The other day I got an email from a parent concerned about his kid’s use of a security blanket. I replied a lengthy reply regarding my own experience but for his sake, I said I’d do a post about it with more info and the potential for a rich and revealing comment board. So here is my experience with and research about the matter. Please leave your own book recs, personal experience, and even theories for Enrico with the two boys, years 2.5 and 4, who are attached to their blankets!
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.
Evelyn’s Comfort Object: Glomer
My daughter’s comfort object didn’t come on so soon. It wasn’t until she was about 9 months old that she got her own room and at that same time her uncle sent her a little doll. She became somewhat attached to that doll at bed time. She slept with it and rubbed its little hand and, since I thought it was cute, I made sure that she always had it when she slept. She never did seem to care that much, though, when it got lost under the couch or left in the car. I didn’t even realize it was a comfort object or transitional object. I thought it was just a favorite doll. But now, looking back on it. That’s definitely what it was.
When she was just turning 4, she lost it at a store. I don’t know how much she actually cared, but I cared! I was afraid that her imagination had turned this doll into something real over the years. I was afraid it might be like losing someone she loved. But she adjusted to the new Glomerless life immediately. She didn’t attach herself to any other thing after that. And she didn’t exhibit any strange behavior or anything weird at all. It seems to me that the object was a method for comfort but the thing itself wasn’t an object of desire.
We are minimalists, and we try to discourage attachment to things. We have routinely gone through her toys together and sent them to the Goodwill since she was a baby. She goes through everything herself, making choices about what she wants and doesn’t want. We don’t place much importance on things in our house and she has learned that. She does have toys and she does love to play, but things routinely come and go and she seems to be fine with it. Winnicott also noted that comfort objects can come in the form of sounds or imaginary people. Maybe she adopted one of those alternatives. I’m not really sure.
Every kid is different. My daughter is very independent and strong in general but some kids are more emotional, fearful, or reserved. I would expect these kids to have a greater need for a stress reliever.
How important a comfort object is to a kid probably depends on the situation – how sensitive the child is, how much love or stress there is at home, how common material attachment is in their lives, whether there is some transitional event going on (weaning, divorce, sleeping in a room alone for the first time).
My sister died shortly after the doll was lost. She was very close to my sister and, on top of that, only a few days later I was in a serious bicycle accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. For weeks I was on another planet and for months I was fearful, forgetful, stressed out, depressed and I slept a whole lot. I was barely able to help her through this difficult time. I wished she still had her friend Glomer to compensate for my lack of presence. So I went out and bought her a new one from the store. She attached herself to the doll again in just the same way.
Glomer reincarnated was definitely a transitional object because only a couple of months later it ended up in the bottom of her stuffed animal box. She needed it while she needed it and when life got back to normal, she put it down.
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 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.
I was an attachment parent. I nursed my daughter for a year and a half and co-slept for almost a year. I carried her for about 3 years. And stayed at home full time for the first two years. Could this be why she wasn’t overly attached to anything except during the nights when I left her alone? Could it have been her diet which, being high in protein, nutrients, and animal fats, rendered her a very well tempered, happy kid in general?
What is the experience of other mothers? Was your child’s life “ideal” and did he/she use a transitional object or comfort object?