People often ask me the difference between a baby "comforter" and an "aid" because I spend lots of time telling parents sleeping aids are a no-no. A comforter is what I class as a positive sleep aid - something your baby or toddler uses to go to sleep which does not require your help when a baby is moving from one sleep cycle to the next. Negative aids are ones that become a problem - rocking, patting, feeding or giving your baby a dummy to suck - with these aids you will need to help your baby between sleep cycles by replacing the dummy, feeding or rocking him to sleep.
Every baby finds an aid of some sort to comfort himself with just before he goes to sleep and he then needs the same aid from one sleep cycle to the next. Unless the parents have introduced the aid themselves, they are usually unaware of what it is comforting their baby (with the exception of thumb-sucking).
An unintroduced comforter could be holding, rubbing or playing peekaboo with the sheets or blankets. But sometimes it can be a little more complicated. I have seen babies play with the bars of the cots before falling asleep, which can be a problem when you ask him to sleep in a travel cot. Another common one is playing with labels on bedding or clothing.
Ten-month-old Luke had been an all-night sleeper from just 10 weeks old, but suddenly he was finding it hard to go to sleep and was waking up several times in the night. I made a house visit where, after Luke was put to bed, I sneaked into his room. As I watched I noticed a funny hand movement. It was as though Luke was trying to scratch his wrist before becoming frustrated and starting to cry. I picked him up and went to talk to his parents. We realised he was looking for the sleeves of his winter pyjamas but, as he was now in short sleeves for summer, he couldn't find them. As soon as Luke was back in long sleeves he started sleeping through the night again.
This is a good example of why it is better for parents to choose their baby's comforter for them so they know what it is, but the comforter can be just about anything so long as it is safe in his cot.
Choosing a comforter
Here are my tips for choosing a comforter:
Tricks of the trade
When introducing a comforter start with Mum putting it down her top for a few hours to allow her smell to infiltrate it. Then place the comforter in the cot near baby's face so he can turn and snuggle into it; it is amazing to watch a baby take solace from his comforter.
It is my experience that babies with comforters are much happier and more secure as they progress through certain milestones in their lives. For instance, at about nine months babies often become very clingy when they realise they are not a part of their mother - a comforter seems to help with this transition. Comforters also help babies learn to sleep in different places such as the car, pram and travel cot while on holiday or at day care. Research published in Germany suggests that toddlers feel much more secure if they have a comforter with them for the first few visits to kindergarten or daycare. I also support this notion but recommend weaning your child off taking it to daycare once he is settled. I also firmly recommend that a comforter is given to a baby only at sleep times or on occasions when some additional comfort is required, such as a visit to the doctor.
Lachlan, aged 18 months, had started throwing his comforter out of his cot at sleep times. His mum Carla would put him down for his daytime sleep, and after 15 minutes of quiet, he'd start yelling. She went in to find him standing in the cot pointing at his "froggy" friend on the floor. Carla handed it back, lay Lachlan down and said: "Sleep time". But as she walked out she noticed him stand up and throw the comforter out again. This went on for an hour and a half and Lachlan did not sleep at all. The same thing happened that night, with the game going on for about two hours until he fell asleep sobbing.
Five days later Carla contacted me. Lachlan had not had a day sleep in that time and his night settling had gone from 7pm to 9pm. I thought the problem first started because Lachlan was ready for a later day sleep, so my first suggestion was to I make his nap time 20 minutes later. I also believed Lachlan had gone to sleep sobbing because Carla kept walking in and out to give him froggy back. It was like controlled crying, which, in my experience, will always make a baby emotional.
With a toddler of Lachlan's age it is best to address the problem at bedtime when he won't have the energy to yell at you for long. Carla told Lachlan she had talked to me and if he threw the froggy out of the cot he was not to get him back until he was asleep. He was also told he'd find it hard to sleep without froggy, and froggy might get cold on the floor. True to form, Lachlan started to yell for his mum 10 minutes after being put down for his sleep. Carla did her best to keep herself busy until his protesting changed to more of an angry yell - around 15 minutes later. She went in, gave froggy back to Lachlan and laid him down without any eye contact. As Carla left she heard froggy drop to the floor and a little laugh from Lachlan. I told Carla if froggy came out the second time she was not to return it until Lachlan was asleep. Carla found the next 35 minutes really hard while she listened to Lachlan yell. When all was quiet, Carla went in to find Lachlan asleep with his arm out of the cot pointing to froggy. Carla said it broke her heart, so she was very happy to pick froggy up and place him next to her sleeping boy. The next day Carla put Lachlan down for his nap 20 minutes later than usual. There was silence, then 15 minutes later, the yelling. But this time Carla stayed out for 20 minutes before returning froggy to the cot. As she left she was amazed to hear Lachlan talking to froggy. Five minutes later he was asleep and that night he didn't throw froggy out once. One final word of warning - your toddler could well throw his comforter out of his cot every six weeks as he tests his boundaries. Be consistent in your approach and it will pass in a night or two. The only exception to this is the day sleep, when comfort throwing may be a sign he's ready for the next routine.
Tizzie Hall is a best-selling author of parenting books and an international baby whisperer. Her title Save Our Sleep is available in New Zealand.