On a vacation to Florida last year, my husband and I didn't worry about losing our tickets, credit cards, or luggage as we traveled through airports and stayed in hotels. But there was one thing that never left our sight: our 20-month-old daughter's stuffed lamb. Anything else could be replaced, but Lauren couldn't get through the day or night without her lovey.
About 60 percent of toddlers are devoted to comfort objects, according to child-development experts. And since blankets and stuffed animals can help children soothe themselves in stressful moments, lots of parents can't imagine life without them either. Here's the scoop on your child's lovey.
Hopelessly Devoted to Blankie
Although some children embrace a comfort object earlier in infancy, they usually develop more intense attachments after their first birthday. Why? Because this is a time of change for your toddler. Children are just becoming mobile, and they are also learning that they're independent from their parents. "Separation anxiety takes hold at this age, so something as simple as wandering into another room and realizing she's alone can be stressful for your child," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., author of Understanding Your Toddler. "Having a familiar object with them helps kids this age feel comforted and secure."
This feeling of safety is important because toddlers have a hard time with transitions, such as heading to day care or even going to bed. "The lovey becomes an extra resource to help your child deal with everyday events that are frustrating or upsetting," explains Maria Kalpidou, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Assumption College, in Worcester, Massachusetts. "It's especially important when moms aren't around to hold and console toddlers. Instead, they use a comfort object to soothe themselves."
Why do loveys have such magical powers? Quite simply, they help children control their emotions. "It feels good—and is calming—for a 1-year-old to stroke a blanket or hug a stuffed animal," says Jane Kostelc, a child-development specialist at the Parents as Teachers National Center, in St. Louis. That's why most children pick loveys that are soft or have a nice texture. In addition, many toddlers choose comfort objects that are connected to their mother in some way, such as the blankets they were held in as babies. Of course, other children become fond of items that make little sense to anyone but them. "Our toddler became attached to one of his socks," says Nicole Guillory, of Mount Vernon, Washington. "He carries it everywhere and won't go to sleep without it."
While comfort objects can be cute, living with them can also be a pain. Just trying to get out of the house without your child's lovey can cause a meltdown. "Remember, the world is a scary place to your toddler. That little blanket helps him be brave," says Kostelc. Still, that doesn't mean you can't set limits on its use: Doggy can ride along to the mall but must wait in the car, or Bunny can go to day care but needs to stay in a cubby until naptime. Of course, these rules are more for the benefit of the parents. "It's healthy toddler behavior to cart a lovey around all day," says Dr. LoFrumento. "But setting limits will reduce the chances of its getting lost or destroyed."
Another battle for many parents is prying a beloved item out of their child's hands long enough to wash it. That's because kids often like the grungy feel and not-so-fresh aroma their lovey has developed, and fear its magic will be gone after a trip through the washing machine. One option is to buy several of the same item as soon as your child shows a preference. That's what Dr. Kalpidou did after her daughter fell in love with a Santa hat the family used as a decoration. "I stocked up on hats after Christmas and washed them several times to make sure that they were worn enough to pass for the original," she says.
Your toddler's attachment to a comfort object will likely continue for the next year or two; it isn't until preschool that most kids no longer need them. "At around 3 or 4, your child will begin to regulate his own emotions and won't need to rely on a lovey for comfort," says Kostelc. In the meantime, enjoy this milestone for what it is: a small, adorable step in your child's road to independence.