Can you spoil a baby?

Carrying and responding to your baby will not make her fussier.

mother spoiling baby

Alison Stalker started getting lectures about spoiling her baby even before her daughter, Kira, was born. “When I was pregnant, I mentioned to my doctor that we were thinking of getting one of those ‘side-car’ attachments for our bed as a place for the baby to sleep,” she explains. “She flipped out and told me that was a huge mistake because it would make the baby way too dependent on me.”

Once Kira was born, every doctor’s appointment seemed to involve more criticism of Stalker’s parenting. “She said I was spoiling her by feeding her every time she wanted and should put Kira on a four-hour schedule. When I said that would mean hours of crying, the doctor told me Kira would get used to it,” recalls Stalker. “Everyone would be happier if I just let her cry it out.”
Letting him cry

For Nicole Barrette, the “spoiling” comments come from family. “Hudson is six months old now,” she explains, “and if I start to leave the room, he’ll cry for me. I’ll turn around to get him and bring him with me, and the others will say, ‘Oh, let him cry — he’ll be fine. He has to learn. You’re just spoiling him.’”

There’s a huge fallacy in that logic, explains Ron Barr, professor of paediatrics in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Medicine: “A baby crying is not the same as an older child crying. If you had, say, a three-year-old and you responded to every whimper, you could in a sense ‘spoil’ the child. But what’s true in a three-year-old gets extrapolated down to babies, and it’s not true for babies. That’s been demonstrated over and over again in research.”

People who think that this kind of responsive care will lead to wimpy, dependent, self-centred older children or adults might consider the experiences of other cultures. Barr studied the !Kung San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert who carry their babies all the time when they’re awake and sleep with their babies skin to skin. They nurse on average about every 13 minutes, and they respond to every fret and whimper within seconds.

“And there’s nothing wimpy about the !Kung San,” says Barr. “The young boys are expected to go out into the woods and hunt wild boar, alone, and they are both brave and independent. The concept that this kind of care for infants makes them grow up to be wimps is simply not true.”

“Spoiling” is in fact beneficial

The kind of responsive care of infants that some people call “spoiling” is in fact beneficial, according to Barr and other researchers:

• It reduces crying. The !Kung San babies, for example, cry 50 percent less than babies in North America.

• It supports breastfeeding. “For a breastfeeding mother, her baby’s cry stimulates her milk to let down, and often responding to and comforting the baby includes putting the baby to the breast,” Barr adds. “There is a whole physiological cycle that facilitates breastfeeding and promotes milk production.”

• It facilitates the development of a secure attachment relationship between parent and baby — and that attachment has been shown in many studies to lead to positive outcomes such as empathy for others, self-confidence, and true independence.

Have a colicky baby? Well, here’s the good news — you don’t need to worry that carrying and responding to your child has made him fussier. Barr describes research that found the same number of inconsolable crying episodes in colicky babies who were cared for with minimal contact and left to “cry it out” as those who were looked after more like the !Kung San babies. (While the responded-to babies started to cry as often, they didn’t cry as long.)

“It’s a real shame that parents are still being told that they can spoil their babies,” says Barr. “We should encourage and highly value parents being responsive.”

So relax. Keep your baby in your arms, pick him up as soon as he fusses and nurse him as often as he wants. If anyone questions you, tell them the stork delivered you a !Kung San baby by mistake and you’re just making sure he feels at home.

Inconsolable crying

The only negative to providing responsive care, says Ron Barr, professor of paediatrics at the University of British Columbia, is that sometimes a crying baby can’t be consoled and the parents become frustrated, exhausted and angry. If you feel that you might hurt the baby, put her in a crib or safe place, and walk away or find another person to help.

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