Alice Allan takes a look at the role of comfort objects in child development and what psychologists have said on the subject.
My favourite childhood toy, or to use the renowned British psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s words, my “transitional object,” was a puffin (actually he still is). He was given to me when I was two years old and quickly usurped a boss-eyed white bear to which I had previously been attached. I was faithful only to Puffin throughout my childhood and into my teens. Although I now live in Central Asia, he lives (and I use the word intentionally) at my parents’ house in England. When I go back, much to my husband’s ridicule, Puffin often shares my bed. I find his presence as comforting as I always did.
Puffin represents a continuum in my life. Of course, I don’t really attribute any independent life force to him—he is a fairly tatty stuffed toy with a beak made out of an old sweater. But he stands for safety and love and has a powerful effect on my stress levels.
In Western culture, it was only in the 1950s that comfort objects began to be recognized as a positive presence in a child’s life. Until that time, prevailing child care practices stressed baby’s early independence and regarded attachment to an object as a deficiency in the child, or a kind of fetish. Wulff (1946) cited clinical case material to demonstrate that fetishism is not uncommon in childhood, that the fetish represents a substitute for the mother’s breast and that its psychological structure differs from that of the fetishism of the adult. Equally, a baby’s instinctive attachment to its mother was put down to its biological need for food and warmth. Then in the 1950s, Harry Harlow did a series of horribly memorable experiments [the content is disturbing] with baby rhesus monkeys.
The monkeys were taken from their mothers at birth and instead offered a wire mother and/or a cloth mother. It was hypothesised that the monkeys would attach equally to the wire mother, since she also fed them, but the experiment showed otherwise. Monkeys who were given the choice spent a lot of time cuddling the cloth mother, and when they were subjected to frightening stimuli (e.g. loud bangs), after a period of anxiety, they were able to calm themselves by cuddling. They used the cloth mother as a “psychological base of operations.”
Winnicott (1953) speaks of comfort objects as a normal part of childhood development, which play a part in the child’s growing independence from its mother. He believed that the toy or blanket serves to represent the mother when she is not there, and enables the child, like the baby monkeys, both to manage stress and to have the confidence to explore the environment. His view of transitional objects ties in with his theory of “the good-enough mother,” she being one who sensitively prepares the baby for the outside world by not being everything, always. By not being perfect, he writes, the good-enough mother gradually loosens the holding of the baby, rather than dropping it suddenly.
In the 1960s, John Bowlby, whose work on infant attachment has informed so much of current attachment theory, promoted the idea that children used their ‘blankies’ as a calming substitute for their key attachment figure, and by the 1970s, even eminent childcare writers like Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach were actively advocating the introduction of comfort objects to help babies manage times of separation.
The little girl (or boy) creates certain comforting assurances of her parents out of her cuddly toy … (Spock, 1945).
From watching my own children, and from my own memories of childhood, I think that for an older child, transitional objects become more complex than just being a substitute for a parental figure. With their toy, a growing child gets to experiment with being a protector as well as being protected. As well as it being a representation of motherly love, the toy can symbolize the ‘baby’ self; as the child comforts it, she comforts herself.
Comfort objects embody such passionate and powerful roles and relationships, it is no wonder that they figure so heavily in literature and film. Think of the Velveteen Rabbit, who needs to be loved to become a real rabbit, Linus and his blanket in the Peanuts comic, and even Seth MacFarlane’s foul-mouthed bear, Ted, in the eponymous comedy, whose adult owner is exhorted to give Ted up if he ever wants to get a girl. I recently re-read Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; the scene when Lyra deserts her daemon recalls all the agony of a child’s separation from her much loved toy.
Objects that are imbued with the powerful essence of mother, babyhood, protection, and safety cannot comfortably be shared, washed or left behind. The loved object is anthropomorphised, that is attributed with human feelings. I vividly remember anxiously asking my mother to anesthetize my puffin before she repaired his disintegrating beak. In one piece of research, adults exhibited much more unconscious stress when cutting up pictures of their attachment objects than with an unknown teddy (Hood, Bloom, Donnelly, & Leonards, 2010).
Neither can loved objects be replaced. In another experiment, the scientists tricked small children into thinking their toys had been cloned in a special machine. Of strongly attached children, four refused to have their object copied at all, and of the 18 who did, 13 unsurprisingly refused a seemingly identical substitute. If the loved object does, as many believe, represent their mother, their acceptance would have meant taking in a usurper-mother, one that is identical in looks but unknown and instinctively deficient in essence—a very scary prospect! (Hood & Bloom, 2008).
