Can You Spoil a Baby?
The experts donÂt think so.
Babies need love
For years, researchers have assessed the effects of caretakers’ attention — or lack thereof — on babies. British psychiatrist John Bowlby studied war orphans in the 1950s, creating the foundation for understanding the need to answer a baby’s cries. Essentially, he found that babies whose cries went unheeded failed to thrive. In one experiment, he invented a cuddly machine that imitated a mother’s walk. When placed in it, babies stopped crying at once.
Recent studies have shown that young babies who are held often and have their cries answered are more self-contented. Studies by Miami researcher Tiffany Field, Ph.D., on infant massage suggest that babies thrive on touch. Tiny preemies who are massaged for 15 minutes three times a day leave the hospital on average six days sooner than those who aren’t touched.
There is another — some say reactionary — school of thought that says babies need to be placed on rigid schedules and learn to quiet themselves. One such person, Gary Ezzo, co-author of On Becoming Babywise (Multnomah Publishers, 1998), has come under attack from doctors for his program, which calls for what some consider strict rules on eating and sleeping for babies as young as 8 weeks old. To help their child learn to get a good night’s sleep, according to Babywise, parents can ignore a baby’s tears for up to 35 minutes as long as the baby is clean and fed. But most child-care experts disagree with this kind of forced programming.
What is spoiling?
“You can’t give a baby under 6 months too much love — or cuddle them too much,” says Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a child-development specialist at Zero to Three and the mother of two. “I’d like to do away with this whole concept of spoiling,” she adds. “I would reframe it as: ‘Am I doing something for my child that she can really do for herself?’” For example, by 6 months of age, most babies are able to go to sleep by themselves, Lerner says. “So if we continue at 7 and 8 months to rock them or nurse them to sleep, they might be missing out on the opportunity to do that on their own.” But rather than following a rigid plan, she says, parents should observe their babies and trust their instincts.
“Parents need to ask themselves if what they are doing is good for themselves [because they want to sleep] or good for the baby,” says pediatrician Stern.
When it comes to “training” babies to do what you want, they are not cognitively ready to understand until about age 1, according to Stern. “Younger babies just don’t recognize cause and effect,” she says.
That’s good data to present to any interfering relative.