To each their own security blanket

Transitional objects
Reading time: 4 minutes

It can often be enjoyable to take a trip down memory lane, as thinking back and dusting down childhood memories allows us to picture in our mind’s eye those toys and objects that were dear to us when we were growing up: not just dolls, toy cars and construction games, but also more unusual "items" like an old t-shirt, a pyjama top or a soft toy, washed countless times and worn threadbare by the passing years and our constant handling. If we were to conduct a collective experiment today, asking ourselves which item was so important to us in early childhood that we still remember it after all these years, I imagine that some people would picture it immediately, the image easily plucked from their database of memories; others would remember it from old photographs, and others still would identify the object from stories fondly told and retold by their parents. If we carried on with the experiment, some might also say that these were not just "simple objects", but that they represented something special, emotional or tender, and they would be absolutely right in their assertion.

These items are what is referred to in psychology as transitional objects.

Let's try to understand this whole concept.

Transitional objects

It was Donald Winnicott, the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, who coined the term transitional object in the mid 1900s: such objects represent something very dear to infants which are used as a substitute for the presence of the caregiver (the primary person who looks after them, generally the mother in early infancy).

At birth, babies are completely dependent on maternal care, not just for their physical needs through breastfeeding, but for their emotional needs too: caring for infants is about nurturing both their physical and emotional growth. After the first few months, children begin a slow, gradual process of identification and separation which allows them to "accept" becoming a person who is different and separate from their mother. Transitional objects are part of this process: an old vest of their mother’s, a pyjama top, a soft toy or a blanket are invested with special significance; they are real objects which the child identifies as “not-me” and as not their mother, and this places them in an intermediate area between the two, an area defined precisely as ‘transitional’, as it is a stepping stone in the infant’s journey.

Winnicott describes transitional objects as a real illusion, insomuch as infants know that the object in question, a pyjama top, for example, is not their caregiver, but they act as if it is: they reach for this object when they need to feel comforted, or to relax before going to sleep. Some children use transitional objects when they are worried (when going to the doctor’s, say), or they may represent a constant presence, with the child insisting on carrying the object with them wherever they go. Generally speaking, these objects are soft and light, so they are easy to hold and carry around everywhere.

Children’s remarkable ability to build emotional bridges.

Who "builds" the transitional object?

The answer to this question is very simple: the child does, based on their family and relational environment.

Based on their life experiences, from around the age of four months children are generally able to identify an object as being distinct and separate from themselves, a first “not-me” possession to which they attach great emotional significance: children all pick their own "security blanket", which acts as an emotional bridge: holding, handling and playing with it allows them to be in contact with the person they feel closest to. This great ability represents a significant step in the developmental process, especially considering it is mastered by a human being not even a metre tall!

How should parents behave with regard to transitional objects?

  • It is up to children to decide how, when and which object they choose; parents can support them in this, but without imposing their own will.
  • Also, once they are a little older, it is usually children themselves who decide they no longer need their "security blanket", often separating themselves from it gradually; parents should not force this detachment, as it is something that will happen naturally.
  • Children often give their transitional object a pet name, and it is a good idea for parents to use the same name.
  • Sometimes a transitional object may be used as a vehicle for communication: "these little PJs are so tired...I wonder if they want to go to sleep...I think "Pippo" is really you think he wants din-dins too?" in other words, a way of speaking to your child that playfully involves the object of their affection.
  • It may seem obvious but we ought to point out, since these are emotionally charged objects, that parents should treat them with great care, being careful not to ruin them, for example, with washing, and avoiding storing them anywhere they might become damaged.

It is therefore important for parents to recognise that transitional objects form part of a developmental journey: your child is growing and the end goal is of course independence, but to get there they need to go through a series of intermediate stages that includes the aid of objects invested with great meaning and affection, just like those we remember so well from our childhood, and which still trigger such fond memories.

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