Her pink dress is faded and a bit frayed. The glossy, hard surfaces of her arms, legs, and face are smudged with dark patches. One eye is discolored — a cloudy whitish-blue; the other is popping out of its socket. Her name is "Alice Doll," and she belongs to Kathleen Walsh, who openly acknowledges that Alice Doll is a mess, even if that doesn't make her any less special. On the contrary: "I like her as a mess," Walsh says.
When Walsh was 3, her grandmother gifted her a Bitty Baby, made by American Girl, for Christmas. "I don't know why I named her Alice — I think maybe I'd just watched Alice in Wonderland — but she became my Alice Doll," Walsh shares. "I literally could not sleep without her for my entire childhood, and like, a little bit now."
That's right, even as a 31-year-old adult, Walsh turns to Alice Doll to feel secure. "With her plastic arms, legs, and head, she doesn't seem like she’d be that comfortable to hug, but she is because her little arms sort of naturally feel like a hug when you hold her," Walsh says. "I also developed this habit when I was a tiny child of kissing her head, because my mom kissed my head a lot, so now the hugging and head-kissing is a form of self-soothing, especially at night." Walsh prefaces this admission with a laugh and says, "God, this is so weird." But, as someone who has often taken "Dunkie," my beloved, tattered, stuffed Humpty Dumpty, to work in my purse so I could sniff her if I get anxious, I don't judge. Plus, though it might not be openly discussed all that often, we're far from the only adults who have powerful, lingering attachments to our childhood security blankets.
Becca Mitrisin was given her stuffed dog "Wrinkles" in 1985, the year she was born. As a kid, she brought him everywhere — sleepovers, vacations, camp. Nowadays, Wrinkles serves a very specific purpose for Mitrisin: He's become her neck pillow for reading and watching TV in bed. You may think that, at this point in her life, the plush pup is purely utilitarian, but there's more to his support. "I have tried replacing him with something more 'adult,' but nothing compares," she shares.
Shira C. also has a stuffed dog she cherishes. Hers is a Gund puppy she named "Max." Her Nana bought him for her on a shopping trip 30 years ago when she was around 4 or 5 years old. Though Max has always had a steady presence in her life, Shira says that, until somewhat recently, she hadn't actively turned to him for comfort since she was a teenager. "About a year and a half ago, one of my best friends got in a terrible accident. She had a Max of her own, a bear, and I kept thinking about how she needed him by her side. If he was there, she would feel calm and okay," Shira explains. "Over that year, and in those moments of deep and utter sadness when I just needed to be alone, I clung to Max like I knew [my friend] would be clinging to her comfort item."
Parenting, education, and behavior expert Dr. Reena B. Patel says that from a childhood development perspective, the function of these items is to serve as transitional objects. "People think of transition as leaving one place to go to another, but it's also the transition of parents just moving about — so mom, dad, or caretaker not being present, maybe even in another room," she explains. "Every child is born with some type of temperament. Some kids need a stronger sense of attachment and these transitional objects are comfort objects; they're tangible, they're something that someone can hold and also get input from like a hug."
Just as Walsh hugs and kisses Alice Doll and I bury my nose into Dunkie, Megan W.*, 34, actively engages with her pink baby blanket "Blankie" for a sense of security. "The 'weird' thing I do (or so people tell me) to fully take comfort in Blankie is smell her," she says. "During stressful or sad times, I definitely use her more — if I'm watching TV, I'll bring her out of the bedroom and hold her or put her on my shoulder." Hannah Rimm also cherishes three comfort objects from her childhood. Her small stuffed monkey "Chopstix" and mini plush Tigger — both of which she got at sleepaway camp as a tween — have a special spot on her bedroom windowsill. They're always there, lovingly gazing her way. Lamby, a stuffed lamb that her mother received as a gift before Rimm's birth, however, is an active participant in the 28-year-old's life. As a child, Rimm sucked her thumb, always while holding onto Lamby's ear. She still grasps Lamby's ear and puts it near her face to feel safe, now without the thumb-sucking.
Stuffed animals, blankets, and even baby dolls are all fairly common objects for kids to form attachments to, but they aren't the only items that can promote a sense of security. "It's interesting because many may gravitate towards a blanket, but it could be anything," Dr. Patel explains. "It's any type of object that lends some type of comfort during a transition." Sam Sasso, for example, formed an early bond to strips of silk, which she referred to as her "Silkies." "According to my mother, I was born with a fascination for silk," she says. "If I was sitting in her room near the laundry, I’d spend far too long fixated on the fabric. Eventually, she was compelled to tear apart all of her silk pajamas and nightgowns so I could have this little piece of comfort — apparently, knit blankets or stuffed animals just didn't do it for me." Over 20 years later, one Silky remains — a torn green strip that has been knotted up as a means to stay together. "I developed anxiety at a very young age, and having my Silky with me gave me a sort of permission to relax," Sasso says. "I don't do this as often anymore, but I would spend hours just rubbing the silk between my fingers like a kind of meditation."
Though it's clear that touching and yes, sniffing, childhood comfort objects makes many adults feel more secure, by far the most common use for these items are as sleep companions. Rachel Lieberman, 29, still sleeps with the blanket her grandmother gave her when she was born. "My blanket helps me to fall asleep quicker," she says. "It's comforting and has just become a habit over the years. If I try to sleep without it, it usually takes me longer to fall asleep and I just feel weird — it's hard to explain." Sasso also says she can't sleep without her Silky under her pillow. "I've taken it to sleepovers, on vacations, and across the world when I studied abroad," she shares. "I’ve even had my mother express-ship my Silky to me when I've forgotten it at her house just so I didn't have to go a night without it."
