'Loveys': comfort at youngsters'fingertips

January 01, 1994|By Darryl E. Owens | Darryl E. Owens,Orlando SentinelOrlando Sentinel

Megan Franco was frantic. She'd lost her baby.

"Baby" was her Puffalumps (which, for the uninitiated, is a colorful, cuddly stuffed teddy bear or pony). Hers was a pony. Pink. And like the American Express card, Megan, 3, refused to leave home without it.

"We had to replace it," says her mother, Jane Franco. "We couldn't leave the house without it. Thank goodness she didn't know the difference."

It's not unusual for children to form strong attachments to cuddly toys, blankies or other huggables, experts say. And for children such as Megan, huggables like Baby help make their journey from infancy to early childhood a smoother ride.

Called "transitional objects" by psychologists, these generally soft and easy-to-carry objects offer children a semblance of the security and solace they enjoyed as an infant while being cuddled by Mom and Dad.

"They sort of carry around those objects as a way of making themselves feel safe," says Mercedes Castro, a child development therapist with Psychological Affiliates in Orlando, Fla.

"When they start moving away from the intensely close attachment to their parents, it's used as a way of soothing themselves and giving them that same sense of security."

That's true even if the object is only an athletic sock like the one 3-year-old D'Ambour Lewis carries to her day-care center in her backpack every day.

Experts say being able to shift the nurturing feeling of the parent-child relationship to something outside arena -- learning to comfort oneself -- is a major step in a child's development and independence.

RTC Ruth McDonnell remembers when oldest son Timothy began making that transition.

When he "was about 18 months, and I had just gotten pregnant with the second one [Eric], he came downstairs crying and the only thing that seemed to comfort him was his blanket," she says. "He's attached to it so much that he won't go to bed without it."

Most children select their first transitional objects between 12 and 18 months, although it happens earlier with some children, says Dr. E. Michael Gutman, an Orlando psychiatrist.

"It does offer them . . . a balm," he says.

In a study for the Child Guidance Clinic in Meriden, Conn., Dr. Paul C. Horton and psychologist Herbert Gewirtz looked at the self-comforting habits of 144 children, ranging from infants to teens.

They found the overwhelming majority of children selected some kind of object before age 2. Stuffed animals were the choice for 40 percent of the children; half of those kids picked teddy bears; 33 percent chose blankets.

Dolls, diapers, scraps of material and towels rounded out the list.

D'Ambour Lewis loves a good sock.

It's a white athletic sock. Actually, it's a collection of white socks. When her sock gets dirty, she flips it inside-out. When the "new" one gets too soiled to carry, she swaps it for a clean sock.

"It has to be clean and have a certain feel," says her father, Darrell Lewis, 30. "When she was very small she would lose her blanket, but after a while, when she got bigger, she would take off her sock and hold onto it."

Gender plays no factor in the choice of transitional objects. Experts say parents should not be embarrassed if the child drags a raggedy blanket about. A blanket or teddy bear doesn't scream immaturity or insecurity, but signals the start of a natural progression.

Loveys, as these objects are also called, help children take their first steps toward independence.

As the child begins to distinguish between himself and his mother, the lovey serves as "a way of keeping the parent with them, even when the parent is not directly with them," says Dr. William W. Austin, an Orlando clinical psychologist.

These objects help relieve separation anxiety -- the fear that the mother will disappear -- which often builds when the child is taking his first steps.

"It's a step toward the development of autonomy," Dr. Austin says. "It's a part of the natural process of separating from the parents."

And when it comes time for the child to venture off to a day-care center, loveys can be indispensable.

Needless to say, a blankie or teddy can also help establish healthy sleep patterns by making the child feel safe and at peace.

Still, not all children appear to choose a lovey, Dr. Austin says. But that doesn't mean the child is headed down the wrong developmental path. Many use cooing or babbling the way others use teddy bears. Many more choose the ever-popular -- and ever-present -- thumb or fingers.

It's not the method of comforting that's important, Dr. Austin says, it's the act.

Yet, even with all the good qualities loveys help foster, sooner or later, this good thing must end, experts say.

"It's acceptable for children at certain phases to have the attachment," Dr. Gutman says, "then at a certain point there has to be a withdrawal. You can't go around with your blankie or teddy forever."

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