Why do some toddlers become attached to teddy bears and blankets? These soft, fuzzy objects begin to have a special significance during the second half of the first year of life because they are soft and warm. And they represent aspects of the infant and toddler's relationship to Mother. By becoming attached to a blanket or a teddy bear, the toddler is able, through fantasy, to feel connected to Mom and Dad during periods of separation - even brief ones such as nap and bed times.
Toddlers may also use sounds, words, songs, and other verbal expressions closely associated with mother or father for the same purpose of staying connected. Teddy bears and blankets are used by both sexes in the same manner. However, not all children become attached to a soft, fuzzy object. The absence of a blanket or teddy bear is not a sign of pathology.
Famous and Infamous Blankets
The most famous transitional object in existence is Linus's blanket (from the comic strip Peanuts).Charles Schultz knew what he was talking about. However, the distinction of possessing the most infamous blanket in the world may belong to the child of a colleague of mine whom I shall call Laura. Laura is now a grown woman and a highly esteemed professional. When she was 4 years and 7 months old, I received a frantic call from her mother seeking advice. Laura's blanket was gone!
The following story emerged. Laura had been deeply attached to her blanket from the age of 1, refusing to venture anywhere without it. As time passed, Mother found it necessary to occasionally wash the blanket, which had become tattered, dirty, and smelly. On such occasions, Laura would stand under her blanket, looking longingly at it, tantalizingly out of reach, while it hung on the clothesline to dry. The immediate crisis was precipitated by the fact that the blanket, reduced to a rag by years of constant use, had gone into the washing machine and failed to emerge!
Laura ultimately survived the loss of her blanket and went on to become a lawyer. But her parents could have saved her and themselves considerable anxiety and distress if they had helped Laura give up her blanket when it was no longer necessary developmentally. Just as sucking on the breast or bottle does not further the developmental process as the second year of life progresses, neither does strong attachment to a transitional object after a sense of independence has been achieved.
Like weaning from the bottle, if the child has not given up the transitional object on his or her own as the fourth year of life progresses, the parents should structure an active weaning process from it. Since the child of 3 or 4 years has the capacity for language, words, as well as limits may be employed. After explaining that the child can learn to be comfortable without the transitional object, and therefore feel more grown up, a gradual process of withdrawal is initiated. For example, the treasure may first be restricted to the house, then the bedroom, next to the bed at bedtime, and finally to a drawer or shelf where it remains on a permanent basis, ready to be rediscovered many years later as a remnant of a distant past, the pain associated with its loss forgotten.
Here’s how to help your child make that transition: “Nancy, Dad and I think it’s time for you to put your blanket away. I know you love it, but big girls don’t use blankets. And we know you want to be a big girl. How about if we leave it in your room during the day. But it will be there for you at nap time and when you go to bed.”
Resistance to this restriction should be expected. But remaining firm will allow this important developmental process to go forward. After a few weeks, similar comments can be made as the blanket is restricted gradually until, as described above, it is laid on a shelf in the bedroom, to be rediscovered years later as a remnant of the distant past.