Your child has a new best bud. He's well-behaved, quiet, and an expert cuddler. Of course, Mr. Bunny's matted fur also smells faintly of Desitin and sour milk, but that doesn't make him any less lovable to your little one. What's up with your toddler's intense attachment? Starting around age 1, as kids become mobile and discover that they're independent from their parents -- exciting developments that can also be the source of stress for children -- comfort items like stuffed animals and blankets may take on an important purpose. "Whether your toddler is playing with it or just holding it, having her lovey with her will automatically reduce her anxiety," explains Mark L. Brenner, Ph.D., a family therapist and author of Pacifiers, Blankets, Bottles, and Thumbs.
Experts refer to these items as "transitional objects" because they're just that: something to temporarily help children navigate their growing world. Not only can Mr. Bunny help your kid self-soothe when she's separated from you (if you're off at work or after you tuck her in at night), but he can also boost her confidence by making her feel more in control. You'll see an example of this when you catch her playing parent: putting him to bed, punishing him with a time-out, or expressing her love with kisses.
Grateful as you might be for a lovey's superpowers, your child's bond can cause some practical complications -- if Mr. Bunny isn't welcome at day care or he gets lost. We've got help for some of the most common frustrations.
If replicas of your child's fuzzy friend are available, help avert this disaster by investing in one -- and washing and switching both loveys out regularly so they both have the same look and scent. That said, if you don't have a duplicate in rotation when a lovey gets lost, avoid subbing in a look-alike behind your child's back because kids are quick to spot a fake. Instead, be up-front: "Talk in a relaxed way. If your child asks where his bear is, tell him, 'Remember when we were at Grandma's house? I think we may have left him there. Let's call her and check,' " says Dr. Brenner. But don't panic if the lovey doesn't materialize. Show empathy by saying, "I can see why you miss her; she was a great friend, wasn't she?" Although you can probably still expect a few days of tantrums and tough bedtimes while your little one accepts the loss, you can help smooth things over by offering to let him pick out a new friend at the toy store.
The truth: Germs can hide in the fur or fabric of a child's stuffed animal, so take measures to keep it clean. "Although most cold and flu viruses will die off within a matter of hours, other germs can survive for days or weeks," explains Kelly A. Reynolds, Ph.D., a microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Arizona's Zuckerman College of Public Health, in Tucson. If your child had diarrhea, a staph infection, or strep throat, wash the stuffed animal in hot water and put it in the dryer, just as you would her sheets.
Plush toys are also likely triggers of allergies, since allergens, dust mites, and mold can accumulate on them. Dust mites can be killed by occasionally placing the stuffed animal in a zip-top bag and putting it in the freezer overnight, suggests Dr. Reynolds.
Of course, wresting a lovey out of your kid's hands long enough to clean it can sometimes be as tough a challenge as cleaning it. Lisa Johnston, of Tustin, California, takes this approach with her 15-month-old daughter, Aven: "When her stuffed lamb gets dirty, I wash it right when she sits down for breakfast. She's too busy eating to notice it's gone -- and then I can have it ready for her morning nap."
It's important to respect your toddler's attachment to his lovey, so you'll likely have to step in and referee any sibling conflicts, says Dr. Brenner. He recommends telling your older child to politely ask his little brother first if he wants to share the toy. If your younger child refuses (or just seems reluctant), don't push it. Instead, explain to his sibling, "Jacob has said he doesn't want to share it now. Maybe later."
It might be frustrating if your child melts down every time she has to leave her lovey at home, but keep in mind that the little lamb helps her stay strong when she gets overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings. Still, that doesn't mean you should allow her to take the toy absolutely everywhere; Lambie should be a welcome guest only as long as you can easily keep track of her. For example, you might say she can ride in the backseat, but she has to stay in the car while you hit the park. (Whenever possible, give your child some time to prepare herself for the separation -- don't spring the news on her just as you're getting to the playground, Dr. Brenner advises.) And don't forget to remind your child that her friend will be right there waiting for her when she comes back. Dr. Brenner assures: "If you're matter-of-fact about where the lovey is, your kid shouldn't be anxious."
Keep your kid's BFF looking great with these tips.
Spray it on. For routine maintenance, spray plush toys with a nonaerosol disinfectant, such as Lysol.
Take a dip. Let your child take her lovey in the tub next time she has a bath. Afterwards, explain that it needs to have its hair blown dry, and give it a spin in the dryer while your kid is dressing.
Call an ambulance. If your kid's teddy is truly in tatters, order a repair from stuffedanimals.com. The company supplies an "ambulance ride" (box and postage), then ships the cleaned and repaired toy back to you, complete with a hospital bracelet.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.