If your kid has been dragging around the same tattered blanket or beat-up bear for weeks now, she's not alone. Find out why kids hold onto loveys and how to deal with it.

boy holding stuffed animal
Credit: Don Diaz

When my son, Darren, was a baby, his lovey (or transitional object) was a cute little stuffed dog. As a first-time mom, I was so proud of myself for picking something he seemed to enjoy so much. Little did I know I would grow to have ill feelings toward it. Darren took Bubby everywhere -- the grocery store, the doctor's office, the post office. The lovey allowed our child to self-soothe, but the downside was our having to deal with a lot of tears and tantrums the few times we forgot Bubby at home or misplaced him. But by the time Darren was 3 years old, he had started neglecting and forgetting Bubby. Soon after, much to my delight, Bubby's new home became the top shelf of a closet.

If your child is attached to a lovey, you probably understand the love-hate relationship I had with Bubby. Just what is it about a lovey that's so appealing to kids? "Usually, the lovey is a first stuffed animal or a blanket from the crib, so the child connects the lovey with feeling safe and comfortable," says Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., a child educational psychologist and associate clinical professor emeritus at UCLA and the author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination. Kids turn to the object of affection when they're feeling stressed, scared, or worried. And the need for a lovey can intensify during the toddler and preschool years because kids are going through so many new experiences and transitions, such as potty training, starting school, going from a crib to a big-kid bed, and spending more time away from Mom and Dad. The lovey offers comfort and helps children cope with the changes.

Still, many parents worry that having a lovey for too long might mean the child is suffering from an emotional or social issue. Others might fear the lovey's presence indicates the parents aren't showing enough love and attention. Fortunately, those concerns are rarely true. Here are some tips on how to handle your toddler's attachment to a lovey.

Don't Try to Lose the Lovey

Remember, a lovey is first and foremost a comfort item for your child, so trying to forbid it or "losing" it will cause lots of tears and unnecessary distress. Most kids will break up with their lovey between ages 4 and 6. As they become more independent and engaged in their school life, they may forget about the lovey at times and eventually realize they don't really need it anymore. Another reason kids may say bye-bye to loveys is that they notice peers don't have one; they might become embarrassed or start to think of the lovey as babyish. But until then, don't tease, nag, laugh, or yell at your child. Instead, do all you can to show understanding and respect for the lovey. Even if your kid is still hanging on to a lovey beyond second grade, try not to worry too much. "Consider the stresses in your child's life and what may be causing her to need some extra comfort," Dr. Reznick says. Once any issues are addressed, your child may have less need for her fluffy friend.

Set Some Limits

Just because you're not giving your child's lovey the boot doesn't mean you have to let it intrude in your family life. Teach your child that there's a time and a place for everything, including loveys, says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Establish some boundaries that make sense for your family. Tell your son that his stuffed animal can take a ride to the grocery store, but that it has to wait in the car until you're done shopping because you don't want it to get lost or crushed by the food. Or tell him it's okay to have the lovey with him at night if he's scared but that he can't take it to school because it might be distracting to the other students and the teacher.

Stock Up on a Spare Lovey

Expect a whole lot of emotional upheaval if your child loses his source of comfort. If you know your child is particularly fond of a certain toy or piece of clothing, be prepared to prevent a meltdown if the lovey is lost or forgotten. If possible, buy one or two of the same identical object. Rotate the items so they both look used and have the same scent. If getting a duplicate isn't possible, take good care of the lovey and hope she doesn't misplace it. The good news is that when young kids do lose a lovey, they're usually able to transfer their love to another object of affection. Sure, your child will cry and mourn the loss of Timmy the Tiger for a while, but if you introduce her to his long-lost cousin Lizzie the Leopard, chances are she'll have lots of love to share with her new friend.

Keep It Clean

When you try to give your child's lovey a much-needed cleaning, she likely puts up a huge fuss. This is when having two or more comes in handy so you can wash one while your child keeps the other. But if you only have one, you'll have to get creative to keep it clean. Tell your daughter that, like her, Mr. Owl needs baths to look and smell good, and involve her in getting his bubble bath ready. But if she refuses to let him out of her sight, convince her that he wants to go for a swim in the sink. If you have no other choice, try sneaking the lovey away while she's sleep. Wash it, dry it, and return it before she awakes.

Offer a Distraction

If your child is more likely to reach for her lovey at certain times -- during her bedtime reading, for instance -- use distractions to draw her attention away from it. Try letting her act like a character in the book or tell her you both have to do something silly, like wiggle like a worm or squat like a frog, every time you read a particular word in the book. You can also use her natural curiosity to reduce her reliance on the lovey throughout the day: If you also keep her engaged in different activities, like putting together puzzles, playing at the park, helping Mommy clean, she may have so much fun that she forgets about her comfort item for a while. As she spends more time without the lovey, she will learn to rely on it less.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.