providing comfort

January 21, 2011


I’ve been wanting to write a post about comfort items for a few weeks now, and Phrogmum has spurred me on.

Donald Winnicott, one of my heros in the world of psychology, called comfort items “transitional objects” because they are a substitute for a mother’s love when mother is not available to the child.

I cannot emphasise the importance of comfort items enough, and I am surprised when parents tell me that their child does not have a comfort item.

They are important for children when they are stressed about separation from mum. Or when mum brings home a new baby. Little kids just don’t like sharing Mum. This is healthy, it means they have formed a bond with you. You’ve probably heard the analogy that for older siblings bringing another baby home, is like your husband bringing another wife home.

What parents often do, as patience wears thin, is start punishing the child for aggression towards the younger sibling. The punishment proves to the child that they need to work harder to get rid of that younger sibling, so he can have Mum all to himself again. The punishment, and perceived rejection, makes him angrier and feeling more hurt.

What is really needed is more love and care and nurture towards the aggressor. Encourage him to come to you for hugs when you see the first signs of agitation, talk to him about how he can ask for a hug if he is feeling insecure and stressed about little brother or sister.

If you are not readily available for a hug, (for example, you are nursing the younger child) encourage your older child to hug his comfort item. Make sure it is available all of the time. Comfort items are not just for bedtime. If he doesn’t have a comfort item, support him to choose one for himself and keep reinforcing that it is there for him to give him comfort. “Where’s your teddy/doll/blanky?”. “Give your teddy a hug.”

A boy I was working with in foster care, who jealously guarded his foster mum against his older brother, chose his spiderman suit as his comfort item. He was four years old at the time, and after many foster placement breakdowns he was not sharing this precious mum with anyone. I encouraged the foster carer to use a comfort item as the transitional object and it worked a treat. Kids are never too old for a comfort item. My eldest son (9 years) still loves his “doll doll” (and, yes, it is pink).

Some preschools and daycare centres ban comfort items, and that is just crazy, crazy stuff. If you are planning to put your child in one of these centres, think again. How much do they really understand about child development, and children’s emotional needs? Chances are they are dismissive about many of your child’s needs.

Here’s a tip: Carefully label the item, in case it is lost. Buy two of the same item, in case the original is irretrievably lost.

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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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8 Comments on “providing comfort”

  1. kloppenmum Says:

    Oh yes, two items the same is essential…I burned Blue Bear’s back trying to warm him up and almost had an emergency, luckily a friend had one identical that wasn’t being used. I think there are so many parents and ‘parenting experts’ who encourage each other to be dismissive of their children’s emotional needs – it’s such a relief to find someone else who is on the same page!


    • hakea Says:

      poor old Blue Bear, three cheers for the friend with the same taste as you in buying toys!

      i think it goes back to that stoicism that you mentioned a little while ago – don’t be a sissy son! stop being a sook! this kid is just so clingy!

      adults can be very dismissive, and opt for rejection as their first response. probably because that was the model they experienced as children. the rejection increases the needy behaviour in the child, thus a vicious cycle ensues where nobody gets their needs met.

      i see teachers at school using rejection on a regular basis in response to their students. it’s why i despise behaviourism so much.

      I have an anecdote from the playgroup I facilitate…
      One mother’s rejection of her child was distressing to her child. It sure was distressing me. The mother has depression and anxiety. The child aged 14 months was clingy, constantly crying, not walking, and not saying any words. I spoke for the child, expressing his needs for his Mum to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kinder (Circle of Security The mother asked more about the child’s emotional needs, and also asked me to also speak to her husband. The family did not attend playgroup for two weeks. When they returned to playgroup the child was walking, happy to be separated from his Mum and play for longer periods, constantly smiling, and starting to say words. What a transformation! The parents had met their child’s emotional needs and didn’t leave him distressed any longer.

      thanks so much for your comments!!!


  2. kloppenmum Says:

    Good for you, speaking up and making a difference in the lives of those people. I agree with you about Behaiourism…children are not puppies! Yes, we were lucky that our friends had an identical Blue Bear, one day I’ll tell the Hare what happened – when I’m big and brave.


    • hakea Says:

      The playgroup is funded by the government and I’m paid to run it and provide support to parents, so I suppose it’s what I am supposed to do.

      Talking about puppies!

      I’m somewhat competent with child psychology but dogs are a complete mystery to me. There is a show on tv called The Dog Whisperer, this bloke is a genius with dogs


  3. cjdwhite Says:

    My daughter had a pillow she took everywhere. She also had, as a child, an odd characteristic of holding on to something–the object would change–for hours at a time. Once she held on to a couple of pieces of bacon until we put her in the (morning) bath. Once she took a couple coffee creamers from the hotel breakfast and kept them until afternoon nap (which was tough, considering she already had to hold on to the pillow.

    My son has a yellow duck–anyway, it used to be yellow and soft. Now it is grey, ratty, and stinky (no matter how often it is washed). Unfortunately we need to wean him from it to some extent because it is associated with sucking his thumb, and he is getting adult teeth. I’m OK with him keeping it as long as he wants at night and when he’s not sucking his thumb.


  4. hakea Says:

    love the bacon and coffee creamers! i think that would make Donald chuckle.

    i too have a kid with habits, the eldest. we wean him off one habit, and he transitions to another habit. it’s a matter of choosing the least annoying habit, because i think he will always have one. he’s always got to be doing something, active and highly strung. it’s tricky.



  1. The grown ups guide to knitting and comfort items « Etchy Sketchy - January 23, 2011

    […] Buddy hakea recently wrote about providing comfort items for children to help them through transitions.  Working in childcare I see the need for this every single day as small children negotiate their […]

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