By Cheryl Alkon
Special for USA TODAY
When Catharine Blake told her daughter Francesca, 3, not to bury her prized Gumby figure in the sand on a beach in Well, Maine, two summers ago, Francesca didn't listen. An hour later, Gumby was gone.
"I panicked and started digging up hole after hole and tried to figure out the general area it was in," recalls Blake, 39. "I probably spent 45 minutes doing this while Francesca was crying and upset. I must have looked like a loon."
Blake, a psychotherapist in Andover, Mass., says she stopped the search when "the reasonable part" of her brain kicked in. Her stepfather recalled seeing a Gumby in a nearby store, so Blake texted her mother, who was out shopping.
When the beachgoers returned home, a familiar green plastic figure was on the porch.
Francesca was overjoyed. "I promise I'll never lose you again," she told Gumby. Two years later, she still talks about Gumby's return - though he now lives at the bottom of her toy box, Blake says.
Tips to avoid potential problems
Buy duplicates of a beloved item as soon as you realize your child has a favorite; switch them regularly so the child doesn't realize there's more than one.
Set limits on where the lovey goes, such as never leaving the house, or having a certain item for car rides but another for use inside the house or crib. If that doesn't work, keep a close eye on the toy when traveling. "Do not leave it in the hotel bed tangled up in the sheets," said Lisa Oliver, founder of LostMyLovey.com. "Many moms have told me the sad story of leaving lovey in the bed, and hotel maids scooping it up in the wash, never to be seen again."
Take photos of the item before it goes missing, so you'll have an image of the item you are searching for, says Rosemary Bouchet of Plush Memories. Photos are handy if you need to search online lost-and-found boards or make "Missing" signs to post in the neighborhood.
Young kids often get attached to a particular object or toy for comfort; these items are sometimes known as loveys or transitional or comfort objects. When they go missing, parents often are as distressed as their child.
The psychology behind lost loveys
Why are certain toys and stuffed animals so important to young children? They represent secure relationships with caregivers, says Stephanie Pratola, a psychologist in Salem, Va. She says loveys can help kids feel more secure in new situations and help them separate from parents or other caregivers.
When loveys get lost, kids pick up on a parent's reaction, she adds. "Frantically searching for a lost toy or speeding back to the place it was lost probably will create additional anxiety for the child. Parents might sometimes inadvertently overly encourage the attachment to a particular object."
Ultimately, whether or not a lost item ever surfaces, most kids move on. "Most leave them behind when they're ready, without difficulty," Pratola says.
But sometimes, seeking a lost item can become a sweet childhood experience.
Kathleen Reilly, 42, a freelance writer and book author in Raleigh, N.C., fondly recalls how her parents helped her replace a plastic snake prize she lost at age 8 on a bumper car ride. She and her mother rode the ride again in an attempt to find it, but never did. Her father spoke to a kind carnival worker, who let her win another snake.
Reilly, who didn't learn the real story until years later, says the experience thrilled her, and helped her see how other people could help "make a little magic happen for your kid."
Replacing the beloved item
A number of replacement options are now available :
eBay. Look through existing listings or post a note in the "Want It Now" section.
LostMyLovey LLC. Web designer Lisa Oliver, 43, of Austin, Texas, created the site in 2009 after searching for her daughter's favorite purple bunny one too many times. The lost-and-found site also sells ID tags for toys and acts as a middleman for those who don't want to put phone numbers or other identifying information on tags. Today, the site has about 1,000 members and "we have helped many, many people find replacement or backup loveys," she says. "I've seen several situations where someone was desperate for a particular toy and a nice mom said 'Gee, I have this in my toy box and my child doesn't even care about it. I'll mail it to you!' It's a feel-good kind of thing."
Plush Memories, founded by Rosemary and Fred Bouchet of Vincent, Ala. The retired couple started the site in 2005 as a free service for people seeking lost stuffed animals, in tandem with an online plush animal store and an offshoot of their vintage collectible online store. "We consider this to be our Christian ministry," says Rosemary Bouchet, 68. They are assisted by a group they call their "Fabulous Finders," usually toy sellers who check in to see if anyone is seeking toys they have in stock. There are now 161 Fabulous Finders worldwide, and the site has helped 504 people locate lost loveys since 2010, when the Bouchets began keeping track.