A crib is a lonely place for a kid. That’s as it should be. The heightened risk of Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome for babies presented by the introduction of blankets or stuffed buddies within the first six months ensure that responsibly tended cribs stand empty. However, that can change once a child is able to move around independently, which both represents the point at which the rate of SUIDS deaths nosedives and the time when it’s okay for a teddy bear to join the slumber party. And there is definitely an advantage in making sure that stuffed friends get an invitation. So-called “transitional objects” help kids self soothe. However, there are exceptions. Sending a preschooler to bed with a platoon of G.I. Joes might not be the best best.
“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 aid with the transition part of being a transitional object. 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 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. As much as possible the toy should be associated with bedtime and not daytime play. For his part, Lewin convinced his kid that the transitional stuffed-rabbit kept watch in the night and slept in the bed during the day.
If a toy isn’t necessarily associated with sleep, then it should at least be associated with a bedtime ritual. For instance, 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, that eventually moves 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.