Com­fort items: How do we get kids to let go?

Chil­dren may need help to give up ob­jects they’ve been at­tached to since baby­hood, writes Amy Brown

The New Zealand Herald - - NEWS -

Many par­ents will feel a twinge of con­cern if their 5-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 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?

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. Dum­mies and bot­tles Some com­fort ob­jects, how­ever, are bet­ter than oth­ers. The ev­i­dence for us­ing dum­mies 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.

Ba­bies are born with an in­nate need to suck. When breast­feed­ing, suck­ing feeds them, calms them and in­creases the mother’s milk sup­ply. Dum­mies can help bot­tle-fed ba­bies to suck and calm them­selves.

Some­times breast­feed­ing mums use them, but if a baby meets its suck­ing needs else­where, this can re­duce milk sup­ply, so they aren’t rec­om­mended in the first six weeks.

The sub­ject of us­ing a dummy can be di­vi­sive. If they’re used care­fully, they can ben­e­fit young ba­bies and are rec­om­mended at night as they may re­duce Sud­den In­fant Death Syn­drome risk. Suck­ing can also some­times help a baby with colic.

But ex­perts rec­om­mend ba­bies should be weaned from dum­mies af­ter six months. Aside from the chal­lenge of wean­ing an older baby, dum­mies can in­tro­duce harm­ful bac­te­ria into the mouth. They can also in­crease the risk of ear in­fec­tions, and af­fect how teeth come through.

Al­low­ing chil­dren to have a bot­tle for com­fort is also a bad idea. Bot­tles are nat­u­rally as­so­ci­ated with com­fort due to the com­bi­na­tion of food, suck­ing and be­ing held close. But ba­bies should be slowly weaned off them once they are eat­ing solids and stopped by 12 months. When a baby sucks on a bot­tle, the milk pools around their teeth and can cause cav­i­ties.

The same does not ap­ply to breast­fed ba­bies. There is a lot of dif­fer­ence in pli­a­bil­ity be­tween a nip­ple and a dummy or bot­tle, mean­ing less im­pact on jaw and tooth de­vel­op­ment. Nip­ples are also not kept in the mouth for ex­tended pe­ri­ods. Fi­nally, breast­milk is de­liv­ered to the back of the mouth rather than milk pool­ing around the front teeth mean­ing a lower risk of cav­i­ties. So those who squirm at the thought of breast­feed­ing past in­fancy but en­cour­age a dummy are not only con­fused in their logic (af­ter all, a dummy is a fake nip­ple) but the out­comes are po­ten­tially worse.

Wean­ing ba­bies from dum­mies and bot­tles is best started early, rather than let­ting it be­come an in­grained habit. Start by re­mov­ing it dur­ing the day and try to of­fer some­thing pos­i­tive — more hugs, a book and a cud­dle, or a dis­tract­ing toy if they be­come up­set. Tod­dlers can be per­suaded with sticker charts, or swap­ping their dum­mies with the pop­u­lar “dummy fairy” who brings a new toy for the “big girl or boy” in­stead.

To wean from bot­tles, of­fer ba­bies a cup of water with meals from six months old. Once they have the hang of a cup, slowly swap bot­tles for cups over a few weeks. The night-time one can be the hardest so try to adopt a new rou­tine to calm them which doesn’t in­volve them feed­ing to sleep.

In short, com­fort ob­jects are nor­mal and a great way for small chil­dren (and oc­ca­sion­ally grownups) 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 — not least for your san­ity when it comes to wean­ing.

Amy Brown

is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of child public health, Swansea Univer­sity

Pic­ture / Getty Im­ages

A need for com­fort is part of be­ing hu­man, and com­fort ob­jects re­mind us of feel­ing calm, se­cure and loved.

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