In my blog series on “Why Do Kids Sleep with Teddy Bears,” I’ve looked at teddy bears (and blankets… and pacifiers… and similar items) as “transitional objects”—items that help a child learn independence from his parents while still feeling safe and secure.
Snuggling with a teddy bear is a comfort habit, child psychologist Penelope Leach wrote for Baby Center. And most comfort habits are a normal part of childhood development. Comfort habits and objects can be under the toddler’s control, while Mom or Dad may not be at any given moment. That gives a growing mind a sense of safety and security, as well as a growing awareness of the separation between “self” and “other.” And that’s as it should be.
Problem Comfort Habits
Comfort habits are usually harmless and actually helpful as a child takes the first steps toward independent thought and action. (Not to mention the fact that a child who uses a teddy bear as a sleep association is more likely to let his parents sleep through the night than one who needs Mom’s shoulder to fall asleep.) Still, there are cases when excessive comfort habits can be a clue that something is wrong.
When to Worry
Every child might go through periods when they want to use self-comforting behaviors. If a 2-year-old is sick or going through a major life change, it’s not at all unexpected that she may spend a day sitting in the floor rocking her teddy bear, not wanting to talk to anyone. The trouble comes when comfort behaviors take the place of comfort from loved ones or caregivers. If a child doesn’t want to be picked up or touched, and withdraws from activities, toys, and interaction in favor of self-comforting, it’s time to delve into what might be causing stress in her life.
Any comfort habit that induces pain should automatically make a parent feel cautious. If a very young child is pulling her hair out, banging her head against the floor or a crib, or chewing her fingernails down to the nub, she needs your help. She may be facing a stressor her growing brain can’t handle, or you may find that she has autistic spectrum tendencies. If a child withdraws into comfort habits even during the day and prefers teddy to you for days or weeks at a time, it’s time to seek professional help.