Noah in the car, buckled in with its own seat belt. It went to Disney World and on several of the rides.

"He's never been apart from him," says Krever of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. "It's kind of like another little person to cart around."

If you fear losing your child's security object every time you leave the house, or find yourself going out of your way to accommodate it, moms who've been there say it's time to place some limits. Billie Ellis of Raleigh, North Carolina, tells her 5-year-old twin boys that it's okay to take their blankets in the car, but not inside the store. "The boys pretty much understand," she says.

Lauren Barack has written for Men's Fitness and the New York Post.

For the Love of Loveys

My toddler's teddy bear stinks! If I wash it, will she notice?
Probably. Though the smell may be disagreeable to you, it's partly what she finds so comforting about her stuffed animal. That doesn't mean you can't wash it if it gets particularly grungy.

To avoid a meltdown, try cleaning her lovey while she's at the park with her dad. A child under 3 probably won't understand that taking her security object away to be washed isn't the same as taking it away forever, say experts.

A preschooler, whose language skills and sense of time are more advanced, can cope better with her lovey's spin through the machine. Get her involved in the process by, say, letting her take it out of the dryer.

My baby doesn't even want a security object  -- is something wrong with him?
Brian McConnell, 4, of Pasadena, California, never got attached to anything, but his younger brother, Ian, 2, still needs his white-and-orange checkered blanket to fall asleep at night, says their mom Shannon.

Though there's no hard data on this, there's some anecdotal evidence that more extroverted, active children tend not to have loveys. That's the case with the McConnell boys: Brian is the life of any party, according to their mom, and Ian tends to be more introverted.

If your child doesn't have an object of affection by the time he's 3, he probably won't later  -- the need for one is strongest between 18 months and 3 years, when separation anxiety is highest. Chances are, though, he has some other self-comforting mechanism: "He could be humming, singing, twirling his hair, or sucking his thumb," says Tovah Klein, a mom of three boys, ages 6, 4, and 5 months, and the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City.

My daughter carries around a toothbrush. Isn't that weird?
Kristy Koebernik got teased by her family when her infant son attached himself to a burp cloth. "I kind of thought, 'What did I do wrong?' My grandmom wouldn't even give it to him because she thought it was so strange," says the Lindenwold, New Jersey, mom. "But when she saw that the cloth would calm him down, she gave in."

While most children will crave something soft and cuddly like a stuffed animal, or something they can suck like a pacifier, security objects can run the gamut from a can of tomato paste ("It was summer, and my baby must have loved gripping the cool metal," says that child's mom) to a plastic toy hook from a Captain Hook costume.

Klein knew a 2½-year-old who'd wear only one dress to school. "Her mother eventually found another dress exactly like it, so it meant that she wasn't constantly washing the same dress. Fortunately, after a few months the girl started to wear other things."

So go ahead, let your daughter cart around a toothbrush. Any way in which a child comforts herself is fine, as long as it can't hurt her.

Oh, no! We lost our son's stuffed dog. Now what?
It's a parent's worst fear  -- leaving her child's precious lovey behind somewhere. Ginny Read, whose two kids, now 10 and 12, were both blankie addicts, lost several of them over the years. Her solution? Backups. "We bought six  -- three pink ones and three green."

Having substitutes is a great idea, says Klein. But the trick isn't just having spares sitting in a box  -- and then pulling one out when the original is lost. "Since kids know the smell of their lovey, you have to rotate them so your child's less likely to get attached to one."

Easier said than done, even for someone who knows better. "One of my sons had five identical stuffed dolls," says Klein. "But then I got lazy and didn't wash all of them and only one became his favorite. Luckily, it never got lost!"

Oh, My Lovey

Every week, my daughter changes loveys. How come?
"Both my sons had a succession of things they liked to carry around," says Julia Hanauer-Milne of Sidney, Maine. "Noah, my oldest, who's five, had a frog, then a bear named Ostrich. My two-year-old, Nathan, now has a fleece blanket and a stuffed blue jay, but before that he had a stuffed puffin. And he doesn't go anywhere without a little car or truck in his hand."

For some kids, taking something out of the house is like taking a piece of home and a sense of familiarity with them. But a child with a bunch of favored toys may feel secure with any one of them; she doesn't have to rely on just a single item for comfort.

Should I let my son bring his security object to preschool?
When Zachary Michaelson, now 4, started preschool two years ago, he wanted his stuffed turtle, Fluffie, to stay beside him in the classroom, says his mom, Sharon, of Florence, Massachusetts.

Routine and predictability are just as important for preschoolers as they are for toddlers. So if there's been a change in his environment  -- he's just started school or he's got a sib on the way  -- he won't be happy to be away from the object of his desire for hours.

It's okay to let your child tote his security object to school, says Klein. You can offer your preschooler options he can understand  -- his blankie can go to school, for instance, but it has to stay in the cubby. Luckily, since most kids can grasp the concept of rules at this age, he'll probably accept your restriction.

That's what Michaelson did. Fluffie could go to school with Zachary, but it had to stay in his backpack (although he was allowed to take it out at naptime). "Now that he's a little older, he'll leave Fluffie at home sometimes or send it to work with me," she says.

I'm afraid my 4-year-old will never give up her lovey!
After a nurse suggested that Michelle Heller find something for her fussy 3-month-old to cuddle during nursing sessions, the Los Angeles mom picked an alligator that a friend had given her as a baby gift. Her baby is now 5, and his alligator rarely leaves his side (except on school days).

If you're worried that other kids will make fun of yours for carrying around a stuffed animal, keep in mind that children typically give up those intense attachments in favor of real-life pals once they start kindergarten. But you can nudge the process along by offering to substitute something else  -- a note from you in her lunch box or a piece of her blankie to put in her pocket or backpack.

But there's no need to force the issue. Your child will outgrow it on her own  -- and you'll be surprised at how nostalgic you'll feel at the sight of her discarded beloved. Priti Dadhania of Hainesport, New Jersey, has no intention of ever ending her 20-month-old son's attachment to his blanket. She's even aided his dependence, so to speak, by cutting the blanket in half so one part can go to daycare and the other half is always waiting for him at home.

While she admits he's still young, she isn't worried about his getting teased: If he needs to, she says, he can bring it to college. "He can even get married with it. The bride can take him, blanket and all!"