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To an outsider, a lovey seems like an ordinary blanket or stuffed animal. But to a parent and child, a “lovey” can be magic.

When my son was a toddler, we were flying across the country to see my parents. I had diligently packed all the smart travel items—stocked diaper bag, Ziplocs, stickers, two dozen containers of snacks.

I had debated carrying the lovey—the cherished object he’d been sleeping with for a year—and decided to do it so he could nap on board. He clutched the satin square and I wore him in a front pack through the terminal.

I set my luggage down to adjust and headed towards the gate. When I realized the lovey was gone, I froze. My mind raced. My son happily chattered and drooled as I spent 45 minutes retracing my steps, talking to janitors, and looking under benches. It was truly gone.

It’s the moment every parent of a lovey-attached child dreads. The lovey is infused with emotion and, so it seems, magical sleeping powers. If babies aren’t sleeping well, parents wonder whether a good blankie would do the trick, and if babies are sleeping well, they worry about messing with its powers. It’s no surprise that when I teach baby sleep classes, lovey questions are so popular.

Loveys are wonderful. They can help smooth the transition from being with mom or dad to independent sleep when the lights go out; and they can stay important to kids for many years. Here is my advice for getting the most out of the baby-lovey relationship:

Think in 2 Stages.

When babies are little, they don’t necessarily show a preference for pieces of cloth or soft little blankets. But every parent who’s seen a baby eventually become starry eyed over a lovey knows the signs of attachment: smiling when they see it, rubbing it on their face, or grabbing it when upset. It’s helpful to think of the life of a lovey in two stages.

When the baby-lovey bond is forming, keep the lovey hanging around, especially during feeding time. Put it on your chest as you nurse or bottle feed. Once you see the signs of affection, put the lovey in the crib or bed and keep it there. If it gets dragged to the couch or the playroom, pop it back in the crib.

If you do this, the sleep association isn’t diluted and the lovey maintains its “potency.” Watch your little one’s face light up when she goes to bed, because she gets to see her treasured friend.

Different Kids, Different Styles.

Some babies zero in on a small lovey with a stuffed animal head well before their first birthday. Others don’t seem to care much for one particular blanket or soft animal. It’s okay if there isn’t just one object, or if it changes week to week; some kids are flexible about their sleep associations and others are very specific. It’s never too late to try offering a lovey (I’ve had parents ask me if they’ve “missed the window”—my answer is always no). If you put some in a basket and ask your child to choose before bed, you may find, after a while, the preference grows. If your child’s “lovey” is a blanket, try to select breathable options in materials like thin muslin, which is important in the early months for safety reasons.

Do Take it Along. Do Have a Backup.

Happily, the lovey is portable, so toting it on a vacation is smart, because it’s a sleep association that travels well. If you can, buy two identical loveys. My daughter loves thin muslin blankets, so I cut one large one into many small pieces. We keep them in a bin with other blankets so they’re always on hand at nap or bedtime.

Sleep Associations: You or the Lovey?

Sometimes parents tell me their baby or toddler doesn’t like loveys, and when I ask more questions I realize why: the parent is the lovey, meaning that mom or dad feeds them to sleep, rocks, bounces or lies down with them until they’re asleep.

That’s okay, except it usually leads the child to wake up during the night or too early in the morning looking for the lovey (parent) to soothe them back to sleep. When parents eventually change that pattern and the child becomes responsible for self-soothing, the lovey suddenly grows in importance.

In our personal lovey drama, it turned out I was more affected by the loss than my son. On our trip, I found another satin stand-in, and when we got home I sewed him a nice organic, bamboo lovey to take its place. Two of them.

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist who writes about child development and parenting. She's the co-author of the new book The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age (Penguin Random House). Heather's writing about childhood sleep has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @TheHappySleeper.

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