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When Your Baby's Addicted to Lovey

Your toddler's blankie smells like a mix of old milk, baby powder, and Goldfish crackers. It's so tattered that even Goodwill would reject it. Yet to her, it's more precious than the Hope Diamond. For many 1-year-olds, comfort objects are the ultimate stress soother, especially when separation anxiety kicks in.

"Holding onto something soft, warm, and secure helps a child cope when Mom and Dad aren't around," says Ruben Gonzalez, MD, a child psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx. A favorite stuffed animal or a familiar blanket gives your child confidence to explore her world and become more independent. It calms her when she's upset or scared and helps soothe her to sleep.

But as parents quickly discover, not just any comfort object will do. Young children believe their toy or blanket has a special property or essence that look-alikes don't, according to new research published in the journal Cognition. Even toddlers -- whose attachment to loveys generally peaks between 18 and 24 months -- appear capable of spotting a "fake" a mile away.

The bottom line: While experts say that having a strong attachment to a lovey is a healthy part of a toddler's emotional development, it can also cause you a lot of grief. We've got help for the common issues parents encounter.

I'd rather leave my toddler's lovey behind when we go out, but she throws a fit if I try to take it away from her. Should I just give in?

Your child is most likely to be stressed and anxious when she's away from home, so it's natural that she wants her lovey nearby. Still, it's a good idea to limit use to situations where you can keep track of it. "You might let your child have her comfort object in the car, but not in a store," says Dr. Gonzalez. Most toddlers will accept such rules as long as you're consistent: Agreeing to let her tote it to the playground even once will set a precedent that's very hard to break.

My child just lost his precious bear. I've searched everywhere, but it hasn't turned up. Help!

If you can find an exact replica, run out and buy it right away -- along with some spares. Then wash them all and switch them out regularly so each has the same worn look, feel, and smell your child loves. Otherwise, prepare for a few sleepless nights (and some tantrum-filled days) while your child adjusts to the loss. Say, "Yes, it's sad that your lovey is gone." Offer to take him shopping for a new bear, and present him with two or three choices -- he's more likely to accept it if he's the one picking it out, says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, editor-in-chief of The Wonder Years, an American Academy of Pediatrics publication.

My mom gave my daughter a new pink blanket to cuddle, but she prefers a burp cloth. How do I get her to fall for the prettier one?

That depends on your child's temperament. Some kids happily switch loveys on their own every few months, while others balk the minute you try to replace a tattered one. As long as your child's favorite object doesn't pose any danger (such as a purse with long strings that could be a strangling hazard), you're better off worrying about bigger issues, such as tantrums and nap rebellion. But keep that pretty pink blanket nearby; one day she might just love it as much as you do.

My toddler has no interest in a comfort object. Should I try to find something he likes?

Not unless you're dying to have him drag along a tattered blanket or a shabby stuffed animal wherever you go. If your child doesn't need a lovey, he's probably found another way of soothing himself (such as sucking his thumb, twirling his hair, or rocking back and forth) that works just as well.

I'm ready to toss my daughter's ratty old blankie. How can I get her to "quit" her lovey habit?

What's your hurry? Research suggests that a lovey can help your child deal with strangers and may enhance her learning in new settings. Besides, trying to deny or limit its use might make her want it even more. Your child will probably begin to give it up sometime between ages 3 and 5, when she's better at controlling her emotions -- and starts worrying that her preschool classmates will tease her about it. For now, let her enjoy the comfort of her "first friend," and make the most of this adorable childhood ritual.

If it's time to wash a comfort object but your child won't let go, try these tricks.

  1. Give it a "bath." With your toddler watching, throw the blankie into the washing machine, then plop her into the tub. Let her know that soon she and her lovey will both be squeaky-clean.
  2. Ask for his help. Explain that his lovey needs to go for a swim in the washing machine. With your assistance, have your child toss it in, pour in the detergent, and press the start button.
  3. Hand wash it. If your child can't bear the thought of having her comfort object go into the washing machine, simply soak it in the sink with some gentle detergent.
  4. Pull the old switcheroo. Try swapping out the soiled lovey for a clean one while your child is napping or playing.

Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.