My son has never really developed much of a liking for one comfort thing or toy. When he was younger, the dummy soothed him immensely and helped him sleep; but, at around 6 months, he decided to permanently spit the dummy. It turns out that we, as parents, were the ones who needed weaning from the pacifier. It was a rude shock when we realised we couldn’t just pop the dummy in his mouth and walk away, knowing he would peacefully drift to sleep.
Instead of attaching himself to one ‘lovey’, he has a broad, ever-changing repertoire of objects that comfort him. It all started with a tea bag. Every morning, I would make myself a cup of tea while my son wailed, hitting his hands on the floor in exasperation. I thought he wanted to be picked up, or was missing my attention for the brief moment it took me to pour water in a mug. No, it took me two weeks, but I eventually worked out that he wanted to hold my tea bag. Yup, that first day he crawled around the house with the tea bag firmly in his grip, he lovingly and delicately stroked the string on the bag, and it came with us at nap time, during a breastfeed and when we went out shopping. When strolling around the house with his walker, he would gently place his teabag in the front compartment, close it carefully and happily go on his way. Until, the bag burst. Oh, the tears!
For a couple of weeks, I just rotated different tea bags as soon as they started looking tired, sometimes having to pry the bag from his clenched fist. I got used to tea leaves on the kitchen floor, or in our bed. Around his first birthday – feeling creative – I decided I would make him a felt tea bag: one that wouldn’t burst on him. I skipped off to Spotlight and picked out the perfect see-through white felt for the bag, and brown for the tag. I even went so far as to buy some grey felt to cut up into pieces to mimic the tea leaves inside. I salvaged a string from an existing teabag to be used on his very own masterpiece. With eyes popping from lack of sleep, I stayed up the eve of his birthday swearing, pricking my fingers as I sewed his bag. It was perfect. It looked exactly like the real thing. I was so proud.
I happily presented it to him on his day, expecting his smiling, happy face. You know that feeling when you are collecting something that is rare, and someone comes along and gifts you a whole stack of the thing that you had previously sought and coveted? How disappointed you feel when you know that the innocent gift giver has wrecked the collecting spirit of your endeavour? That is how my son looked. That fake felt tea bag cured him of his tea bag obsession.
He has since found other obsessions, and they change all the time; a hairdyer that needs to be held while eating dinner; a bag of Baybel cheese, slowly melting, that needs to be lovingly carried and brought to nap time; his vitamin D bottle; a carrot; a plastic container lid; a coat hanger that almost took my eye out while cuddling; sunscreen tube or a home-made sausage roll that is apparently too good to be eaten, and must be brought to bed. With each object, my usually boisterous boy is exceedingly gentle. He is also very protective of his territory and growls if anyone dares come near his newly acquired object of desire.
Does your child have a comfort toy? Studies show that 70 per cent of children under 5 do. Psychologists call them ‘transitional objects’. The objects assist children over the age of one to transition into independence and are seen to be an important part of child development. This attachment to objects seems to be more prevalent in western societies, were children sleep separately from their parents from a young age.
Recent studies by Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol, and Paul Bloom, of Yale University, have revealed that children believe that an object can have a unique essence or life force. Children also believe that there is something that makes one object more special than another. That each object has an individual personality that defines it. This is why it is often so hard to substitute a lost bunny or bear for another seemingly identical one. It may also explain my son’s preference for only one tea brand, and his distaste for felt versions!
This seems to ring true for me. I remember feeling as if I was betraying my favourite dolls if I played with a new one, or feeling terribly sad for orphaned toys in op shops. The Velveteen Rabbit always made me cry. The thought of that bunny, out alone in the cold, still makes me feel a little queasy. Maybe I’m just sensitive.
So my son’s attachment to certain objects serves a purpose. As much as possible, I’m going to foster this new sign of his independence, although I might draw the line at sausage rolls in bed. Last night, I settled him to sleep with a plastic toy saw, a plastic container lid and a favourite book – not the cuddliest of comfort objects, but it works for him.