The strong bond between children and comfort objects

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  Published on Wednesday, 06 March 2019

The strong bond between children and comfort objects

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & NutritionParenting & Family Life
  Published on Wednesday, 06 March 2019
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Whether they're cosying up to a velvety blankie or cuddling a flea-bitten dog toy, comfort objects are a positive addition to little people's lives. They have a special way of supporting babies and children as they rest, play and grow; and over time, these well-loved items become part of the family.

Here we look at the child-comforter relationship, with some insights from paediatric and child psychology experts.

What are comfort objects?

As the name suggests, comfort objects are items that provide comfort to infants and children to help them feel calm and secure. They're usually snuggled at bedtime, but can soothe youngsters through the day as well.

These objects are also known as 'loveys' (because youngsters form a close connection with them) or 'transitional objects' (because they help children transition from being a dependent baby to an independent older child).

Although different children find comfort in different objects, loveys are usually soft, cuddly and nice to touch. Some common types are:

  • Soft toys such as a teddy or plushie
  • Blankets like a fluffy blankie or Kippins baby comforter
  • Part of a parent's clothing, for instance a silky tie or dressing gown trim

Why do children become so attached to comfort objects?

Many children have comfort objects, and there are several reasons why a threadbare teddy or Mum's satin handkerchief is so important to its owner.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 'Security objects … are part of the emotional support system every child needs in [their] early years.'

Paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, says that comfort objects are a reminder of love and security.

Australia's celebrated children's health expert, Professor Frank Oberklaid, explains that a child's love for their comfort object is a side effect of their wider developmental needs. In other words, transition objects provide the predictability that youngsters require as they separate from their parents (e.g. at bedtime) and gain independence.

Although two comfort objects might look alike, the child's preferred item has a special emotional pull. According to a psychological study by British professor, Bruce Hood, and American professor, Paul Bloom, children become attached to their particular toy or blankie because of an intuitive belief that it has a unique essence or life force.

Professor Hood says that even though children, 'Know these objects are not alive … they believe in them as if they are' and when given the option of an identical-looking object, the majority of children prefer to keep their original item. It is familiar to them, it smells like them and it has that unique essence no look-alike can mimic.

What are the main benefits of comfort objects?

Overall, transitional objects make children feel good and help them manage new experiences:

  • Comfort objects help youngsters relax and get to sleep
  • They are companions that children can talk to, sleep alongside and share experiences with
  • They provide reassurance when children are separated from their parents, e.g. at bedtime or child care
  • They provide comfort when children are frightened or upset, e.g. in the middle of the night
  • They help children feel secure in unfamiliar environments, i.e. by providing a link between a new situation and the comfort of home

How many children go through a 'comfort object' stage?

Many, but not all, youngsters have comfort objects. The Guardian says, 'Studies have shown that up to 70 per cent of young children develop strong attachments to objects such as toys or blankets.' However, it's interesting to note that, 'The phenomenon tends to be confined to the western world, where children usually sleep apart from their parents at an early age.'

When should children give up their comfort toy?

Although a parent might feel that it's time for their child to let the lovey go, there's no 'normal' age for a child to move on from their comfort toy.

Professor Oberklaid says children grow out of the habit at different times and, 'The age they stop using [comfort] objects varies according to the child, the family situation, the child's temperament [and] experience.'

He adds, 'We see eight-year-olds still with a bunny they had when they were twelve-months-old, and other children for whom the choice of object has changed over time. What I try to do is normalise all of that behaviour,' instead of setting ages where comfort toys are seen as 'abnormal'.

Saying that, if an older child is 'too attached' to their comfort object, parents should consider whether the child is anxious about something else in their lives.

Although one study found that children with strong bonds to comfort objects have stronger attachment to a parent and are happier than those without a lovey, the same study found that teenagers who need their comfort object on a daily basis may have poorer mental health.

Should children take comfort toys to child care?

Again, this comes down to the temperament of the child. Professor Oberklaid says that, 'Parents need to make that decision based on their instinct. For some kids the thought of separation from something at any time is so traumatic that by all means let them take it. For others, you can reason with them and tell them Teddy will be in their room when they get home.'

If the child does take their lovey to care, then it's fair enough to treat this item differently. Although sharing is an important social skill to practice, it's ok if the child doesn't want to hand their transitional toy to anyone else. In fact, it's completely understandable.


References

First Five Years
The Conversation
American Academy of Pediatrics
The Guardian

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 30 December 2019

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