Studies show that it seems only where the culture of sleeping alone exists that attachment objects are common. In cultures where families sleep together at night, and children spend much of their days with their mother, a low incidence of attachment objects is reported, but about 70% of children in the Western world are thought to have a special toy. In a fascinating more recent piece of research, Fortuna, Baor, Israel, Abadi, & Knafo, 2014) studied twins who attended daycare for differing hours per day. They found that for children who spent only half days in day care the rates of object attachment were only 27.3%, whereas for those in full daycare, the rates rose to 35.6%.
The presence of the mother is as important for the child as her milk and mothers who share sleep with their babies and toddlers are more likely to minimize separations wherever possible. It would seem logical, then, to think that the babies of mothers who practice attachment parenting would not need attachment objects. One mother who shared a bed with her children told me:
At school once my daughter’s teacher was asking them about special teddies that helped them get to sleep and she told her that she had always had her mummy and didn’t need a teddy.
However, different children have different needs for comfort and make different entrances into the world, into differing environments, so having a close attachment with your mother may not be a clear predictor of being able to do without a special cuddly toy. And while some researchers have suggested there is no correlation between a child’s tendency to have a special cuddly toy and their attachment to their mothers (Van Ijzendoorn, Tavecchio, Goossens, Vergeer, & Swaan, 1983), others have suggested the contrary, that the more strongly attached a child is, the more likely he is to have an attachment object (Lehman, Denham, Moser, & Reeves, 1992). Clearly more research needs to be done!
What we do know is that babies and children (even us adults) benefit from all kinds of cuddles, hugs, and holding. While some may never need or want an attachment object, others may find one a big support in times of stress and separation. My own mother, when she misses me, tells me that she sometimes has a little cuddle with my puffin.
Fortuna, K., Baor, L., Israel, S., Abadi, A., & Knafo, A. (2014). Attachment to inanimate objects and early childcare: A twin study. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00486
Harlow, H. F., and Zimmermann, R. R. (1959). Affectional responses in the infant monkey. Science 130, 421–432. doi: 10.1126/science.130.3373.421
Hood, B. M., & Bloom, P. (2008). Children prefer certain individuals over perfect duplicates. Cognition, 106(1), 455–462. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2007.01.012
Hood, B. M., Bloom, P., Donnelly, K., & Leonards, U. (2010). Implicit voodoo: Electrodermal activity reveals a susceptibility to sympathetic magic. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10(3), 391–399. doi:10.1163/156853710×531258
Lehman, E. B., Denham, S. A., Moser, M. H., & Reeves, S. L. (1992). Soft object and pacifier attachments in young children: The role of security of attachment to the mother. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33(7), 1205–1215. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1992.tb00939.x
Pulman, P. (1995–2000). His dark materials. Trilogy. U.K. Scholastic.
Schulz, C., M.(1950–2000). Peanuts.
Spock, B. (1945). The common sense book of baby and child care. New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
Van Ijzendoorn, M., Tavecchio, L., Goossens, F., Vergeer, M., & Swaan, J. (1983). How B is B4? Attachment and security of Dutch children in Ainsworth’s strange situation and at home. Psychological Reports 52(3), 683–691.
Williams, M., W. (1922). The velveteen rabbit (or how toys become real). U.K. George H. Doran Company.
Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: a study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 34(2), 89–97.
Wulff, M. (1946). Fetishism and object choice in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 15, 450-471.
Alice Allan grew up in rural Devon then studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actress and a corporate trainer in London and Tokyo, then as a lactation consultant in public hospitals in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she taught about breastfeeding, skin-to-skin and kangaroo care for premature babies. She has written for a number of publications including The Telegraph, The Sunday Express, the Ethiopian Herald, The Green Parent and The Mother Magazine. She currently lives in Tashkent, Uzbekistan with her diplomat husband, two daughters and a large Ethiopian street dog called Frank.
Her novel, Open My Eyes That I May See Marvellous Things is published by Pinter and Martin. Set in Ethiopia, it tells the story of an adopted midwife who falls in love with an abandoned baby, and asks, “How can you hold a baby next to your skin without it touching your heart?” It is available from Amazon pinterandmartin.com and good bookshops. www.aliceallan.co.uk Twitter: @alicemeallan and find her on Facebook.