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Family Pets to Cuddle Help Young Children Gain Security

March 06, 1988|PEG BYRON | United Press International

NEW YORK — When young children have pets to cuddle, it helps them develop a sense of security, provides interesting mental and physical exercise and gives them a chance to develop emotional bonds, development experts have long said.

But how early in life can babies tell the difference between the family pet and a snuggly toy? When can they enjoy special attachments to pets, establishing loving and beneficial bonds with live animals?

Older studies have suggested that a baby's interest in pets reflects awareness of an ability to affect the outside world. And infants exposed to a variety of interesting stimuli are believed to adjust more easily to new situations later in their lives.

Observations in a small 1972 study gave tentative clues on when these effects may begin, and showed that 6-month-old babies in families with pets suck their thumbs less frequently than infants without pets. In the second six months of life, the study showed, pets serve as bridges between the baby and the outside world.

That report was based on a small sample, however, and most studies on children and pets have focused on children of at least 2 years of age.

Recently, a study of 250 infants between the ages of 6 months and 30 months gave more concrete evidence that the benefits of pets may come earlier than was suspected.

Armed with a mechanical dog that could bark, walk and wag its tail and a fluffy stuffed kitten that purred when stroked, researchers in California looked for preferences among babies in families with pets. They watched for attachment behaviors, such as gazing, smiling, following or attempting to follow, babbling or talking, and reaching or grabbing.

None of the 6-month-old infants in the study showed any preference between live and toy pets, but among babies as young as 12 months, the researchers found substantially more interest in the live pet.

"This surprised us. We expected it would come later. We did not expect to see such significant differences before the age of 2," said Dr. Aline Kidd, the principal investigator and a professor of psychology at Mills College in Oakland.

In addition to finding that 1-year-olds are more attached to family pets than to the toys, Kidd found that interest in pets increased steadily with age. She also found that the infants could distinguish between cats and dogs and showed a marked preference for live canines.

"It seems dogs will interact more. A cat will have enough and then take off for the closet," Kidd said.

The tots showed no preference between toy cats and dogs.

Boys between 6 months and 12 months interacted more with their pets, laughing, talking to and about them, and having more physical contact. But by about 2 years of age, the girls did more talking to the pets than the boys.

"This is probably because boys are more active than girls at early ages. Girls are socialized for talking rather than slugging," said Kidd.

Overall, these findings indicate infants and toddlers benefit from pet interactions far earlier than was predicted by conventional wisdom, which Kidd said erroneously recommended waiting until a child is age 5 before bringing a pet into the home.

Kidd said babies benefit from the unconditional nature of pet affection, and may have self-esteem enhanced by a sense of influence over the environment. She cautioned, however, that pet-less parents should choose animals carefully. "You don't want a pit bull. You want a dog who is mellow enough to interact and capable of getting away."

Kidd also urged considering the age of the animals: "Puppies, kittens and childhood can be a bad mix because, as one tired mother said, you feel like you have twins."

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