Why do infants and toddlers become attached to blankets and teddy bears? The British pediatrician D. O. Winnicott suggested that these soft fuzzies begin to have a special significance during the second half of the first year of life because they come to represent aspects of the relationship to the mother. By choosing to use a transitional object, as Winnicott called them, the toddler feels connected to mother during periods of separation. Transitional phenomena—sounds, words, and songs—may be used for the same purpose.
Probably the most famous transitional object in the world is Linus’s blanket from the comic strip Peanuts. His fanatical attachment to his blanket illustrates a common problem faced by parents and clinicians. As one parent put it, “How do I get her to give up the damn thing? It’s ugly and it smells, but she thinks it’s the cat’s meow.”
Julie was three. She was still deeply attached to her blanket and carried it everywhere, even to the market and the mall, when she went shopping with mother. Julie was about to start pre-school, and mother was embarrassed at the prospect of her daughter marching into preschool with her blanket. She wouldn’t have been the first child to do so, but mother was on the right track when she asked me for help. How to I get her to give it up. The answer I gave her was “gradually” after I pointed out that the problem was really the mother’s, since she had hesitated to set an appropriate limit. She hadn’t come to me with concerns about toilet training. But as I took a developmental history, it was clear that there had been no consistent attempt to toilet train Julie, either.
Back to the blanket. I suggested that mother gradually set limits on the use of the blanket. First restrict its use to the home. After a few temper tantrums as they left the house Julie calmed down and within two weeks became comfortable leaving “George” as she called her blanket for some reason unknown to mother. Next the use of the blanket was limited to nap time and bedtime. This second step occurred more easily than the first. A few weeks later mother was instructed to tell Julie that she was a big girl who had learned to be without her blanket most of the time. She could do the same at nap time as well and she would feel “sooo" big.
A few weeks later, to mother’s complete surprise, Julie told mother that she didn’t want to go to bed with her blanket either. But, she asked, could George sleep with her Barbie in a chair across the room. The sexual implications of George sleeping with Barbie rather than Ken were not explored. After several months of the affair Julie seemed to be totally uninterested in her blanket, and with her agreement, Mom placed it on a shelf in the closet, there to be rediscovered years later, hopefully with fond memories.
As adults we continue a clandestine relationship with things that signify a special degree of closeness and warmth. A favorite sweater or scarf, silk sheets and flannel pajamas, even an irreplaceable jogging suit or a sweat-stained tennis cap—all may be the key to reopening a pathway to a soothing, nurtured past. More ethereal stimuli such as music may also invoke the same feelings.
A man of forty was puzzled by his deep love of a particular Chopin etude. When I asked when he first heard it, he immediately told me, eyes, shining, about the first concert he ever attended with his mother, at age eight. The red velvet seat cushion was warm and fuzzy against his bare, short-panted legs. Once we connected his love of the etude with his memory of the concert experience with his mother, whenever he heard that etude he remembered his mother’s smile as she watched him transported by the music and felt a deep sense of maternal love and closeness.