Blankets, bottles and braids: Finding security during infancy
One of the most endearing descriptions about comfort objects are the illustrations of Linus and his blanket by Charles M. Schultz. This week on Masala Chai, we raise a discussion about comfort objects, and the place that they have in children’s lives. Do all children show an interest in particular objects? How and why do some children attach a special significance to some ‘things’? What is the significance of ‘security blankets’?
This post links with the essay on pacifiers that we posted a couple of Fridays ago. The loss of Fishy created a brief interruption in the discussion of objects of significance in infancy. Again, this was something that I intuitively felt was experienced somewhat differently among Indian families that I had met during the course of my life and work: that there just weren’t as many instances of comfort objects as one would expect if it were in fact a universal need. Was there something significant going on here? Although I had heard of some instances of babies attaching themselves to specific things, my children had shown no such interest in anything – no thumb-sucking, no hand-holding, no fuss over bottles, and definitely no security blankets! From my side, I too don’t remember specifically encouraging any attachment to anything in particular, although I really used to enjoy (and still do) Linus’s endearing images. Did that have anything to do with their proclivity? I had seen other children display strong tendencies towards thumb-sucking or holding onto to something, so I was a bit surprised that both of them didn’t show any interest. As they got a bit older, and this was again true for both of them, any new toy (mostly it was the small cars, or with the younger one it was the tiny lego people, I remember) they would want to play with it until they fell asleep and the objects would be around them when they slept, sometimes even in their hands. The transient nature of this interest and the un-cuddly nature of the objects themselves didn’t permit the label of attachment object. This made me wonder about comfort objects and individual and cultural differences related to this phenomenon. The fact of individual differences is of course undeniable, but was there something more going on here?
In the 90’s one of my Masters’ students became interested in the issue and conducted a small study with middle class families in Delhi. Her observations related to the use of objects for infants. She had found that infants were described to be drawing comfort from people, usually this was parts of the body or clothing (the edge of a sari or dupatta) rather than something separate and unique to be labelled as a ‘transitional object’. Conversations with mothers revealed that some young children would hold onto something to sleep with or draw comfort from usually while feeding or before sleeping. Thumb-sucking was seen as natural, some children formed habits while others didn’t. Although the sample was small and the survey was exploratory, there was a preference for interactions with people, people-and-objects, rather than with objects alone. Children were permitted to use people’s bodies and clothing for comfort. More recently, I talked with several other mothers about this and here are some more examples.
I had met Pooja’s daughters several times and remembered that the younger one was an active thumb-sucker! Both normal deliveries and breast-fed babies, her daughters both needed comforting to fall asleep. The parents practiced co-sleeping as is common among Indian families. Furthermore, the children’s grandmother lived with them throughout, and the girls would sometimes sleep with her. Although both daughters needed comforting, this did not involve objects. The older one would need to feel her (Pooja’s) upper arm to hold onto while she fell off to sleep. As she grew up and began to express herself, she would request her mother “not to wear clothes with long sleeves” so that she could have her “big hand”! A similar pattern was seen in the younger one a few years later. She developed a habit of sucking her thumb fairly early and greatly relished the activity. But to sleep, thumb-sucking was accompanied with holding on to a bunch of her mother’s hair in her hand! In her own words:
“Both my kids have had attachments to sucking and stroking and continue to do so. When the older one was little, she loved her milk-bottle and that was the best way to put her to bed. As she grew up, everybody around me advised that we should get rid of her bottle. At around 2 years and 3 months of age, I took a stand with her and threw away her bottles. After a few days of protest, she came around to drinking milk with a cup and straw (which she still insists on having at five plus). Since it was a bit difficult for me to get rid of her bottle I decided not to give the younger one the bottle when I was weaning her. I breast-fed her for longer, till she was a little over two years of age. She took to sucking her thumb since she was a few weeks old. It clearly helped her to calm down. She even held on to her own hair while sucking. Slowly she stared holding/fiddling/ playing with my hair and sometimes when her grandmother would put her down for a nap, she would hold her hair too. Having hair slipping between her fingers helped soothe her and she would soon fall asleep. The younger one is now three years and three months old, but her thumb-sucking still persists. Should it be a concern for her and how aggressively should we try and get her over this habit, I am not sure.”
