John Bear was given to me when I was barely a week old. I still have him and I'm 64. He is old and battered and a bit lopsided but I will never throw him away.
My own father was tragically killed when I was two days old and the bear was named after him by my devastated great uncle, who gave it to me. Perhaps that contributes to my having treasured the bear so dearly as a child, possibly, in some way, I associated John Bear with the father I did not have. John Bear comforted me, slept with me and came with me everywhere. When I became a teenager I was devastated when an arm fell off and he had to be sent to ‘bear hospital’ to have it replaced. Recently, I paid nearly £300 to have the holes sewn up and some patches put on!
Both my adult sons also have stuffed toys that they loved and still treasure and would feel horrified if I suggested getting rid of them.
In Nipperbout, I have noticed that large stuffed animals are very popular with the younger children. If they are particularly upset when they first arrive, they often ‘attach’ to a cuddly toy, and self-soothe by holding and cuddling, and sometimes rocking, with the toy.
So why is this? What is it that makes stuffed animals such an important part of childhood, that as adults, many of us feel reluctant to part with them?
Most mental health professionals would agree that feeling connected, as though we belong and matter to others, is key for our mental wellbeing. Do stuffed toys somehow meet these key needs when adults or caregivers can’t, or won’t?
I did some research and discovered some very interesting facts that go a long way to explain children’s attachment to their cuddly best friends.
You may have noticed that giving a child their favourite cuddly toy when they are overwhelmed by strong feelings, can often help them return to a regulated state, sometimes instantaneously!
Scientific studies have shown that they can be useful tools in certain scenarios. A 2011 study published in the journal; Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that holding a teddy bear helped comfort children who had been excluded from a social setting and positively change their behaviour.
Dr David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University, says it makes sense for children to find comfort in their cuddly toys;
“We know children love stuffed animals—they’re what we used to call a ‘transitional object’ between just being by yourself and being connected with another human,” he says.
Could simply holding a stuffed animal help to relieve stress?
One study, published by the Psychological Science journal in 2013, seemed to suggest so. It found that simply holding a teddy bear could help reduce fear response in people with low self-esteem.
Stuffed animals or cuddly toys are categorised as ‘transitional objects’ by psychologists, they might also be called ‘comfort objects’ or ‘security blankets’.
They help children to make the important emotional transition from dependence to independence, with the cuddly toy often representing the parent that isn’t present. They have been found to lessen the stress of separation and provide an external comfort source when a young child begins to spend time away from a parent or caregiver.
Alongside providing emotional comfort, studies have shown that stuffed animals can actually provide physical comfort too! One study, published in 2012, found that children who played with their cuddly toys after surgery reported feeling less pain than those that didn’t.
If you watch a child interacting with their cuddly toy, you may notice that they treat them as if they are living beings, or even friends. They may even talk to them, confide in them or tell them things they may be embarrassed to tell their human friends or family. A ‘transitional object’, like your child’s favourite teddy, can be a very helpful tool for development, emotional regulation and release tension.
Cuddly toys have even been found to be a powerful tool in helping children deal with trauma and overcome fear and anxiety.
A study conducted by Tel Aviv University found that stuffed animals could be used to help alleviate fear in children displaced by war.
The study followed 74 five-year-olds who were living with their families in bomb shelters, were given a stuffed puppy and told that the puppy was sad because he was far from home, he didn’t have any friends, and he needed help from a friend.
Two months later it was found that 71% of the children given the stuffed puppy, had lost their severe stress reactions — twice as many as the children that didn’t get the puppy. The findings of this study were promising, as they suggest stuffed animals might be able to assist children going through many kinds of distress or crisis, like an illness or a parental divorce.
Did you have your own favourite teddy? Does your child? Did you find it helped you?