Can I spoil my baby?
(From Raising Children Network, Australia)
This question comes up naturally in the first few weeks at home if a baby is fussing a lot between feedings instead of sleeping peacefully. You pick him up and walk him around and he stops crying, at least for the time being. Lay him down, and he starts all over again.
I don’t think you need to worry much about spoiling in the first month or even the first six months. The chances are great that such a young baby is feeling miserable. If he stops fussing when picked up, it’s probably because the motion and distraction and perhaps the warm pressure on his abdomen from being held make him forget his pain or tension at least temporarily.
The answer to this question really depends on what lessons you think babies are learning in the first months of life. It is unlikely that they are capable of learning to expect their every whim to be attended to 24 hours a day. That’s what being spoiled would mean.
But we know that young infants can’t anticipate the future; they live entirely in the here and now. They also can’t formulate this thought: ‘Well I’m going to make life miserable for these people until they give me everything I want’ – another key component of the spoiled child.
What infants are learning during this period is a sense of basic trust (or mistrust) in the world. If their needs are met promptly and lovingly, they come to feel that the world is a benign place, a place where good things generally happen and bad experiences are soon rectified.
The famous psychiatrist Erik Erikson felt that this sense of basic trust becomes a core of the baby’s character. So the answer to the question ‘Can a young baby be spoiled?’ is ‘No, not until he’s old enough to understand why his needs aren’t being immediately met (maybe at nine months of age)’.
I would change the question altogether to ask: ‘How can you instill a sense of basic trust in babies?’
Psychologists use the term ‘secure attachment’ to talk about basic trust. A child who has a secure attachment to a parent or caregiver believes deep down that that parent will keep him safe and will provide for his pressing needs. A lot of research shows that this sense of security develops during the first year of an infant’s life, and then continues to deepen and change as the child grows.
Babies who do not have a chance to develop an attachment by one year of age – babies, for example, who are raised in orphanages with little or no personal attention – often have severe problems in forming relationships. Babies with strong, secure attachments are more able to go off to school and to learn.
Some parents feel that babies have to learn at a young age to be independent and comfort themselves.
They worry that picking up babies right away when they cry will make them overly dependent. I like to tell these parents about a very important study on the effects of picking up crying babies. Babies whose parents tried to respond promptly to their crying actually cried less, and were more independent as preschoolers, compared to babies who were left to ‘cry it out’.
Their earlier experience had made them more secure, so they were better able to handle difficulties by themselves later on