Smelly pillows are a source of comfort for toddlers but most of them will grow out of it by age five, say experts
At the age of two, Poon Wee Chiat started going to bed every night hugging a small pillow his paternal grandmother gave him. Mr Poon turned 26 last month – the pillow’s yellow case turned an ancient shade of light brown a long time ago – and they still go to bed together. The banking officer has an explanation for this: “My mum told me I used to have difficulty going to sleep when I was young, so my grandmother made me a small pillow. I started to sleep very soundly after that.” He is so dependent on the pillow that he took it with him to army camp while serving his national service. His peers and superiors teased him endlessly, but he ignored them. “It reminds me of my late grandmother who doted on me, so I don’t care what others say,” he says.
Doctors say it is common for children to rely on small, often drool-covered pillows, commonly known as “chows chows”, for psychological comfort at bedtime. “Chow chow” is Hokkien for “smelly” and refers to pillows, bolsters or other soft objects children – and sometimes, adults – like to cuddle up to. Dr Eugene Han from the National University Hospital (NUH) says: “It has been suggested that having comfort objects is a normal developmental phenomenon. Most children, he says, stop using their comfort objects in public by the age of five. “As these children transit and attain independence, the role of comfort objects in their lives will eventually diminish,” says Dr Han, a registrar at NUH’s University Children’s Medical Institute, the hospital’s equivalent of a paediatric department. Similarly, consultant psychiatrist Brian Yeo says using a chow chow is acceptable “if it is part of a sleep routine”. But, “carrying a chow chow in public could make a child the subject of derision from his peers, unless the child in question is an infant in a pram or stroller”, he warns.
Parents who are anxious to wean their children off their chow chows should also refrain from the “cold turkey” treatment. “Sudden withdrawal is seldom successful and may result in detrimental feelings of loss,” says Dr Han. Instead, Dr Han and Dr Yeo suggest a patient approach, where parents gradually reduce the amount of time a child spends with his chow chow.
This is the case with Deziree Ann Stahlmann, seven, who clutches a soft toy to sleep. “It is so cute that I can’t stand not being able to play with it,” the Primary 1 pupil of Haig Girls’ School says of her Care Bears plush toy. Her mother, freelance writer Renee Stahlmann, 33, says her daughter needs to constantly hold and “play with the tuft of hair on the bear’s head when she sleeps or drinks her milk”. She recalls a particularly trying incident when Deziree lost the toy on a family trip to Perth in 2006. “As she lost the bear at night, we couldn’t find a toy store that was open. Needless to say, she had a hard time sleeping that night. We had to go out and buy her a similar pink Care Bear the next morning,” she says. Since last year, she has noticed her daughter becoming less attached to her toy. “Now, she doesn’t make me search high and low for her bear when she misplaces it,” she says.
Mrs Georgette Chong’s two sons, Corey, 23 months, and Curtis, five months, also rely on their chow chows – a handmade rectangular bolster – for a good night’s sleep. The 34-year-old marketing manager even keeps a spare one in the family car “in case Corey throws a fit when we are outside and needs to be comforted”. Dr Han explains that “having familiar textures and scents that remind children of their parents may help the child gain independence during stressful periods of change”. These stressful moments may include going to school, as Mrs Chong can attest to. Her older son took his bolster along to play school earlier this year.
“It was his first day at school so he was feeling very insecure,” she says. “But he felt embarrassed and left it behind when he noticed no one else had such a pillow.” She sees no harm in letting her sons have their little comfort pillows – for now. “Corey is barely two years old, so let’s give him some room to be a child. If he needs his comfort, let him be. There are more important things such as potty training and getting him to eat,” she says. She is confident her boys will grow out of their chow chows on their own. “Like all children, they go through phases,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mr Poon still resists attempts by his mother and girlfriend to wean him off his pillow. “My mum kept the pillow away from me when I was in Primary 6, but I kicked up a fuss and demanded it back. In the end, she had no choice but to give it to me,” he says sheepishly. His girlfriend of three years, graphic designer Jerine Lee, 24, says: “After trying for a few months to get him to throw it away, I gave up because I know he won’t do it. Now, I just make sure he keeps the pillow away from me when I’m in his room.”
Both doctors say that Mr Poon’s mother and girlfriend have no real cause for concern. Dr Han says: “There is no evidence that such prolonged use causes psychological harm”. This is true, Dr Yeo qualifies, only if the use of the chow chow is confined to the bedroom. Flaunting one’s chow chow in broad daylight may mark one out as a bold, unconventional soul. It may, in some cases, hint at self-absorbed behaviour. Says Dr Yeo: “Using the chow chow in public is a concern because it means that an individual likes the attention or does not care about how society views him.”