In medical parlance, the soft stuff that kids seek for calm — the binkies, blankets and stuffies that serve as dopamine dealers for snuggling toddlers — are known as “transitional objects.” They’re transitional in that they provide a bridge between a period of constant comforting attachment to mom and dad and a growing independence in the world. They are a means by which a kid can teaches himself or herself self-regulation, but, as healthy as that sounds, a transitional object can become problematic in a child’s life. Transitional objects cease to be helpful when they foster dependence.
“It depends on how dependent on it they are to function,” explains pediatrician Dr. Jack Maypole, associate professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “How demanding are they that it’s with them for much of their day? And if it’s not, does the world have to stop to find the lost whatever?”
If the behavior associated with the object has become a pain point, it might be time to wean the kid off the object of their desire. Of course, Maypole notes that this should not be the case for children who have special needs. Children who are not neurotypical may require unique considerations. But for most neurotypical kids there are tactics to diminish the use of transitional objects, though it should be considered a team effort.
“If it starts to become an insurmountable obstacle to the well-being of the child there may be a need to strategize with partnering folks at childcare, babysitters or family members,” Maypole says. Because it turns out that consistency is key. There’s simply no use in having inconsistent guidelines. And first and foremost among those guidelines should be to not shame the kid for their behavior.
“That’s the worst thing you can do,” says Maypole. Though he does acknowledge that the frustration around transitional object behavior can be very real. “You’re beating them up over something they can’t do anything about. It’s just not constructive.”
How to wean kids away from blankies, binkies and stuffies:
- Make sure to choose a time to start weaning when a child is healthy, has parents available and isn’t experiencing any big stressors.
- Ensure that all partners in your child’s wellness, including grandparents, teachers, and babysitters, are on board with the plan.
- Make sure that the object is available only during the most stressful times in a kid’s life and reward them when they return it.
- Build a schedule that slowly increases independence without the object and adds a series of rewards to encourage leveling up.
Weaning away from a transitional object also requires an appropriate time. A sick kid or a child who has a parent out of town, for instance, isn’t going to respond well to any tactics. It’s best to wait for a time when everyone is healthy, the schedule is stable and there’s no expectation of stress or disruption.
Interestingly, the guidelines around weaning a kid from a transitional object are pretty consistent regardless of what the object is. The idea is to make the object less available, but not totally unavailable. The important part is that the object is available during the times when it is most necessary.
“You also can praise them if they give it back,” Maypole encourages. “Give them a fist bump or high-five. Reinforce the behavior that giving it back is a great thing. Rewards always get you farther.”
Maypole also suggests creating a plan, complete with goals that allow a kid to level-up, as if they were playing a video game. It can be a matter of building a calendar where every week the goal is to spend more time away from the object. This can be paired with simple rewards, like stickers or crackers, to encourage moving to the next level.
It’s important to note that some kids hold onto transitional object even up until 4-years-old. It’s totally fine to allow them to come to the conclusion it’s time to move on on their own terms. “They tend to give it up through a combination of peer-pressure and self-consciousness, or frank rules related to school.”
But most importantly, Maypole stresses the key is to “Know your kid, what plays to their strength and how best they are motivated.”