Maybe it’s a tattered teddy bear. Maybe it’s a stinky old blanket you try to snatch and wash to howls of dismay. For my middle son, it was a Brobee monster from Yo Gabba Gabba, eyeballs worn off so it looked like some Walking Dead crossover. But you had one too, didn’t you? An old bear with matted fur, stuffing spilling out. A succession of blankies you needed to fall asleep. Your mom probably thought the same things you do: This is so embarrassing. And OMG, when will she give that thing up? And Is that thing some predictor she’ll grow up to be a psychopath?
Chill out, mama.
According to The Guardian, studies have shown that in the western world, where kids sleep alone from a young age, over 70% of kids show strong attachment to “cuddly toys, blankets and even smelly old scraps of material because they intuitively believe they possess a unique essence or life force.” They compare the kids to art enthusiasts who prefer the original to copies in every way, because children, when faced with an object completely identical to their own, will prefer theirs in every single case.
Luckily for the kids, scientists have found that most parents are accepting of their child’s comfort object. According to an article in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, though some attitudes differed across race and class about when it was appropriate for the child to have the comfort object, and when was the right time for a child to give it up, parents were, by and large, respectful. So mama, don’t worry whether someone else is judging you because your “big kid” has a blankie shoved in his face or is dragging a teddy behind her. We get it.
In fact, a 1998 study in Child Psychiatry and Human Development found that children who attached to a “transitional object” showed “significantly more optimal” (read: better and more stable) mother-child bonding than children who didn’t attach to a transitional object. Boo-yah for the blanky!
But there’s a caveat: Participants who said they still had a “transitional object” when they were teens showed more psychiatric symptoms and “less general well being.” So there may be a time when parents might want to encourage a child to be less dependent on the use of a “security object.” But this is something you can talk to your doctor about if you’re concerned.
Teddies and blankies have shown to help little kids, too. Everyone knows that their kid wants to drag their comfort object to daycare (I remember doing the same thing myself). And at least one study, a 1993 paper published in Perception and Motor Skills, shows that these objects help facilitate transition and reduce anxiety in “mildly stressful” situations. Teddy’s there when mama’s not. Yay for teddy!
This may go back to a time when teddy literally was there when mama was not — when a child was made to sleep alone at a young age. Studies have consistently shown that children in the Western world are more likely to have comfort objects. A 2003 study in Infant Mental Health Journal of 50 New Yorkers and 50 Tokoyans found that 62% of the Americans kids had comfort objects, compared to only 38% of the kids in Japan. The kids in Japan were more likely to sleep in the same bed or some room with their mother, and it seems that “children whose mothers are continuously available, especially at night, are not likely to develop attachment to transitional objects.”
I slept with all my kids until they were at least two; the youngest two developed significant attachment to comfort objects. So a kid dragging around some battered stuffed toy isn’t a magic way to spot a parent’s sleeping arrangements.
But these findings were upheld when scientists investigated another population less likely to have comfort objects: children who are attachment parented. In Early Childhood Development and Care, a 2004 research essay details that, “Mothers who indicated they had children who were parented with such AP methods as breastfeeding, feeding on the infants’ cue, cosleeping, and holding their child during the transition to sleep” only used comfort objects 18.2% of the time. Those who did use comfort object weaned much earlier than kids with no comfort object, which suggests that kids replaced a comfort object with the breast. So if you don’t want your toddler dragging around a blanky, you can always have them nursing 24/7 — which comes with a lot more social judgment and inconvenience.
But again, I attachment parented to this degree (I won’t tell you how old my kids were when they weaned, but it was well outside the American norm), and two had comfort objects. So this science isn’t 100%. And you shouldn’t use it to judge other mamas, either.
Sometimes, older kids need their blankies and teddies, too. Seven-year olds, 10-year olds — they may still want to sleep with their comfort object. And as Dr. Sears says, let them. Set boundaries: obviously, people might look askance if your 8-year-old drags a blankie into Old Navy. But for bed? Just let it slide. They’ll likely give it up eventually, and you can gently help the process by doing things like washing the item frequently overnight. If you’re worried or concerned, as they get older, talk to a gentle child psychologist and see what your course of action may be.
Most importantly, a 1987 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology study found that kids who had blankies were no more likely to be insecure, or generally fearful, than other kids. So let them drag their blankies, cart their teddies, and bring their bears wherever they need. Dr. Sears reminds us that they are unlikely to cart their blanky down the aisle on their wedding day, so we don’t need to worry about weaning them from it. Though if they’ve still got it when they’re fifteen, you might want to have them talk to someone. Just in case.