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Transitional objects: why that special toy matters

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Transitional objects: why that special toy matters

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What is a transitional object?

Transitional objects: not exactly a catchy term is it?! It certainly doesn’t sound  like something cute and cuddly, right? Well, actually transitional objects is the technical term for that special cuddly toy, blanket, or muslin cloth they can’t sleep without. Other people call them lovies or comforters. It’s that toy; the special object that you have to take EVERYWHERE. The teddy without which your child’s world will end. You know, that toy. 

The term ‘transitional object’ comes from Donald Winnicott. He was a leading psychologist, who did around 60 talks on national radio in the UK between 1943 and 1966. He recognised the role that special toys can play in child’s key developmental stage. 

 

Transitional objects and baby development

At first, young babies believe their parent is part of themselves. As they gradually realise that their parent is separate to them this can cause frustration and anxiety. In this stressful period a special toy can help. It becomes a kind of temporary comfort for a frustrated baby who wants their parent immediately. As babies get older, parents often have to do other things and take longer to respond to their baby. In this waiting time, if a baby has a transitional object they have bonded with, that object comforts them. It  represents the safety and loving parental relationship. Basically it provides reassurance until the real deal, that’s you, arrives. 

These objects form part of a baby’s development to understanding what is them, the baby, and what is not them, including parents. Transitional objects often help during transitions. This can be the transition between sleep cycles when babies often stir, but, the comfort of the object can mean they avoid waking fully. Toddlers often find they help with the transition of going into nursery or other care settings without you. They help them to feel safe, and so they are calmer and less likely to be upset.

How do they work?

Babies and toddlers are comforted by you, and by your presence. When you can’t be there then a transitional object helps to reassure them that you are near, and offers some comfort until you arrive. Sometimes that is all the reassurance that a little one, stirring, or rousing from sleep, needs to feel safe, allowing them to shift and drift off again. 

As they develop a stronger attachment to the transitional object, it can help them feel safer and offer more reassurance. Even when fully awake, having their special toy may help them feel safe, reduce crying or calling for parents. Some older babies and toddlers may even fully wake in the night, snuggle their object and go straight back to sleep.. Yes, really, for some babies and toddlers they can be that reassuring! That can mean parents getting less disturbed sleep because their little one feels safe and happy. So, that’s got to be a good thing, right?

What makes a good transitional object?

These objects can be almost anything, for example, your old t shirt, the teddy they had since birth, a muslin! The object is itself doesn’t matter, as long as it is safe, and works! So, if your little already has a transitional object there’s no need to try to change it.  

If you want to introduce one though some research shows that broadly person/animal shaped items are most popular comfort object choices, at least for toddlers. However, think about the age of your child. before selecting an object. Safe sleep advice suggests avoiding having stuffed toys of any kind in a baby’s sleep space. this is because these may increase risks such as smothering or SIDS. For babies, a blanket, muslin, or non stuffed comforter, like the Cuski may be ideal. For toddlers, who are better able to push objects away if they cover their face during sleep, and better able to move themselves out of dangerous positions, standard cuddly toys may be fine. 

At the end of the article we have a guide for choosing a comforter or transitional object for parents to be.

Using transitional objects

It takes time: Bonding with a transitional object

So, you have a lovely comforter and you’ve given it to your little one.  What next? Well, it can take time. If you have a new baby then having the chosen object around all the time can help. After all it only becomes a transitional object if it takes on a special significance for your little one.

The relationship still has to develop. Unfortunately, they aren’t a magic charm. That’s not all though. If you really want this object to be comforting and calming, then you don’t just have to give it to them and hope. There are other things you can do to turn a muslin cloth or a teddy into a calming transitional object.

Scenting transitional objects: The power of smells

Transitional objects are most effective when they are made from natural absorbent materials that take on scents well.  The cotton and bamboo Cuski comforters are designed with this in mind. So, what does scenting meaning? And, why does it make a comforter more reassuring?

Scenting is literally making a transitional object smell like you. This can sound a little unsavoury, but you are the most calming thing imaginable to your baby or toddler. You are the centre of your baby’s world. they feel safe when they know you are near. Being able to smell you indicates to your baby that you are near. 

