Stuffed animals and crib toys have no business in a crib in the initial months of a child’s life. That’s because the risk of Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome for babies is increased when crib toys or stuffed animals are introduced to a baby’s sleeping area. However, when a child is able to move around independently, the rate of SUIDS deaths nosedives and stuffed animals can tentatively join the slumber party. And there’s a good reason for stuffies to get an invitation. These “transitional objects” help kids soothe themselves back to sleep.
“Typically our recommendation is some kind of plush toy or a blanket,” explains Dr. Daniel Lewin, pediatric psychologist and Associate Director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC. “Essentially, a toy that a child could engage in pretend-play with rather than a toy that is intrinsically more exciting, like a Hot Wheels car.”
Lewin notes that the reason for encouraging kids to sleep and play with soft toys is that the cuddle factor helps. After all, parents are cuddly. However, Dr. Lewin notes that sometimes kids prefer non-fluffy items. “We will sometimes see kids who are more obsessed with LEGO pieces or something not as cuddly,” he notes. “And having that in bed with them so they can manipulate it is fine.”
How to Use a Transitional Object to Promote Sleep
- Make sure the transitional object is something that allows them to use their imagination.
- Help a child choose an object that soothes them rather getting them wound up.
- Keep the object associated with sleep by keeping it in the bed during the day.
- If an object can’t be associated with sleep, make bringing it to bed part of a bedtime ritual that helps signal to a child it’s time to sleep.
In fact, parents shouldn’t worry too much about keeping a kid from taking stuffed animals or toys to bed, according to Lewin, as long as they promote calm, imaginative play. He stresses that there’s nothing wrong with post lights-out activity as long as the play is about winding down to sleep rather than winding up. “Research has shown they’re up doing things before sleeping and even during the night. More than parents expect,” Lewin says.
There are some additional rules about the toys carted to bed, however. For instance, it’s helpful for the toy to not be part of the regular daytime toy population, regardless of what it is. If a toy isn’t necessarily associated with sleep, then it should at least be associated with a bedtime ritual. If picking a toy to bring to bed is allowed, then that choice should happen in a standardized way, along with teeth brushing and story time, eventually moving the kid to bed and the adult out of the room.
“Incorporating a toy into the ritual can be a wonderful, symbolic, very reassuring set of behaviors that a parent can repeat with the child that is soothing,” Lewin says.