Reshu’s experiences with her daughter: “She never had a specific object she would hold. I tried to keep at least one toy constant, but she never developed any strong attachment to any one thing. Since we were travelling a lot when she was young, I would always carry several things to keep her engaged so that she would have something familiar in unfamiliar places. For a long train journey or flight, I would carry a soft toy of her choice, but that would keep changing. I also know about her cousins and none of them has any particular preference. They do carry around objects, but with no specific attachments.”
Sushmitha remembers that she used to suck her thumb as a child, and her younger sister preferred to do the same, but with two fingers. An additional thing she remembers her sister doing is holding on to her mother’s abundant hair! She would hold on so tight that it would become difficult for the mother to extricate herself after she had fallen off to sleep. Something a bit out of the ordinary relates to one of their cousins who would, as he slipped into sleep, hold onto to any cloth (no specific piece) hold it in his hand, stroke himself under the lower lip and make clicking sounds. He continued to do this well into middle childhood, she recalls.
Parenting systems in the care of young children: Heidi Keller’s theory
On account of altriciality that Heidi Keller discusses in ‘Cultures of Infancy’, infants remain highly dependent upon the adults around them during their early development. Regarding objects, therefore, they can only access things that are handed to them. Parents display different combinations of activities with children during infancy, what Heidi Keller terms as parenting systems, to theoretically disentangle preferences of handling babies. Keller notes that there are: Primary care, body contact, body stimulation, object stimulation and face-to-face, and different communities emphasize different combinations of these systems. By exploring several cultures, it was found that different cultures promote different combinations and different emphases of the parenting systems, guided by the beliefs about adult-child interactions, the baby’s place in society and their ethnotheories about development.
Comfort-seeking in infancy
Transitional objects or comfort objects are thus called because they are the things (blankets, stuffed toys, pacifiers, cloths) that babies become glued to. It is in some sense an object that serves the function of ‘replacing’ a mother-child bond, as specialists inform us. The term ‘transitional objects’ was coined by the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott to represent the intermediate function or transition function of these objects between the infant-mother bond to the baby as a separate being, between psychic reality and the external world.
Giving up the comfort
As intense as the attachment to comfort objects is, there is a matched pressure to give up the object a bit later, usually before a child enters school. The need for Linus to hold on to the blanket as he sucked his thumb was as persistent as the reactions of others around him, most intensely Lucy, his older sister. Snoopy, who is the central character of the series, would also pursue the blanket relentlessly.
Cultural differences in presentation of objects to children
I remember reading about an ethnographic observation by Carolyn Edwards who had wrote that the use of dolls for play was common among societies where children did not have the opportunity to play with real babies! Thus, which objects are introduced and how, is culturally guided. The same could also be said about comfort objects. All children encounter objects as their world expands, but what objects are experienced and the ways in which these objects are introduced varies greatly, both within and among societies. In some, objects are collected even before children are born whereas in others, children are free to explore their environments to find things to manipulate. Commercially available play materials are a relatively recent development in family life, and the abundance of functional toys for specific outcomes even more so. Whereas some children have teething rings to chew on, others will happily mouth objects like bones and sticks as they grow, a difference that is evident in the documentary film ‘Babies’. Children’s worlds are thus punctuated by objects, but the ways in which these are presented and what place they have in a child’s life varies significantly based on social trends, availability and beliefs.
What of objects during infancy. In the post about pacifiers, we discussed that whether a child will or will not be given pacifiers depends greatly on the prevailing beliefs about their impact on children. Even among cultures where these are routinely provided to soothe children, limits are placed on the time and duration of use. The end of the use of the pacifier is always part of the idea of growing up. And with the use of pacifiers, there is yet again, the issue of individual differences. Some children just seem to give up things more easily than others, whether this is the breast, the bottle or the pacifier.
