One of the first pieces of advice I got as a new mom was “not to spoil your baby.” Find out what research says CAN spoil your baby. It’s not what you think.
By today’s standards, Amanda was a young mom.
At twenty-three years old, she was sensitive to the fact that most of the moms around her were older and more experienced. When it came to her new baby, three-month-old Mila, she really wanted to do it right.
Every Thursday she would pack up the stroller and take a bus to the health unit. On the second floor was a brightly coloured room filled with Fisher-Price toys, blocks, and babies doing their best to roll around. Moms gathered to hear a public health nurse speak about different topics such as tummy time and the first foods to feed their baby.
She always arrived a little late and embarrassed.
The bus dropped her off with only minutes to spare. She was always slightly sweaty from pushing the stroller uphill from the bus stop. Anxious, she would press the elevator button several times begging it to come faster.
Upstairs, she was the last to park her stroller and go in. Her entrance always seemed to turn heads. Silently, she pled that the moms in the already-formed circle of chairs would let her in. Their babies were all on the padded flooring trying desperately to grab toys just out of reach. She would hold onto Mila.
She felt out of place amongst the other mothers who had established careers and long-standing marriages. They were coiffed, composed, and ready.
Despite the perceived judgment, Amanda went anyway.
After the talk, the moms would exchange stories. Every week was the same.
“Is she sleeping through the night yet?” they would ask.
Each week, Amanda would shake her head no.
“You’re holding her too much,” one mom suggested. “You can spoil your baby by doing that. She thinks she can rely on you instead of learning to self-soothe.”
This wasn’t the first time Amanda had heard this. Both of her aunts, her mother-in-law and her grandmother had warned her she was spoiling Mila.
In truth, she did hold her a lot during the day. Any time Mila so much as whined, Amanda scooped her up. Night time rolled around and Mila would wake as many as three times to nurse and, of course, be held. Because of this Mila never really cried.
Not wanting to fail her child, Amanda resolved to let her self-soothe more and hold her less.
Friday morning rolled around and Amanda didn’t respond to Mila’s whimpering or whining. When she started to scream, Amanda did her best to only hold Mila until she calmed down. Then she put her down the instant she stopped crying. This only devastated Mila further.
No matter what Amanda did, she felt like she was failing her newborn baby miserably. Leaving Mila to fend for herself simply felt wrong to Amanda. Yet all the experienced moms had stressed the importance of teaching the baby to self-soothe or risk spoiling them.
Can you spoil a newborn baby by holding her too much? Here is what science says…
When it comes to understanding if you can spoil your baby, attachment theory is the best way to get your answer. Based on this theory, how a parent or caregiver responds to their infant determines whether a child securely attaches or not. It is not about teaching a new baby “bad habits” or “spoiling” them, it is about responding to their basic needs.
A parent who ignores a baby’s need for comfort or basic nurturing can lead to an insecure form of attachment. Due to a lack of responsiveness from their parents, young children either become more difficult to console or are more emotionally ambivalent. So when we leave a baby to cry, he will likely become more stressed and cry harder. Or, he will stop crying and begin to suppress his needs, because he knows no one is coming to comfort him.
In contrast, securely attached children develop based on how reliable and consistent their caregivers are. These infants seek their parents when distressed and know they will be comforted. They grow up with a sense of security, knowing that they aren’t alone in life and that they can lean on others for help.
To read more about the different types of attachment including the different variations on insecure attachment, click here.
So, you can spoil your baby; it’s just not the way you would think
Taking the immense amount of research on attachment theory into account, spoiling a baby is possible – just not in the way the old wives’ tale would have us believe. An infant or young child who comes to expect their parent for security – one that has been held, hugged, and soothed often – actually becomes more independent. These young children start to view their caregivers as a secure base. Because they know their parents will be there when they need them, these kids feel empowered to venture out into their environment and, eventually, the world.
Conversely, a parent who backs away from their child when their child needs them creates insecurity and uncertainty. These young children are reportedly less independent and competent. They often lack the confidence to take on new challenges, and they have more difficulty connecting with others.
And so, spoiling your baby is possible. And, it does become possible based on the frequency we respond to their cries and the amount we hold them. It’s just the reverse of what we’ve been told in the past. Not holding and responding to our children is proven to do more harm than help, and those babies grow up lacking confidence and independence. But responding, holding and consoling our babies is, in fact, the best way to parent during this tender age.
Pediatricians weigh in on this important topic
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that it is next to impossible to actually spoil a baby. In fact, they explain that “[t]he spoiled child syndrome is characterized by excessive self-centred and immature behavior, resulting from the failure of parents to enforce consistent, age-appropriate limits. Babies don’t develop those sorts of personality traits until much later in life, so the idea that holding your newborn baby will result in them being spoiled is completely untrue.”
Babies are not capable of manipulating or forming bad habits in the way that toddlers or older children can. Many parents get so stressed when they are trying to figure out how to get their baby to sleep through the night. Often the suggestion is that they begin sleep training, but this is considered to be a much-debated idea. Some parents feel that this is the only way for a baby to develop self-soothing capabilities. However, attachment theory argues that providing comfort and support when needed actually helps babies develop independence and resilience.
When your baby is crying due to discomfort, upset, teething, or one of the many growth spurts they endure, they aren’t trying to be manipulative. They are simply seeking comfort from their safe person/people – you. Babies aren’t concerned about good behavior or whether they should be self-soothing. They just want their basic needs to be met and as their parent, we need to help them feel safe and secure and loved.
Trust your instinct as a parent
My final thoughts on this important issue is that parents need to do what works best for them, regardless of all the well-meaning advice they receive. When your baby cries, trust your instinct and respond however you feel best to help them feel secure and loved. In these early days of a baby’s life, that is the most important thing. If you feel that it is better to hold your little one rather than letting them cry it out, don’t feel that you are going to create a spoiled child.