“Where’s your baby?” said the mother to her sobbing 3-year-old daughter. “You need your baby!”
Her older daughter began digging through the two large diaper bags, and triumphantly extracted a fuzzy pink blanket. The 3-year-old grabbed the blanket and tucked it up under her chin, gripping it tightly. “There’s your baby!” the mother and the older sister said in unison. The crying subsided, and we went on with the medical exam.
So-called transitional objects — beloved blankets, tattered stuffed animals, irreplaceable garments — are frequent in the pediatric exam room. Some children clutch them to ease the stress of being examined or immunized, while others simply never leave the house without their favorites. Ask any small group of parents about transitional objects — or blankies, or lovies — and you’ll get a good story, usually of a precious item misplaced or lost at some critical juncture.
Ask adults, and the most unlikely people tell you the names of their treasured childhood blankets or get misty-eyed about a stuffed bear.
The British experts who first wrote about the term mentioned Winnie the Pooh and Aloysius, the teddy bear in “Brideshead Revisited”; a recent literary incarnation is Knuffle Bunny, in the series of three picture books by Mo Willems. But the formative American take on transitional objects is probably Linus, with his blanket, in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, which date to the 1950s and the moment of the original psychoanalytic discussion of the phenomenon.
In 1953, Dr. Donald Woods Winnicott, a prominent pediatrician and psychoanalyst, presented a paper to the British Psycho-Analytical Society: “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena — A Study of the First Not-Me Possession.” The paper, published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, combines psychoanalytic theory with a clear pediatric familiarity with children and their blankies.
“The parents get to know its value and carry it round when travelling,” Dr. Winnicott wrote. “The mother lets it get dirty and even smelly, knowing that by washing it she introduces a break in continuity in the infant’s experience.” In Dr. Winnicott’s view, the object, together with what he called a “good enough mother,” helps the young child navigate the essential problem of separation.
“The baby knows the teddy bear is not Mom, but the baby can get a certain satisfaction. It is neither Mom nor totally just a stuffed animal,” said Steve Tuber, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at City College, and the author of a book on Winnicott.
The specificity of the child’s preference — and affection — parallels the developing ability to feel a strong specific attachment to particular people. The transitional object is “a bridge between the mother and the external world,” said Alicia Lieberman, an expert in infant mental health and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.
Arietta Slade, a professor of clinical and developmental psychology at the City University of New York, said: “It’s a very adaptive mechanism, if you think about it, that there are things other than mother that kids can hang on to that help them retain that comforted and comforting feeling.”
Some parents are able to “suggest” a convenient object (and buy multiples to keep in reserve), but children are guided mostly by their own mysterious and passionate preferences, and they do not necessarily accept substitutes — witness all those stories about turning the car around to go back for the one true blankie.
The transitional object “has to be created by the baby,” Dr. Tuber said. “A child has to pick the one that really becomes theirs.”
Inevitably, there are parents who worry that the object has become too important, and that caring for it and curating it has become a major burden — or that it’s being held on to past some age of expected maturity and independence.
“Parents get upset because they think they’re going to lose the transitional object, they think it collects germs, they think it looks babyish, which is a problem in American culture,” said Dr. Barbara Howard, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Johns Hopkins.
“The biggest problem is stigmatization. There is no ultimate age where it’s bad, but you can get teased for it,” she added.
As children get older, some transitional objects — especially stuffed animals — take on distinct personalities, moving toward a combined role as comforter and imaginary friend. Think of how Winnie the Pooh serves as Christopher Robin’s playmate, companion and sometimes problem child. Aloysius, the teddy bear in “Brideshead Revisited,” is taken along to Oxford.
Indeed, Dr. Howard suggested that as many as 25 percent of young women going to college take along something identifiable as a childhood transitional object. The young adult going off to college, with or without stuffed animals or scraps of a favorite old blanket, should be a reminder that the challenges of separation — and the consolations and complexities of attachment — are not developmentally confined to the first years of life.
The familiar image of the small child and the transitional object, generally sweet and mildly humorous, occasionally frantic and even desperate, reminds us that learning to negotiate, and even enjoy, partings and reunions is part of the whole assignment, for parents and for children.