How not to spoil your baby

Jun 30, 2000 (Updated Jul 5, 2000)

Imagine that you are totally helpless, unable to feed, bathe, or comfort yourself, and totally dependent on someone else to do all these things for you; nor can you speak to say, "I am really feeling bad - I need food" - or water, or love. All you can do is cry to let your care-giver know you need... something.

How would you feel if your cries were ignored? Would you be angry, sad, afraid? Would you eventually succumb to despair?

Why does a baby cry?

Crying is a reflex action - not something that a baby does of conscious decision. It occurs when the baby senses a need, whether that need might be a dry bottom, a full belly, or the warm, comforting presence of a parent.

If you are observant, you can head off crying by quickly responding to "pre-cry signals" such as fussing, fidgeting, or soft cries of distress. By responding to these signals, you can take care of the baby's needs before the crying really gets going. If you ignore those early signals, the baby will only learn that it must cry and scream at the top of its lungs to get its needs taken care of!

You may well be extremely frustrated by incessant, seemingly groundless crying, especially if your infant is less than three months old. It might be colic, irritability, or gas; it might simply be distress at the change in circumstances. After all, the baby has spent its entire existence in a warm, comforting place where it is never hungry, always dim and where sharp sounds are muffled and screened by the reassuring rhythm of mother's heart. Now, the poor infant has been forced into a world where it can be cold, hungry, uncomfortable; where sharp, loud noises and bright lights can assault it.

Wouldn't you cry, too?

In such a situation, even though nothing seems to comfort the baby, it is vital that you be there for him or her. Just being there provides the comfort and support that the baby needs. Have you ever just needed a shoulder to cry on? A time to let out your pain, fear, distress? That is just what your baby needs.

What are the results?

Many parents and certain respected experts advise ignoring crying based on fear of "spoiling" the baby. But what exactly does this do to a baby - and to the person he or she will become?

There is absolutely no physical benefit to crying. Leaving a baby to cry can cause hoarseness that can last for days; push the heart rate to levels over 200 beats per minute; reduce the level of oxygen in the blood (and therefore, getting to the brain); and upset the digestive system. It also takes much longer to calm a baby who has been left to cry for a long while.

Emotionally, research has consistently shown that children who have received the most loving care when they were infants grow up to be the most loving, secure adults. Babies who have been ignored - who have been forced to submit to dealing with their discomfort - build up feelings of anger and resentment that can be expressed in harmful ways later in life.

A baby whose cries for help are ignored will eventually give up (wouldn't you, if your attempts to communicate were ignored?), but what does this teach them? That no one is listening; no one cares enough to come and comfort them. It teaches the baby not to trust their parents to be there for them.

That's what I call spoiling a baby.

Please be there for your baby. He or she needs you - needs to know you love and care.

I'm not a mommy yet, so I'm not speaking from personal experience; I'm speaking from the knowledge gained from my own research, because I'm equipping myself now to be the best mommy I can be when I do have children. One great resource can be found here:

Specific resources used for this article: "Don't Ignore Your Baby's Cries," from Nurturing Magazine; "A Baby Cries: How Should Parents Respond?" by Jan Hunt, M.Sc.

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