Dr. Patel says this makes sense for mental health purposes. Just as someone who is more anxious, hyperactive, or impulsive can benefit from the use of a transitional object, so can those who take longer to fall asleep or cannot unwind as quickly as they would like. "I am a generally bad sleeper," Rimm shares. "From like 18 to 23, I kept trying to prove to myself that, to be an adult, I needed to not sleep with Lamby. Eventually, I accepted that I just sleep better with her." Now, she has fully embraced that, and every night, she wraps her whole body around Lamby when she gets in bed. It's an act she describes as "almost a maternal instinct." While Rimm shares a bed with her wife, Lamby is the one who gets the cuddles when it's time for sleep. "I really don't like to be touched by other human beings when I'm sleeping," she says, "so this is a nice way to have comfort without actually touching another person."
That phase when Rimm felt that, in order to be a "real" grownup, she needed to sever the attachment with her childhood stuff animal is a common one. Walsh says her college friends made fun of her bond with Alice Doll. "Every time someone would tease me about her I'd make a joke like 'she's sensitive!' to sort of deflect," she says. "It was weirdly hurtful at first, because I still ascribed real feelings to her." Lieberman also felt self-conscious of her blanket during specific periods of her life. "I was really embarrassed to take it to college with me, especially because my roommate was a stranger, so I wasn't sure how they would react," she says. "I was also nervous and embarrassed when my relationship with my now wife was getting more serious. I didn't want it to be something that she thought less of me for, or that it was silly." While most of Sasso's friends find her attachment to her Silky endearing, she's still actually glad her security blanket is so unassuming. "Although I've never met another person who sleeps with a strip of silk, I'm thankful it's not something more traditional, like a stuffed animal," she says. "I feel a bit more comfortable in my adulthood knowing my Silky can live in peace beneath my pillow and everyone else is none the wiser."
"We think there's supposed to be some set time that we need to start to remove or take away that transitional item," Dr. Patel says. "But we do it just because of societal norms. The reality is, as we become adults, we also have a tendency to hold onto them because they're connected to memories, they bring smiles to our faces, and there's an emotional tie. That connection is hard to give up." That is certainly the case for Lieberman, given her blanket's origin story. "After my grandma passed away, I think that's when I really started to cherish my blanket and understand the comfort it had always given me," she explains. "It's the comfort of knowing that someone so close to me gave me the item and it's always been with me, even when she's no longer here."
For Shira, too, her attachment to Max is indicative of something bigger, which she discovered a few years ago when her parents were getting ready to sell the home she had grown up in. During the emotional experience of sifting through all the keepsakes her parents had held onto from her childhood, she came across a poem she wrote in elementary school called "8 Bald Spots." "It was, as the title would suggest, about all of the bald spots that Max had due to me holding him so tight," she shares. "It was funny to see that, even in the 5th grade, I understood the meaning of caring for something so deeply that even when it gets worn down, you don't get rid of it." That enduring capacity to love is something she plans to impart to her 10-month-old daughter. "I always said I would give Max to my firstborn," she says. "I can’t wait until he can become hers."
As for Megan, she actually credits Blankie for helping her become the person she is today. "I truly feel I've been a more confident and independent person because of my attachment to Blankie," she says. "Whenever I had a bad day and was feeling sad or lonely, I always had Blankie to hug — or hang around my neck and shoulders like a scarf. I was never truly alone, and always had a 'friend' to boost me up."
Even if you’re someone who hasn't held onto a stuffed kiddie companion, that doesn't necessarily mean you don't have a similar sentimental attachment to an object in your life. "We accept that it's very developmentally appropriate for kiddos at a young age to have these attachments, but adults definitely have them, too," Dr. Patel says. "We may not realize it, but I've talked to many adults who have a certain pillow that they want to sleep on, a particular blanket they want to use, or even a coffee mug that they want to drink out of." And though you may not be clutching a stuffed lamb's ear or kissing a baby doll's head, perhaps you have another tick that makes you feel less anxious. "In general, we as humans want some type of sensorial input," the parenting, education, and behavior expert explains. "If you ever find yourself twirling your hair while sitting at your desk, that's a coping mechanism. Or tapping your pencil, that's a calming mechanism. Sometimes it's so automatic that people don't realize that there's some type of need there that your body is requiring or requesting." Basically, this is why stress balls and fidget spinners exist, but some of us just prefer to use a scrap of silk from an old nightgown.
While we childhood-comfort-object-havers may not be conforming to what's thought of as the norm, when we find one another, it unlocks its own kind of special bond. When Megan went to college, she discovered her roommate also brought her stuffie, a bear named Oatmeal. "Oatmeal and Blankie became fast friends," she shares. Sasso had a similar experience as a college freshman when she attended a sleepover in the dorms with the sorority she had just pledged. "At one point in the night, we were getting ready for bed and one of my friends pulled out this ragged old cloth and shared how this thing had been in her life since she was a baby," she says. "Almost in perfect succession, several other girls pulled out these weird comfort objects that were basically old rags or blankets or, in my case, a knotted piece of silk. We cackled about it for hours." Mitrisin agrees, "[Having an attachment to Wrinkles] makes me feel like I'm part of a special sentimental club we can all laugh and 'awww' about together."
*Some names have been changed