Can Babies Be Spoiled?

An Excerpt from The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.

There are at least two things all parents know for sure:

  • There are a lot of spoiled kids out there.
  • You don’t want your child to become one of them.

We all want to raise respectful children, and some experts warn us that being too attentive to our baby’s cries will accidentally teach them to be manipulative. Can promptly answering your newborn’s cries with holding, rocking, and sucking start a bad habit? Can cuddling your baby backfire on you?

Fortunately, the answers to these two questions are…no and no. It’s impossible to spoil your baby during the first four months of life. Remember, he experienced a dramatic drop-off in holding time as soon as he was born. One mother told me, “I imagine new babies feel like someone who enters a detox program and has to go cold turkey from snuggling. No wonder they cry!”

Today’s mothers and fathers aren’t the only ones who have worried about turning their children into whining brats. In the early twentieth century, American parents were told not to mollycoddle their babies for fear of turning them into undisciplined little nuisances. The U.S. Children’s Bureau issued a stern warning to a mother not to carry her infant too much, lest he become “a spoiled, fussy baby, and a household tyrant whose continual demands make a slave of a mother.”

In 1972, however, Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth of Johns Hopkins University shook those old ideas about spoiling to their very foundations. They found that babies whose mothers responded quickly to their cries during the first months of life did not become spoiled.

On the contrary, infants whose needs were met rapidly and with tenderness fussed less and were more poised and patient when tested at one year of age! As Ainsworth and Bell proved – and most parents know in their hearts – the more you love and cuddle your little baby, the more confident and resilient he becomes.

Despite this evidence, many new parents still have nagging doubts about whether they’re holding their babies too much. Although our natural parental instinct is to calm your baby as quickly as possible, the repeated warning, “Don’t spoil your baby,” has been drummed into our heads so much it makes us question ourselves.

Now, I admit it’s easy to feel manipulated when your baby wakes up and screams every time you gently lower him into the crib. But letting him cry is not more likely to teach him to be independent than leaving him in a dirty diaper is likely to toughen his skin. (It’s reassuring to know that traditionally many Native American parents held their babies all day and suckled them all night and still those babies grew up to be brave, respectful and self-sufficient.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing against establishing a flexible feeding/sleeping schedule for your baby. Some babies and families find scheduling very helpful. However, trying to mold passionate babies who have irregular sleeping and eating patterns into a fixed schedule usually leads to frustration for everyone.

As the Bible says, “To everything there is a season.” I believe disciplining is a very important parental task – but not with young infants. The beginning of the fourth month is the earliest time concerns about accidentally spoiling your baby become an issue. However, before four months, you have a job that is one hundred times more important than preventing spoiling; your job is nurturing your baby’s confidence in you and the world.

Building our child’s faith is one of parenting’s greatest privileges and responsibilities. I’m convinced that a rapid and sympathetic response to our baby’s cries is the foundation of strong family values, not the undermining of them. When your loving arms cuddle your baby or warm milk satisfies him, you’re telling him, “Don’t worry. I’ll always be there when you need me.” This begins your baby’s trust in you and becomes the bedrock of his faith in those closest to him.

Please treasure these amazing first months with your sweet, kissable baby. There will be plenty of time later on for training and disciplining, but now is the time for cuddling. Enjoy this time because, as any experienced parent will tell you, it will be over faster than you could imagine.

Dr. Karp’s book and DVD, both entitled “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” show parents how to calm their 0 to 3-month-old babies by using Dr. Karp’s “4th Trimester” techniques. By transitioning an infant into the world from the security of the womb during the first three months of life, parents can help their babies be calmer and possibly sleep longer.
Dr. Karp says that infants under 4 months are immature, and that parents can use techniques to nurture them in a way that “imitates the uterus and provides babies the comfort of the fourth trimester.”

To learn more about Dr. Karp’s method, read The Happiest Baby on the Block (Bantam Books, 2002), or watch the DVD by the same title.

Categories: Infant/Pre-School, Little Ones