Should you worry about the fact that your little one is attached to a dummy or a piece of cloth? We take a look, and suggest some ways to wean them off their comforter when the time is right.
In need of comfort
Imagine a toddler’s world, where every day brings something new and everything is brimming with excitement. On the other hand, there are some scary prospects – what if mummy never comes back once she shuts that door, or what if that noise is a monster under my bed?
“Children can’t always have mummy there and that’s when they turn to comforters to help them deal with stress,” says Dr Olwen Wilson, consultant child psychologist at the Royal Surrey County Hospital.
But how come one child screams the house down if you part him from his blanket, when another has no need of a comforter? It depends on temperament, says Olwen. “Some children are worriers and it’s these who seek security. This trait is usually inherited. It’s no bad thing though – when they grow up they make excellent students who are conscientious and generally more caring.”
Never, ever lose it
Comfort objects vary from thumb-sucking to blankets, from soft toys to bits of old cloth. Whatever it is, the common ground seems to be once a child becomes fixated on an object, it can be nigh on impossible to separate them.
“On occasion we’ve left the house without Scruff the dog and believe me, it’s not something we do deliberately,” says Alice, 30, mum to Charlotte, 2. “She gets so angry, she cries and cries and she won’t calm down until she’s got him. And it’s not just going out – she won’t settle for a nap if he’s not under her arm and he’s the first thing she goes for if she’s poorly or upset.”
Alice has looked for a spare, just in case, but to no avail. “I don’t know what would happen if we lost him, I don’t want to think about it!” she says firmly.
It doesn’t have to be goodbye
For all the hassle and tantrums, comforters are no bad thing, says Dr Nadja Reissland, senior psychology lecturer at Durham University. “Even adults can be attached to objects that have a sentimental meaning,” she says.
To prise away a valued toy from your little one can prove taxing, and sometimes it’s best just to accept the situation. “Riley has a dog called Doggy, given to him when he was born, and he’s always had it in his bed,” says Jenevive, 25, mum to Riley, 3. “It doesn’t bother me as it helped wean him off his dummy before he was 1. I’m not in a rush to get rid of it.”
The dummy run
It’s not just cuddly toys that fill a need for some toddlers. Many can’t do without their trusty old dummy. “Dummies are very useful between birth and 3 months,” says Olwen, “particularly with breastfeeding babies who’re not hungry but are anxious and suck for comfort. If you stop the dummy at 3 months, the baby won’t remember and won’t make a fuss. If you carry on until between 6 and 18 months, you’ll have to wean them off it.”
A bottle last thing at night is almost as popular as a dummy and may be damaging, depending on what’s in it. You don’t want juice or milk swilling around your toddler’s teeth last thing – they can cause serious decay. Try filling a bottle with water – you might get away with it – and follow one of our weaning-off tips (see box, right).
Some children are addicted to a comforter you can’t separate them from – a thumb. “Thumb-sucking is almost impossible for mums to stop,” says Olwen. “Kids are more likely to stop due to peer pressure – they don’t want to be seen sucking their thumb in public, for example.”
“Leon won’t go anywhere without wearing shoes or slippers. If I don’t put his Bob the Builder slippers on as soon as he’s up he gets very cross. It’s the same when we’re going out. All I get is ‘shus, shus, shus’ over and over again until I’ve put them on. Once they are in place then he’s a happy boy!”
Catherine, 40, mum to Leon, 18 months
“Dan uses bits of his dad’s old boxer shorts as a comforter and has done since he was a few months old. It started one restless night when, half asleep, I looked around for something that either my partner Peter or I had been wearing, in the hope that if I put it in Dan’s cot he’d be comforted by the smell. I found Peter's boxer shorts. Exhausted and desperate, I dropped them in the cot – and bingo, Dan slept through. The next day I cut up an old pair into handkerchief-sized squares and he’s never been without them since. He particularly likes them with frayed edges and his ‘hankies’ come in handy ‘boy-ish’ patterns and colours – we just don’t tell anyone what they really are!”
Queenie, 40, mum to Dan, 3
“My 1-year-old son Ethan is ‘attached’ to the cuffs of his sleeves. When he’s tired or unhappy he strokes them continuously. I didn’t think anything of it until last week when he freaked out on a particularly mild day when I put him in a T-shirt for the first time in months! I hate to think what I’m going to do when it gets to summer.”
Gloria, 37, mum to Ethan, 1, and Zoe, 3