In the beginning of life, a baby's developmental needs are to be loved and kept safe. If a baby does not receive love or have someone consistently respond to their needs, they will experience developmental trauma and learn that the world is an unsafe place where they don't matter. We learn about this in psychology class in Erik Erikson's psycho-social development. Without consistent love and safe caregiving, an infant will shut down, be anxious, and not develop properly.
These nurturing themes emerge in young children's play. A child who has experienced the safe love and caregiving they need may begin to act those experiences out on a stuffed animal or doll. Rocking it, feeding it a bottle or play food, speaking gently to it. Similarly, a child who did not receive the tender care they needed may also play out nurturing themes with toys. This can signal a way that they try to nurture themselves by providing the affection and safe care giving they need.
Playing with baby dolls might seem like gendered play, but boys and girls alike need nurturing. We might be hesitant to buy a doll or dollhouse for our son, but we still want our boys to grow up to be gentle, nurturing, and hands-on dads, right? If you don't have any nurturing toys for your son, you might want to consider adding some. A friend once asked me if I thought it was "OK" that her young son only wanted to play with stuffed animals and dolls. "It's what he loves!" she said, "is that bad?" Since I know this boy and see him carry stuffed animals around everywhere he goes, I know what she's referring to. And I think it's an adorable expression of his sweet and tender personality. The mom was concerned about gender stereotypes, but the child's father is an athletic, handy, and incredibly gentle and nurturing man. It makes sense to me that the child is comfortable playing out nurturing themes with his toys as (I imagine) he experiences a lot of safe nurturing in his life.
When I had my second baby, my first was 2 years old. As with all of my babies, I spent a lot of time nursing them those first few months. My oldest, who was still in a crib, began piling a ton of stuffed animals into his crib to sleep with every night. And when he woke up, I noticed he would continue to lay in his crib for about 20 minutes, with a stuffed animal tucked under his shirt. When asked what he was doing, he would matter of factly respond, "Giving them tummy". I let him be, and marveled at what I believed was his adorable way of processing me nursing his baby brother. This went on for many months, and paralleled my breastfeeding journey.
I imagine that you already have a lot of nurturing toys in your home. You don't need specific toys for these themes to play out, but having certain toys may encourage it. Children can get attached to random objects and treat it like their baby, it can be fun to watch this happen.
Consider your child and what is going on in their life. Are they preparing or adjusting to a new sibling? Have they gone through a change such as a move or deployment that may make them feel out of sort? Nurturing play can comfort them. Perhaps you want to encourage empathy or gentleness in your particularly rough child-- offering nurturing toys could be a great opportunity to promote those characteristics.
Here are some suggested nurturing toys you may want to check out:
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