Babies are strongly sensory creatures and smell is a hugely powerful sense. It can evoke powerful emotional states and trigger vivid memories. Scenting transitional objects taps into the visceral power of this sense to support your baby bonding with this object. The bond your baby can form with a comfort object is what allows it to work. A comforter is designed to stand in for you when you cannot be there. The transitional object makes your baby feel safe by indicating that you are near. 

Recent research shows that being able to smell their mother makes babies more receptive to bonding with other people. So there is scientific backing to using scented transitional objects to help babies feel safe and calm when cared for by a new or different caregiver.

How to: scenting a transitional object

For this you need 2 or 3 identical comforters. 

dad smelling head of sleeping newborn baby
We love the smell of babies' , but did you know the smell of their parents calms and comforts them too?

Keep one of the transitional objects inside your clothing next to your skin. Sleep with it in your bed for a night or two. Alternatively, keep it inside your top where your baby’s head often rests. Essentially, you want the comforter to smell of you. 

But why have three of them? Well, one’s inside your top picking up your smell. Another is with your baby keeping them calm. Finally, the third one is in the wash. Because, by the time you and your baby have snuggled, sucked and vomited on it you’ll want to wash it! So, that third one means the system doesn’t fall down whilst one is in the wash.

Combining a transitional object with other calming cues

It isn’t just smell that has a calming effect on babies. Transitional objects can be used alongside other calming sensory cues, such as white noise or music. The aim is to offer babies a safe and calming environment that is soothing and reassuring. If you use multiple cues then if you ever need to calm a baby and cannot use, say, music, you still have the other cues.

Sounds

Hearing is a sense that we use a lot to calm babies. In the 4th trimester noise that replicates the muffled internal noises they heard in the womb can be calming, as can music they heard in the womb. In fact, for some babies, a word, sound or piece of music can be their transitional object, although for most babies and toddlers these soundscapes that recreate your voice, your presence, accompany an actual object. Consider what sounds you make that calm your baby.

When you can’t be there, and the transitional object is needed, can you also play that sound? The bond with the object, it’s familiar scent, and the sounds you use to calm them can work together to help them to feel safe. This can continue to work for toddlers and older children too: try using sounds or music that can be played continually. That means that, if they rouse, their transitional object, and the familiar sound are both there, helping them feel safe and calm. 

Thinking ahead

Tips for expectant parents: picking a transitional object

If you’re expecting a baby, it can be worth thinking about transitional objects in advance. This is because transitional objects work best when introduced early on.

1. Person shaped

As we said, this research refers to comforters with a head, arms and legs. It doesn’t have to really look like a person. It can be an elephant, or anything you like! 

Research simply seems to show babies form stronger bonds with items this shape. 

2. Easy to clean

Avoid anything that’s handwash only. It will get encrusted with spit up milk and be hard to keep clean. 

Natural fibres like cotton or bamboo tend to hold up well to washing. Don’t tumble dry bamboo comforters, but they dry in no time on an airer or radiator.

3. Easy to hold

Easy to hold: for a tiny baby. The tactile sense matters. Most of the cuski comforter is not stuffed, it is flat fabric that babies can grasp and hold. Stuffed toys can be impossible for babies to grip

tiny baby hand holding adult finger

4. Safe for sleep

Adding cuddly toys to a baby’s sleep surface can increase risk of smothering and other risks.  

Cuski Miniboo are used in NICU units in the UK. They are considered safe for this environment with high risk babies. However, NICUs are also environments with high levels of observation. We recommend transitional objects that aren’t large or bulky, with little stuffing.  The cuski range is ideal as they are all flat bodied. They are no more bulky than a blanket.

bedsharing or cosleeping safety

5. Suitable to scent

Absorbent fabrics, such as cotton, bamboo, or linen are best for picking up on that most comforting scent. You! 

Remember, if you need to keep it close to your skin, or will sleep snuggled up to it, make sure you like the feel, and that you won’t end up waking because it is digging in. New parents don’t need anything else to cause sleepless nights!

6. Don't forget duplicates

Having at least two, ideally three, so one can be with baby, one can be with you gathering your scent, and one can be being washed and dried

Need more help?

If you need more help with calming your baby, or baby or toddler sleep then you may find a workshop or consultation helpful. Find your nearest consultant, or one who offers online services.

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Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Baby sleep, Calming & nurturing toddlers, Calming babies, Psychology, Toddler sleep
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