What was your childhood comfort item? For ECE Operations Manager Liz Pennings’ son Logan, it was his single bed-sized blanket.
Logan carried his single bed-sized blanket into the sandpit, around the classroom and even into the bathroom in his early learning setting. In his own time, he began leaving it behind. This was once he formed an attachment to his educator and some peers.
- recalls Liz
After observing many moments where educators were focused on removing a child’s comfort item, Liz began to question why.
In this article, Liz reflects on why some adults become fixated on removing comfort items, and clinical psychologist Dr Nicole Milburn explains why comfort items are a necessary part of a child’s development.
After seeing many moments where educators were focused on removing comfort items from children, I began to wonder why. Why are some adults so set on removing these items from children when they are soothing them – even to the extent where plans and strategies are developed for an item’s removal?
Whether it’s a teddy, a blankie, a binkie or a tattered old bunny, different children find comfort in different things. These items are known as ‘transitional objects’ and they are important pieces of the development puzzle which help a young child on their path to independence.
One day I was observing an educator who was watching a child who was very attached to his bear.
I overheard the educator say, ‘’He can’t play properly if he is holding the bear all day.”
I wondered where these thoughts had come from.
How do you play properly?
Why would the bear be an issue?
He may be playing perfectly fine in HIS way, after all, there is no right way to play.
The EYLF tells us in the very first outcome:
Children learn about themselves and construct their own identity within the context of their families and communities. This includes their relationships with people, places and things and the actions and responses of others. Identity is not fixed. It is shaped by experiences.
Why do we focus so much on removing comfort items? Is it because it’s one thing that us big people can control? Let’s face it, no child was ever delayed due to holding a toy, cuddling a teddy or stroking a blanket.
Children want (and need) to be close to one they find trust in when stressed. If that relationship is not there then some children will look for the next best thing – something familiar that they can control and turn to.
Building resilience by giving up control
I believe that we are getting caught up in wanting our children to be independent and resilient too early. But I would suggest that we may be taking the independence away from our children by not allowing them to decide when it is the right time to stop taking the teddy to kindy.
Isn’t resilience built by coming across a challenging situation and finding a way to manage that situation?
If children don’t have the time to develop this skill and recognise their feelings, we may be damaging their sense of agency.
I would love to see some reflections on this.
Children that cry, need contact and comfort, how are they if we let them hold their own belongings a little longer?
CELA CEO Michele Carnegie purchased Ted before the birth of her son. From long walks through paddocks to preschool, beach holidays and sitting proudly on his bed at boarding school, Ted has always been there. “He still has a presence in the life of what is now a 6ft3, fearless rugby playing Masters student, who is rich in emotional intelligence, resilience and mental and physical toughness,” shares Michele.
Why transitional items are an important part of child development
By Dr Nicole Milburn, Clinical Psychologist
In normal development, babies and toddlers will usually find some object that they latch onto and then use for comfort. These have been recognised by parents forever, and have been thought about by infant mental health and developmental professionals for decades.
The psychoanalyst and paediatrician D.W. Winnicott articulated this in a seminal paper in 1951 where he explored the use of the first ‘transitional object’ that the infant uses. He referred to the objects as ‘transitional’ because they were in an in-between space- they were the first ‘not-me’ object and the first ‘not mum’ object, but something in between. These first ‘not-me’ objects help to define what is me and what is not me, by being a bridge between the two.
Transitional objects offer comfort because they are one step removed from the comfort of the parent. As such, they are inherently associated with the comfort and security of the parent-child relationship. They allow a child to rely upon an almost-mother rather than the actual mother. We can see that this crucial developmental stage hasn’t been negotiated when the child must have the actual physical body of the mother for comfort.
Winnicott recognised this as a normal developmental stage that both infant and parent are involved with. The baby chooses the object, the parent allows the reliance to form, and is respectful of the baby’s relationship with the object as being special to them, different to their relationship, and something that they do not interfere with.
This is seen in how parents allow toddlers and young children to drag their comfort object through all sorts of places such as the sandpit as Liz has observed, relinquishing the usual regime of washing and cleanliness requirements. This allows the object to develop a particular individuality, and, incidentally, is why I sometimes worry a little when parents say they bought 5 of the same bunny toy so that there would always be one available. In this case, the parent has got the idea of importance, but not the idea of uniqueness. It’s akin to having 5 mothers available in case you lose one so that, with 4 in reserve, you won’t notice the loss.
Support the child through grief, rather than removing the potential of grief
It is this process of wanting to protect children from pain that I think is behind the concern that adults have about children’s attachment to their comfort toys. Young children grieve piteously if the object is lost- the loss is catastrophic because it represents the comfort of the mother and the capacity to move away from a little towards independence. It’s a little bit like if the first time you stepped outside your home you stepped into a riot rather than a park- you wouldn’t feel very safe and willing to go out again!
Children need to be supported through this first grief. The old adage ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all’ applies here- it is better for the child to have developed an exclusive dependent relationship on something and lost it than never have developed it at all or to have to rely upon mother’s body.
Respect for comfort items even more important in ECEC
It is vitally important that the relationship a child has with their comfort toy be respected. Children are born to grow up and will let go of things they don’t need in their own time- we can trust the normal maturational processes! In the meantime, having a relationship with an available object to help them manage the stress of everyday life is a great thing. It helps exploration and is a key step in the development of the capacity to use relationships to manage the world. In the early education and care setting, it is a crucial means for the child to keep their parents in mind during the long hours of absence.
When adults who provide care for small children recognise and respect their efforts to manage challenge and stress, the young child’s capacity to manage is strengthened. This process is crucial in the development and works along the lines of ‘I have big feelings that my blanket can help me manage right now. When you can see that and support me with that, I know I have ways I can cope. But when you tell me having my blanket is bad and I don’t have any other ways to manage then I’m left feeling that I’m bad and helpless’.
From a stress-response perspective, having a comfort toy helps children return to a state of equilibrium under stress, regulating themselves, their feelings and their cortisol levels.
So for educators, celebrate, support and protect the child’s relationship with their comfort toy. Respect that the child is working out ways to deal with the world all by themselves. How clever is that!
A poem by Mark Nixon
Photographer and creator of the book Much Loved
When everything was unknown, they were there
Where anything could happen, they were there
These repositories of hugs, of fears of hopes, of tears, of snots and smears.
Alone at night, they were the comforters, when monsters lurked in the darkened corners when raised voices muffled through floors and walls.
These silent witnesses, these constant companions, defenders of innocence.
Their touch, yes, but their smell, that instantly calming, all embalming musk,
unique to each, soothing and smoothing the journey from consciousness to
un, from purity to im, from infancy to adult-terre.
Sworn to secrecy, unconditionally there, judgmentally fair and almost always a bear.
– Mark Nixon
BELONGING, BEING & BECOMING The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia
About Liz Pennings:
Liz is the Operations Manager of a group of early learning centres across Brisbane. She joined the ECEC sector later in her career, completing her Diploma of Early Childhood after a Diploma of Business & Finance. Liz is currently studying Psychology – Majoring in Behavioural Studies. After countless conversations with Educators regarding critical reflection and changing practices, she realised it was a topic that many struggle with. As a result she decided to create the ECEC Critical Reflection Support Group on Facebook through which she receives many messages from educators asking for guidance and support.
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