Many parents will feel a twinge of concern if their five-year-old can’t sleep without his dummy or their teenager refuses to throw out the tattered blanket she’s had since she was a baby. The topic of comfort objects is hotly debated, with some arguing that the attachment to objects from babyhood is childish, unnecessary or even harmful.
So when should you worry about your child’s reliance on comfort items? And how can you encourage them to let go?
The truth is that even adults have attachment objects. How many get comfort from a favourite jumper? Or hoard treasured objects from loved ones without second thought? After all, a third of adults admit they can’t bear to part with their own moth-eaten childhood toy.
A need for comfort is part of being human, and comfort objects remind us of feeling calm, secure and loved. Babies are born wanting to be held close. They spend months cuddled and swayed, knowing someone will help soothe their needs. This helps them build feelings of secure attachment to a parent and confidence to go out into the world.
And one day they must make that journey – whether to childcare, school or even just across the room when they start to crawl. A parent can’t always be there to comfort them, but something that reminds them of that security can – a comforter, or, in scientific terms, a “transitional object” that bridges a link between a new situation and the comfort of home.
Although research in the 1940s considered such items a sign of poor attachment, the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott later proposed that they were in fact the opposite. Rather than being an object to turn to in lieu of love and care, they were a reminder of love and security.
Although most children grow out of comfort objects by the age of four, later research has continued to back up Winnicott. One study found that kids with strong bonds to transitional objects have stronger attachment to a parent and are happier than those without.
But this effect starts to reverse as children get older. The same study showed that teens who still hold a strong attachment to a transitional object have poorer mental health. While there is nothing wrong with keeping a comfort blanket for the fond memories it brings, still needing it on a day to day basis as a teenager, or indeed as an adult, could be a sign that something is wrong.
Some comfort objects, however, are better than others. The evidence for using dummies (pacifiers) or bottles past 12 months is less positive. Similarly, although babies thumb suck in the womb, if this habit is carried on past a year, problems can arise.
In short, comfort objects are normal and a great way for small children (and occasionally grown-ups) to calm and soothe themselves, and there is no need to worry about removing them. But once they can walk and talk, stick to the cuddly (or toy car) variety rather than a dummy or bottle.
- The Conversation