Jessica Zaucha's daughter, Alex, used to sleep through the night. But when Alex was about 6½ months old, that changed.
Alex would become hysterical at bedtime. She thought her parents were trying to leave her. To ease the separation anxiety Alex was feeling, Zaucha introduced "Blankie" to her.
Immediately after she started using the blanket at bedtime, Alex slept through the night again. Even today, 18-month-old Alex is still fondly attached to "Blankie."
Parents who have a child like Alex may wonder when their child's attachment to an object becomes inappropriate. They also may worry about if they should help or force their child to give up the object.
Zaucha said transition objects are most often items with a soft texture like blankets or stuffed animals, but they also can be pacifiers or bottles that children become attached to. Zaucha is a partner and therapist at Bondora, Zaucha & Associates in Palatine. Zaucha said children usually start becoming attached to transition objects between 6 months to 1½ years of age.
Zaucha said transition objects are a positive part of a child's development because it shows the child is capable of forming strong attachments. She said transition objects can even help children with separation anxiety.
Michael Meyerhoff said children use transition objects to relieve stress. Meyerhoff is the executive director of The Epicenter Inc. (The Education for Parenthood Information Center) in Lindenhurst. He has made appearances on radio and television shows, including NBC's Today Show.
"Parents don't realize that being a tiny person in a big world is stressful and young children don't have the opportunities to relieve stress like adults do," Meyerhoff said. "Sucking on a pacifier or rubbing a blanket against a cheek, are a few ways that children have to relieve stress."
Eryn Donohue said pacifier use is a way for infants and children to self soothe. She recommends that parents get rid of their child's pacifier at 12 to 18 months old or sooner. By age 3, a pacifier habit is strongly discouraged since long-term use can have negative affects on tooth and jaw position. Donohue is a doctor of dental surgery at Just for Kids Pediatric Dentistry in Naperville.
Zaucha recommends that parents don't take transition objects like blankets or stuffed animals away before age 3, because children aren't able to rationalize yet and are still attributing humanlike qualities to their objects. She has found from personal experience with her daughter that setting limits about when and where your child can use the object is helpful.
For example, Zaucha only lets her daughter Alex have "Blankie" during naptime, bedtime and relaxing time around the house. At the same time, Zaucha does make certain exceptions. If Alex is sick or feeling anxious about going on an airplane, "Blankie" makes an appearance.
Downers Grove mom Beth Bukey has a 3-year-old daughter named Kathryn who is attached to her dog lovey blanket. Kathryn typically uses the lovey at home while watching TV, at bedtime, and when she's in trouble or upset.
"If she's in trouble or sad about something she will go look for it," Bukey said. "She actually told me when she was crying, 'I need my dog to wipe my tears.'"
Bukey said Kathryn has used the lovey since she was about 18 months old. If her daughter is still attached to her lovey by age 5 or 6, Bukey said she would probably encourage her to "try to live without it."
If you have a 3½-year-old, and have never limited your child's use of a transition object, Zaucha suggests that you tell your child, "You're a big kid now," and establish when the transition object can be used. Zaucha says parents can start off letting their child only have the object during bedtime and naptime, then later just naptime, and eventually notify the child that the item will be kept safe in a box somewhere.
Zaucha said the process should be gradual and is very individualized. Sometimes, parents may want to consider having a conversation with a counselor to develop healthy and comfortable strategies for your child, she said.
Meyerhoff said a child's attachment to a transition object rarely goes beyond preschool. Children find other ways to relieve stress such as riding a bike or reading a book and generally don't need to use a blanket or pacifier anymore. Meyerhoff said after preschool, peers become even more important and having pacifiers or blankets can make children feel embarrassed, which motivates them to give the objects up on their own.
Meyerhoff said the best thing parents can do is "back off." Forcing your child to give up a transition object can result in a power struggle, he said.
"If a child becomes aware that this is something that gets under your skin, this becomes one of the few ways that he can exert power in the relationship, and he will stubbornly stick to it," he said.
Meyerhoff said if a parent remains calm and makes it clear that "it's no big deal," then it will be easier for the child to give up the object by himself/herself and will keep the "whole process focused on the child rather than the interaction between the two of you."
Zaucha knows that parents can get concerned about their child's attachment to a transition object but she wants them to realize that there is nothing damaging about having a "blankie," or lovey. Transition objects are a normal part of child development.
Almost every day, Zaucha's daughter Alex says "Buh-bye Blankie," when Blankie goes on top of the dryer during playtime or when Blankie gets a bath to be "fresh and clean like Alex." Eventually, Alex won't need Blankie anymore and will say bye to Blankie for the last time either on her own or with her parents' encouragement.
Tips for parents
Don't take your child's transition object away before age 3. The only exception is pacifiers, which you should take away from your child at 12 to 18 months old or sooner to prevent problems with tooth and jaw position.
Gradually set limits about when and where your child can have the object.
Don't force your child to give up the object. If you do, it could result in a power struggle.
Wash the transition object early and often so that your child won't become attached to the scent.
Be patient and realize that transition objects are a normal part of your child's development.