12 months Hush, LITTLE BABY
From blankies to dummies, why do infants attach themselves to objects of comfort? It turns out it’s an important part of their psychological development
When you have a b a b y, expect people to shower you with soft toys from bunnies with floppy ears to soft-as-silk teddies. While they are often intended as decoration, don’t discount how important one of these little critters could become in your child’s life. In fact, they could become the next best thing to you as far as baby is concerned.
Many children find comfort in a soothing object, known in psychological terms as a transitional object, such as a teddy bear, soother, dummy or security blanket, explains Rosa Krauss, a child and family behaviour therapist and parenting coach of Carenect in Cape Town. “The object becomes psychologically imbued with the nurturing qualities of the baby’s main caregiver, usually the mother. It represents the mom in times of separation and allows the young child to move, or transition, from a state of dependence (where mom is needed to regulate and soothe upsets) to independence (where the toddler is more able to self-soothe).”
WHERE IT ALL BEGINS
If you’re concerned that your three-month-old turns her nose up at the doo-doo blanket you offer her, don’t be. Attachment to a comfort object really only kicks in at about six months, when a baby starts to show signs of awareness of independence from mom. “The infant becomes aware that she and the mother are two separate beings. This awareness of separateness can cause significant anxiety for the infant. Having an object that can ‘stand in’ for the mother, especially in times of stress, ameliorates this anxiety. The baby knows the object is not the mother, but is nonetheless able to obtain comfort from it as if it is the mother. It is this capacity to negotiate separation via an object which allows for the ability to self-soothe and independence to emerge,” says clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist Dr Joalida Smit.
So what’s the benefit of getting your child to attach to Mr Cuddles? “Children who use a comfort object have been found to show decreased levels of stress and distress in new situations (being left with a new babysitter for the first time or being examined by a doctor, for instance), as they are able to use their object to help regulate their feelings and minimise anxiety,” says Rosa. While your child can always reach for her teddy when she’s distressed, it also gives you an emergency object to give them when you find you are not able to help them calm down.
Rosa recommends that you introduce your baby to a comfort object earlier than six months so that the link between comfort and soothing is already established through familiar smell and texture. “Consider keeping it close at hand when feeding in early infancy so that your baby begins to associate the smell and texture with a soothing, nurturing act,” she says.
Not all children develop an attachment to a transitional object and this is completely normal too. “Some children develop only fleeting attachments, or rotate through a variety of different soothers, while many children develop very strong attachments to one particular item,” says Rosa.
WHAT’S THE DOWNSIDE?
There’s really only one, and it’s
a biggie: you lose the comfie. To avoid such calamities, many parents double up on comfort items so they have a Plan B when Teddy gets left in the park. This is unlikely to work, warns Rosa. “The replacement teddy does not have the same smell or wear and tear, so it lacks the psychological comfort that the original teddy gives a child.” She recommends rotating the use of the two identical comfort objects so they develop similar wear and smell.
“Children who do not have transitional objects may use a different road towards separation, perhaps relying on language to communicate their distress or self-soothe through other means,” says Dr Smit. These babies may use their mothers for longer, relying on her to soothe their needs and in adult life may be less likely to turn to art or music for self-soothing, relying perhaps more on the presence of actual people, friends or sport to help them through difficult periods. “This is because transitional objects also provide a space for fantasy to enter the child’s world and play an important role in imaginary play.”