Ages & Stages: 0-5: Blankies and other Love Objects

They’re tattered and faded; smell faintly of spoiled milk and mom’s deodorant; and are encrusted with Goldfish cracker crumbs. They look like something Goodwill would reject and yet they’re more valuable than the Hope Diamond: Comfort objects – more affectionately known as loveys – are a toddler’s best friend. If your child resembles Linus and his lovey looks like something Pigpen would cherish, you know what we mean. And you know that while loveys can be a source of comfort for your little one, they also can be a source of great stress for you when they get torn, dirty, or – horror of horrors – disappear! Need help coping with your child’s first lovey affair? Follow our experts’ advice.

My child and his blanky are inseparable. What’s with the attachment?
Youngsters tend to latch onto comfort objects shortly before their first birthdays when they begin to realize that mom and child exist independently. “Holding onto something soft, warm and secure helps a child cope when mom isn’t around and fosters his independence. It’s a healthy part of a child’s emotional development,” explains Ruben Gonzalez, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, in Bronx, New York. Your child’s lovey confers numerous magical properties: It provides comfort when your child is apart from you; it gives him confidence to explore his world; it calms him when he’s upset, tired or scared; and it’s a great tool for soothing him into dreamland.

My mom gave my daughter a beautiful pink blanket for her to cuddle, but she prefers a burp cloth. How do I get her to fall for the one I want her to?
That depends on your child’s temperament and how strongly attached she is to her lovey, says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., a California-based pediatrician and editor-in-chief of The Wonder Years, an American Academy of Pediatrics publication. Some kids like to switch comfort objects every few months, while others are quick to notice when their tattered lovey has been swapped with a cleaner, newer one. As long as your child’s chosen lovey doesn’t pose any danger (of suffocation or strangulation, for example), you’re better off letting love run its course and spending your energy dealing with other fun toddler issues like tantrums. But keep that pretty pink blanket nearby (like in your child’s crib); perhaps one day she’ll love it as much as you do.

My toddler wants to take his beloved toy lamb everywhere: In the car, into the store, into restaurants. He throws a fit if I say no, but I’m worried he’ll lose it. Shouldn’t love have its limits?
Anxiety-inducing moments often happen outside of the home, so it’s natural for your son to want his lovey nearby in case he needs it. Still, the danger of losing it is very real. “You might let your child take his lovey in the car, but not into a store,” suggests Dr. Gonzalez. Most youngsters will accept rules like these as long as you’re consistent: Caving in and taking the lovey out of the car just one time will set a precedent for future outings.

Help! I didn’t heed your advice, and my son dropped his beloved lamb when we were running errands. I’ve backtracked and searched, but “Baa Baa” is gone. He can’t sleep without it (and neither can I). What do I do?
Indianapolis resident Laura Lancaster feels your pain. When her 2-year-old son William lost his “ducky blanky,” both parent and child spent days weeping. “It was the only one we had. I searched stores, but couldn’t find a duplicate,” says Lancaster who finally ordered one from the manufacturer. (William took to it immediately.) Learn from Lancaster’s mistake and stock up on spares as soon as your child’s lovey preference is clear. (Make sure to regularly wash and switch them out so they get the same worn, loved look and feel.) If a replacement isn’t possible, expect an average of three sleepless nights (and some very long, cranky days) while your child adjusts to the loss. “Acknowledge that ‘yes, it’s sad the lovey is gone’ and offer a substitute with a similar texture, look and feel. In a week’s time, your child should accept the new item and move on,” Dr. Altmann says.

My toddler doesn’t want anything to do with a comfort object. Will he be love-less forever?
Your child likely doesn’t need a prop to self-soothe because he’s developed a different coping mechanism like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or rocking – and that’s perfectly okay, says Dr. Gonzalez. So instead of fretting that your child has no lovey in his life, celebrate that you don’t have to tote a threadbare, smelly blanket or shabby stuffed animal everywhere you go.

I’m ready to put an end to my daughter’s love affair with her ratty blanky, but how do I go about doing that?
Not so fast. That blanky might not look like much to you, but it’s providing a treasure trove of benefits to your child. Things could get pretty ugly at home – Are you up for more temper tantrums, sleepless nights, and inconsolable sobbing? – if you force an early break-up. The time will come when your child voluntarily will end her lovey affair (usually when she enters school) or want it only at night so she doesn’t get teased by classmates. For now, let your little one enjoy the comfort of her “first friend” while you cherish this adorable childhood ritual.

Tots believe their comfort objects possess a unique presence or “essence” that can’t be found even in look-alike items, according to a March 2007 study.

60 percent of U.S. kids develop a mild attachment to a soft, inanimate object some time during their life, and 32 percent exhibit strong attachment.