Six-year-old Andrew Vetter can’t fall asleep without a bevy of his favorite things situated on his bunk bed. Legos, a soccer medal, action figure guys, a keychain light and even rocks he collected outside fill a makeshift toy chest.
“We instituted a rule that the kids couldn’t take anything hard to bed with them, so Andrew negotiated with me and convinced me to let him put all that stuff in a Kleenex box and leave it at the top of the mattress,” said mom Barb Vetter, a member of Clarendon Hills-based group Mothers of Preschoolers. “I figured that was a better solution than having him hide stuff under the pillow.
“Bedtime can be kind of a scary thing — especially since young kids are in the dark alone — so I see it as a pretty harmless habit,” the Naperville resident added.
Even so, lots of times a juvenile penchant for odd household items, tchotchkes and other non-snuggly possessions can leave parents scratching their heads. Especially when plush Mr. Teddy is passed over and the must-have, chosen bedmate becomes a Wendy’s Kids’ Meal CD-Rom, yo-yo or hairbrush.
“Mom and Dad are going ‘Huh?’ But these are things that help a child sleep soundly, for whatever reason,” said Dr. Paul Mullen, a psychologist specializing in children and adolescents at True North Clinical Associates in Wheaton. “From a psychoanalytical standpoint, they aren’t random — the child has subconsciously assigned some meaning to that item. And it’s not usually too much of a stretch to figure out what it offers him or her.”
Once parents dig a little deeper, they’re usually able to trace the connection, whether it was something a loved one or role model touched or used or a memento from a fun activity or trip.
“Maybe that Wendy’s toy was from a special outing where that little boy was enjoying the company of his parents, no one was fighting, he was being fed and he just felt super content,” Mullen said. “Or maybe another kid hangs onto his dad’s business card or a pen from dad’s desk.”
Vetter was puzzled when her oldest son, Matt, now 12, added a fan and a safe to the assembly line of “buddies” on his bed.
“He has a special spot up against the wall for everything. The stuffed animals, sports balls and the laser light made sense,” she said. “But eventually we realized the fan was something his dad brought home for him from a business trip and the safe was a prize he won from a school magazine drive. So the context offered up some understanding.”
Dr. Heather Harej, a St. Charles-based clinical psychologist also specializing in children and adolescents, isn’t at all surprised by Matt’s selections. Her own daughter recently stood up in a wedding and has obsessively taken to bed a book the bride gave her on how to be a flower girl. The little one also religiously sleeps with her favorite DVD, “Monsters, Inc.”
“There’s some kind of excitement or calmness that these cherished objects represent. They stir positive emotions, and kids want to go to bed feeling happy,” said Harej, who is on staff at David Goodman, Ph.D., Psychologist & Associates, which also has an Oak Brook office. “They are going to gravitate toward whatever is important to them or whatever they associate with feeling secure, satiated or accomplished.”
Younger children haven’t progressed to the developmental stage where they’re able to internalize the sense of all of the important people and milestones in their lives, so they need something tangible to serve as a reminder, Mullen said.
As a little kid, Mullen’s family hosted a Greek foreign exchange student, and he grew attached to the guest. After the student threw out an old pair of shoes as he was packing to return home, Mullen took them out of the garbage can and positioned them under his bed as a sort of symbolic presence of someone who affected his life. The kicks remained there for a year.
Treasured items help to brace a child for the scary, shadowy boogeyman battleground that is their bedroom. Often, this nocturnal experience is the only time during the day where kids have to survive independent of adults, and this requires them to summon inner strength, Mullen said.
But a more feng shui explanation also has merit for him.
“(Experts) say that the way a bedroom is set up has lot to do with the mental health of a child,” Mullen added. “Maybe you like to roll over and see certain things within eye shot. It’s great for a child to wake up and have the first thing their vision focuses on be a sign of love or success. It’s the perfect way to start the day.”
So even if a sharp, pointy T-ball trophy isn’t conducive to cuddling or transitioning into a deep slumber, it may be worth the hassle if it reminds the child of a game-winning score or team camaraderie in the moments before drifting off.
For the most part, Harej recommends a hands-off approach with the issue despite the parental inclination to create a cushiony, cozy haven as part of the tucking-in process.
“You don’t want to make a big deal about something ingrained in your bedtime routine — especially if it’s working,” she said. “Getting them to sleep is hard enough without opening that can of worms and starting a new power struggle.”
“The only time you have to be concerned about it is if the bed begins to look like a flea market or ‘Sanford and Son,’” he said. “Otherwise, no worries. It’s adaptive — a good coping skill. Kind of like a parent keeping their daughter’s drawing on their desk to help them get through the day.”
According to Harej, the quirky manifestation of comfort-seeking will taper off once children get to sleepover age. Kids are less likely to take weird objects with them to a grandparent’s or friend’s home, she said.
“If your son joins a traveling sports team, he’s not going to be dragging his stuff with him to the hotel for fear of embarrassment,” Harej added. “Then the ritual gradually falls by the wayside because kids get used to managing without it.”