A comfort object, transitional object, or security blanket as it is commonly called is an item that a child, usually 4 to 6 months old, uses to help separate itself from its mother.
Psychologist Donald Winnicott, an object relations theorist, first introduced the concept of a transitional object. He contends that these objects support the idea of “not me” and help make the transition to the world as an independent self a little easier. This is an important psychological transition for a baby. Up until this point the child has not known itself to be anything separate from its mother. The child uses the object to feel secure during this very scary and stark realization.
He did not suggest that the phenomenon was at all negative. Transitional objects are necessary in the development of a child and, in fact, the absence of a transitional object might possibly herald problems with forming close relationships as an adult.
However, when the child does not use the object as “transitional” and instead becomes attached to it – think Linus or any 3 or 4 year old still sucking a pacifier – there might be some underlying psychological issues, but even then, not necessarily.
Comfort Objects Relieve Stress
Essentially, the reason children adopt the transitional object in the first place is because it relives stress. But wait a minute. Stress? Really? Beyond the transitional period of separation from the parent and the developing concept of “not me” why is the little baby so stressed out?
Well, one answer is that the world is big and scary and unknown and dark and noisy… While these are pretty legitimate stressors for a child, a parent should consider if there are other significant stressors in the child’s life such as mom going away to work after a few weeks or months, the disappearance of familiar things or people, parents who fight or are stressed out themselves, etc.
Attachment Parenting and Comfort Objects
Research seems to show that kids know what they’re doing with comfort objects, that they use them when they need them.
Ideally, parents should encourage more attachment with their children and should try to reduce stress in the house. After that, I think it’s okay to allow them to find their own (appropriate) ways to comfort themselves.
“Dr. Horton, a psychiatrist at the Child Guidance Center in Meriden, Conn., said, ‘’Psychoanalysis has focused too much on sexuality and aggression, but the ability to give solace to oneself is the basis of such major positive feelings as joy, awe, forgiveness and generosity.’” – from NYT
“Richard H. Passman, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, initially set out to determine whether children with secure attachments to their mothers were more or less likely to have a security blanket. He found no link at all between the strength of the mother-child relationship and the passionate love of a toddler for his blanky. But surprisingly, researchers did find that children who were both insecurely attached to their mothers and strongly attached to their blankies seemed to adjust better to an anxiety-producing situation. ‘For these children, the blanket promoted play, exploration and non-distress in their mothers’ absence,’ Passman says.” – from psychology today
However, all this research doesn’t stop me from wondering about kids in traditional cultures. Kids who eat a clean diet, who sleep with their parents, are carried by their parents, nurse for years, have lots of loving family around at all times might not have much need to comfort themselves in this same way. I wonder if part of the problem for kids in our society is how early they are broken off from their mothers and, possibly, the emotional difficulties brought on by a bad diet.