Know When to Hold 'Em

You Can't Spoil a Baby.

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 27, 2024
6 min read

Ask any 15-year-old if they know any spoiled kids, and they'll rattle off a slew of examples (maybe with a hint of envy): one friend whose parents gave her a $2,000 shopping spree, another who got a new car at 16 ... you get the picture. But if you're the parent of a newborn, don't sweat it, at least not yet. You can't spoil a baby.

Contrary to popular myth, it's impossible for parents to hold or respond to a baby too much, child development experts say. Infants need constant attention to give them the foundation to grow emotionally, physically and intellectually.

"A challenge of the newborn is getting to know that the world is somehow reliable and trustworthy, that his or her basic needs will be met," says J. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Children's Hospital in Boston and a child psychologist.

Responding to baby's cues "isn't a matter of spoiling," he says. "It's a matter of meeting the child's needs."

When your baby cries -- and the typical infant will cry about three hours a day in the first 3 months, more if they have colic -- it isn't because they are trying to manipulate you. They haven't learned how to do that yet. They are crying because they are hungry, tired, lonely or plain uncomfortable, and that's their only way of letting you know.

"A spoiled child is one that's manipulative, but babies don't learn until they're about 9 months that they can cry to get you to do something for them," says Dr. Barbara Howard, assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.

After checking to make sure your baby isn't hungry, in need of a new diaper or physically ill, try these calming strategies:

  • Rock them in a rocking chair or hold them and sway from side to side.
  • Gently stroke their head or pat their back or chest.
  • