Q. My preschooler is really attached to his stuffed monkey. He carries it everywhere, and even though I try to keep it clean, it's filthy! Will it make him sick? Also, at age three, should I be trying to wean him away from it? How?
A: Young children often form attachments to objects – attachments that, to us, seem illogical. Of course, these can be abnormal if they lead to health risks or interference with life functions and learning. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule, and in this situation, the attachment tends to be a symptom instead of the underlying problem.
Children form attachments to objects for various reasons, but most commonly it is because the object provides a form of constancy and comfort in a world that is somewhat hard to understand. Keep in mind that when adults feel insecure or uncertain, we have ways to relieve that feeling, like discussing with loved ones, reading to learn more and intellectualize it, or utilizing previous life experience to put the situation in perspective, often in an abstract way. Preschool children have none of these skills, as their worlds are still very concrete, which, when combined with active imaginations, can be quite scary.
At some point, it can become necessary to wean your child from this object if it’s causing maladjustment. To do this, it may be best to limit its use to certain rooms, such as his bedroom, and advise him that his monkey needs to rest when he’s not helping your son -- he can even tuck him into bed if he wants. It may be necessary, in the short run, to bring the monkey to stressful situations such as doctor’s appointments, but over time, you should be able to diminish this. Generally, this approach works better than the cold turkey approach of “Your monkey got lost”, as otherwise, your child will just need to form an attachment to something else quickly and will be even more anxious until he does.
As long as you are doing your best to keep it clean, it is unlikely to make him sick. Even though it probably looks dirty, matted, and stained, it is no more of an infection risk than any other object that he would carry around for a day.
If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Eichner or any of our experts by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Eichner is a general pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke Children's Primary Care-Roxboro Street in Durham. He enjoys providing care for children who are healthy as well as those with complex medical conditions. Dr. Eichner also serves as the medical director of the Duke Pediatric Diagnostic Clinic. He and his wife have lived in the Triangle since 2006.