When we look at research about play objects, the studies from the field of anthropology differ greatly from that of psychology. As Lancy argues in this article, psychologists see mother-child play (and therefore play with objects as well) as natural, whereas anthropologists see it as cultural. The evidence of using objects to play with the child is clearly culture-specific. Yet developmental psychology presents it as if it were a universal aspect of adult-child interactions. Psychology is largely based on the paradigm of the modern, middle-class, nuclear family, with few children who are the focus of attention of this intimate circle. Mechanical aids such as swaddling, rocking the baby are focused in some societies more on keeping the baby calm and quiet rather than stimulated and interested. The theory of parenting systems and findings from Keller’s research supports these conclusions. The recent, rather curious initiative to decrease the word-gap by recommending that all children should be constantly “spoken to” in order to stimulate their language and cognitive development is an example of the imposition of cultural specific patterns of care as universal standards for all families. From Lancy’s paper: “Not only are mothers, generally, not expected to stimulate the baby’s mental development through play or other forms of interaction, there is the sense that to do so might interfere with the child’s in-born character and sense of autonomy (Rogoff 2003; Sorenson 1976)”. As Trevarthen argued: With modernization, fertility dropped, demand for child workers dried up, and suburbia mushroomed. Gone were the extended family, the “mother ground” where children played under the casual supervision of adults in the vicinity (Lancy 1996:84–86), and the large brood of sibling playmates. In their place, we have an image of the carefree young mother pushing her toddler on a swing in the backyard. An image that owed much to mass media and marketing became enshrined in academic discourse as well (Trevarthen 1983:159).
Popular science articles in the West tend to treat comfort objects as if these are universal. For instance, Winnicott discusses this as a phase between the movement towards the separation of the idea of ‘me’ and ‘not me’. The mother’s availability and responsiveness creates in the baby an important illusion, of ‘subjective omnipotence’, and it is between this illusion of omnipotence and objective reality that the transitional objects of desire become significant. Wikipedia entries on Winnicott declare that “The mother cannot always be there to ‘bring the world’ to the baby, a realization which has a powerful, somewhat painful, but ultimately constructive impact on the child. Through fantasizing about the object of its wishes the child will find comfort. A transitional object can be used in this process. The transitional object is often the first ‘not me’ possession that really belongs to the child…… This object represents all components of ‘mothering’, and it means that the child itself is able to create what it needs as well. It enables the child to have a fantasized bond with the mother when she gradually separates for increasingly longer periods of time. The transitional object is important at the time of going to sleep and as a defence against anxiety.”
Presenting a somewhat different line of discussion, Steve Morris recognizes that there are cultural differences. After reviewing several research studies on comfort objects, he concludes that these are far more common among cultures where babies sleep separately from adults. He also refers to a delightful observation of young children in a research situation where some of them “refused” to offer their attachment objects to be “duplicated” by a copying machine, whereas those that didn’t have such attachments had no hesitation in doing so. Evidently, children who display the need for transitional objects believe that they have properties that are unique and irreplaceable, they had an ‘essence’. Another article in the Chicago Tribune takes a slightly different stance, arguing that this is a near universal experience, “Almost every newborn discovers an object to call his or her own and develops an attachment to it in as early as the first six months”, Eric Ben-Moche writes, illustrating the argument with instances of adults who persist in carrying their childhood objects around.
Once they start moving about, children become capable of exploring their gradually expanding world. I am going to extend this a bit to propose that for the baby to become ‘attached’ to an external object, other than one belonging to the caregiver/s, the adult would need to provide her with that object regularly to develop an attachment. Why would an adult do that? Is it a strategy that helps to free the caregiver from being constantly available to the child? Is this more common among families where there are single caregivers, or is it more popular among some cultures in comparison with others? Perhaps yes!
 A young organism being unable to functional independently, as opposed to precocial