Comfort Object

A comfort object, transitional object, or security blanket is an item used to provide psychological comfort, especially in unusual or unique situations, or at bedtime for small children. Among toddlers, comfort objects may take the form of a blanket, a stuffed animal, or a favorite toy, and may be referred to by English-speaking toddlers as ‘blankey’ or ‘lovey.’ Stuffed toys are sometimes equipped in emergency vehicles and police patrol cars, to be given to victims involved in an accident or traumatic shock, to provide them comfort.

Paramedics are trained to treat physical shock with a wide array of blankets designed to preserve heat, blood, and wounds for life threatening traumas. Often charities will provide comfort objects such as blankets and quilts to survivors of disasters. Psychologists are experimenting with the use of heavy thick fleece blankets to replace restraints such as straitjackets. They have noted through experiments with autistic children that weighted blankets have a desirable soothing effect to help calm agitated patients.

In human childhood development, the term ‘transitional object’ is normally used. It is something, usually a physical object, which takes the place of the mother-child bond. Common examples include dolls, teddy bears or blankets. English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott introduced the concepts of transitional objects and transitional experience in reference to a particular developmental sequence. With ‘transition’ Winnicott means an intermediate developmental phase between the psychic and external reality. In this ‘transitional space’ we can find the ‘transitional object.’

When the young child begins to separate the ‘me’ from the ‘not-me’ and evolves from complete dependence to a stage of relative independence, it uses transitional objects. Infants see themselves and the mother as a whole. In this phase the mother ‘brings the world’ to the infant without delay which gives it a ‘moment of illusion,’ a belief that its own wish creates the object of its desire which brings with it a sense of satisfaction. Winnicott calls this subjective omnipotence. Alongside the subjective omnipotence of a child lies an objective reality, which constitutes the child’s awareness of separateness between itself and desired objects. While the subjective omnipotence experience is one in which the child feels that its desires create satisfaction, the objective reality experience is one in which the child independently seeks out objects of desire.

Later on the child comes to realize that the mother is separate from it through which it appears that the child has lost something. The child realizes that it is dependent on others and thus it loses the idea that it is independent, a realization which creates a difficult period and brings frustration and anxiety with it. In the end it is impossible that the mother is always 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 could be a real object like a blanket or a teddy bear, but other ‘objects,’ such as a melody or a word, can fulfill this role as well. 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 defense against anxiety.

In a later stage of the development the child no longer needs the transitional object. It is able to make a distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not-me,’ and keeping inside and outside apart and yet interrelated. This development leads to the use of illusion, symbols and objects later on in life. Winnicott related the concept of transitional object to a more general one, transitional phenomena, which he considered to be the basis of science, religion and all of culture. Transitional objects and phenomena, he said, are neither subjective nor objective but partake of both. In ‘Mental Space,’ psychotherapist Robert Young provided an exposition of these concepts and generalized their role into psychic phenomena in adult life.

Research with children on this subject was performed at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee by Richard H. Passman and his associates. Among other findings, they showed that security blankets are appropriately named — they actually do give security to those children attached to them. Along with other positive benefits, having a security blanket available can help children adapt to new situations, aid in their learning, and adjust to physicians’ and clinical psychologists’ evaluations. Passman’s research also points out that there is nothing abnormal about being attached to them. In the United States, about 60% of children have at least some attachment to a security object.

The term ‘security blanket’ was popularized in the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip created by Charles M. Schulz, who gave such a blanket to his character Linus van Pelt. Linus called it his ‘security and happiness blanket.’ However, the concept of a comfort blanket existed prior to ‘Peanuts.’ In a 1954 ‘Review Report’ article, writer ‘Bev’ wrote about her daughter: ‘Security blanket. My younger child is one year old. When she finds a fuzzy blanket or a fleecy coat she presses her cheek against it and sucks her thumb.’ Since 1920, blankets which clipped onto sleeping infants to prevent them from rolling out of bed and keep the body covered were dubbed ‘Security blanket fasteners.’

The most common popular name for such a blanket is ‘blanky’ – sometimes ‘banky,’ if a child has not acquired the ability to pronounce complex onsets – with terms including ‘wubby’ (popularized by the 1983 film ‘Mr. Mom’) and ‘wink.’ A security blanket was also featured quite prominently and used by main character, Leopold Bloom, portrayed by Gene Wilder in the 1968 Mel Brooks comedy ‘The Producers.’ The appropriateness of a 27-year-old adult sleeping with a comfort blanket was discussed on the British television chat show, ‘The Wright Stuff’ in 2010. It was revealed that people who sleep with comfort blankets are in fact more independent than those who do not. The theory is that children who use a comfort blanket are more likely to detach themselves from their parents because of the increase in security which the blanket provides.

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