In the 1950s, Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys looking at attachment and loss.
One of his most well-known studies looked at how infant monkeys separated from their mothers reacted to surrogate mothers; one a wire surrogate with a milk bottle and the other a terry cloth covered mother with no milk. He observed that the young monkeys preferred to spend a majority of their time with the terrycloth surrogate, only venturing to the wire surrogate when needing physiological nourishment. In a follow-up study, monkeys were assigned to either the wire surrogate or the terrycloth surrogate. Those with the wire surrogates reacted to environmental stressors by rocking themselves and screaming. However, those with the terrycloth surrogates would retreat to their “mothers”, cuddle with them, and calm down.
Okay, so what’s the point? Apart from the questionable ethics of subjecting young monkeys to separation from their mothers, the idea that contact, touch, and comfort are as important to development as meeting physical needs resonated with me. And now as a mother, I can see how the implications of this study play out in everyday life. As much as I would like to be able to hold my children as often as possible for as long as possible, life and growth necessitate that I am able to cook and clean periodically and they are able to develop a sense of independence and autonomy. This is why baby blankets make such a popular baby shower gift and in cultures across the world and across time we see evidence of children playing with dolls. Plush is important. For centuries, plush has provided comfort and confidence for generations of children. I know, it sounds hyperbolic. But hear me out. Just as the terrycloth surrogate proved beneficial to the rhesus monkeys, so dolls and blankets help children adjust to new or uncertain situations.
When encountering the world outside the womb, a newborn finds comfort in being wrapped in a soft blanket and held close to his parent. When afraid of the dark, a toddler’s fears fade away by squeezing a plush friend. When going to preschool for the first time, being met with the friendly faces of fluffy stuffed animals helps a child feel welcome and safe in a new environment. When going on her first sleepover, bringing a favorite doll helps the child feel more at home. Each of these instances represents a child growing in self-regulation, confidence, and independence. I am not saying hand your child a doll and shove them out the door, but giving kids the opportunity to have moments of independence is so important for their long term confidence and a doll can help make those transitions easier.
Plush also presents opportunities for pretend play, building social and language skills. My five year old no longer has a nap time, but he does do quiet time in his room on days without school. Usually, when I go upstairs to let him know he can come back down, I find his stuffed animals lined up on his bed. They are active participants in his pretend play. My 3-year-old is a rather rough and tumble kind of kid and we did a lot of role-playing with stuffed toys before his little brother was born to help teach him compassion and how to be gentle. My three-month-old is just starting to appreciate faces and loves sharing his babbling thoughts with an inviting stuffed toy. At each stage, plush is playing a role in their development.
And what about the parents? What is the benefit of plush? Plush is quiet! I love that we can let our children bring a small stuffed animal or plush book to church and when they inevitably drop it, it doesn’t make a sound! JellyCat not only makes the most adorable plush animal friends, but they also make a fun interactive plush book. When my kids are younger, they love flipping through the pages of books. Plush books are easy for them to hold, turn the pages, and yes, they are quiet when dropped!
I know it is easy for a stuffed animal collection to get out of control. I had an adult size hammock full of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling in my room when I was a kid, and honestly, I loved each one of them. But if you are wanting to make a meaningful collection of plush, here are some ideas. Look for some that are extra soft and lovely to look at. This way they can make sweet keepsakes your kids may want to pass on one day. We like to have some items that are small enough to go in the diaper bag for travel and outings, like the JellyCat book and pocket pals. Larger dolls like the bashful bunnies and Fuddlewuddles make great friends for bedtime cuddles and playtime fun. While I (and the AAP) wouldn’t recommend putting a baby to sleep unattended in a bed with a doll or blanket, for the youngest crowd, lovies like the JellyCat Soothers are perfect for wrapping up a squishy baby to hold in your arms. Another great thing about JellyCat is that if your child falls in love with a Bashful Bunny Ring Rattle, you can find a soother, a diaper bag sized plush, and bigger sized dolls with the same bunny to go and grow with them.