Can You Spoil a Baby?

Can You Spoil a Baby?


Sooner or later, almost every new parent who rushes to the side of a crying newborn will hear, “You’ll spoil that child!” said Donna K. Donald, an Iowa State University Extension family life program specialist. “Well-meaning friends and relatives may try to convince you that you’re being manipulated by your infant if you respond immediately to his or her every cry. But research has shown that moms and dads who are slow to comfort their babies are more likely to produce children who act spoiled.”


John Hopkins University found that babies whose mothers answered their cries quickly during the first few months after birth cried less often and for shorter periods of time than babies whose mothers did not respond as readily. These behavior differences persisted, with the group of babies who weren’t comforted as quickly developing into clingy toddlers. “The reason, researchers speculate, is that ignoring a baby’s cries erodes the child’s trust in caregivers, making the infant more anxious and harder to soothe,” Mrs. Donald said.


Easing the Transition


“Think about it: Before birth, your baby is enjoying the warmth, continuous feeding and intimate physical contact with you at all times. Then, suddenly, everything changes. Needs are no longer met automatically, so baby cries,” Mrs. Donald said.


In short, newborns are completely helpless. They are in a strange, new environment and are unable to do things for themselves. Infants need attention during those first few months—not just at feeding, bathing and diaper-changing sessions, but at other times as well.


“For the first three months or so, it’s impossible to spoil your baby by swiftly responding to each cry or by surrendering to your impulse to cuddle and comfort,” Mrs. Donald continued. “You are only easing the very difficult transition from the womb to the outside world.”


The Second Stage


By the age of three or four months, babies have completed this transition. Although hardly self-sufficient, babies this age have adapted to their environment. “They are exploring their world and becoming more social, discovering their hands and how to use them, and learning to entertain themselves. They’re not as helpless anymore,” said Mrs. Donald.


It’s a good idea to encourage these developments. Cuddling is no longer necessarily needed in response to every cry. Soothing words, a lullaby or a toy might provide reassurance instead, Mrs. Donald continued. “Bedtime routines can now gradually be shortened to no more than 10 minutes or so. After the first few months, babies can readily learn to babble themselves to sleep without a parent’s presence. It also is acceptable during this stage to begin to introduce ground rules. For example, a baby’s demand for a middle of the night feeding might be substituted with a loving pat on the back, soothing words or a pacifier.”


Growing Self-Reliance


After six months of age, babies have learned that crying is a powerful tool. This is the time to nurture their self-reliance, the ISU Extension specialist said. Provide short, supervised play-alone periods throughout the day so the child can interact with toys on his or her own. Although the child still has a need for attachment, this is how he or she begins the process of separation. There will be some back and forth as the older infant has moments of independence and times of attachment.


“If you generally respond to your child’s cries, he or she will learn trust. If you smile and use soothing words, your baby will learn contentment,” said Mrs. Donald. Lovingly helping baby through this transition will help him or her grow as an independent person who can happily relate to family and friends, and be capable of having healthy relationships with others.


As a final thought, Mrs. Donald shared, “Reassure yourself that newborns can never get too much love. They need you to help them adapt to their strange new environment.”


For more information about caring for children from birth to age five, register for Just in Time Parenting, a monthly e-newsletter for parents in the first five years, at<>. Use the coupon code IA10JITP. In addition, request a copy of Ages and Stages at any Iowa State University Extension county office or download a copy from the ISU Extension Online Store at</store/> (enter Ages and Stages in the search box).

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