The use of comforters……..the good, the bad and the ugly!

Whilst a baby is developing in the womb, it is cocooned in a safe and comfortable environment that surrounds it at all times protecting it from the outside world. The external world, to a new born child is full of unfamiliarity and seeking comfort is a natural response.

Comforters come in many forms and are used for many reasons. As a mum of two, I have had two very different experiences with comforters; my eldest having both a dummy and a comforter (Eric, the turtle) and my youngest having neither. The reasons for this are very rational (more on that later) and as a Mum, I’m happy with the decisions that I made.

Dummies, blankets, soft toys, thumbs, pieces of clothing are some of the types of comforters (also known as pacifiers and attachment objects) that help children to relax and settle. These comforters are very important to the children who use them; they have a special meaning for the child and the child forms a close attachment to their comforter, helping them feel safe at times when they are alone. Whilst every parents has a strong desire to ensure that their child is happy and content, it can become a challenge to parents deciding when the right time is to withdraw the comforter without emotionally affecting the child.

Dummies, the pro’s:

Sucking is a natural and strong reflex in babies and some exhibit thumb sucking and finger sucking whilst in the womb. Beyond nutrition, sucking has a soothing effect on the child and many parents choose to use a dummy to settle a child who, even though full, still has a strong need to suck. There is a strong association between the use of a dummy and a reduced risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Although this is not conclusive (it cannot be claimed that a dummy itself reduces the risk) studies have indicated that there is an association.  Dummies, are also much easier to get rid of than the thumbs and fingers of a child!

Dummies, the cons:

The introduction of a dummy to a new born child can interfere with breastfeeding as the sucking position for both are different. Prolonged use of a dummy can affect dental development, particularly after the age of three. Sucking on a dummy can quickly become habit forming and many parents choose not to introduce one so that they don’t need to deal with trying to withdraw their child from using one (which in itself can be rather traumatic). There is also a level of embarrassment associated with seeing a four year old with a dummy hanging out of the side of their mouth. Having an event as a trigger can help to rid a child of their dummy, however parents need to be sensitive to the child and the timing of the event. My eldest had a dummy and it was when we moved abroad that I informed him that dummies weren’t allowed in the country we were moving to – as we got off the plane, he very calmly left his dummy behind and we never looked back. If only everything in the life of a parent were so simple!

Comforters, the pro’s:

Comforters are often a reminder of special, close times with that infants have with their parents. Holding a favourite teddy, piece of clothing or blanket whilst being cuddled by Mummy or Daddy provides an emotional reference point for children. Children will often have a strong need for their comforter during times of stress, change or separation (including bedtime) and studies have found that comforters can help children to deal better with times of stress or anxiety. As a child gets older and is able to feel more secure, the need for a comforter becomes less and less; however, it is important that the child has control over this. Eric, the turtle is still a bedtime companion for my eldest son (aged 9). Eric accompanied my son throughout 3 years of illness, travel to various hospitals between different countries and eventually surgery. I’m in no rush to see Eric leave us, nor is my son – when the time is right, I’m sure Eric will be put on a shelf and eventually in the memory box that we keep at home. It is all about the individual child and the story that their comforter helps them to tell.

Comforters, the cons:

If a child takes their comforter everywhere, it is difficult for others to appreciate the importance of the comforter to them. To other children it may be simply a teddy, or a dirty old blanket. Others may not treat the comforter with the same kindness and this can present challenges. Likewise, trailing a blanket around can inhibit opportunities to play – it is hard to build a tower or paint whilst holding your comforter. Parents must also bear in mind that fabrics are to be washed and this can be a trauma to the child – there is something about the smell of Eric that my son loves (and that we as a family find quite gross!). Eric has, on occasion been washed and hung out to dry and has a wet-wipe wash regularly, but this doesn’t come close to washing on a 40° cycle. It is worth considering the hygiene of your child’s comforter, to make sure that it isn’t breeding germs. Also, parents have a responsibility to make sure that their child isn’t at risk of suffocating or strangulation by sleeping with their comforter.

Whatever you decide as a parent, my one piece of advice would be to make sure the reasons behind you giving a comforter or a dummy to your child are for their benefit rather than yours – we all crave peace and quiet at times, but we can rue the day we introduce an added element of complexity when it comes to saying goodbye to it.

Vanessa Szucs-Hussain
Wellington College Bilingual Shanghai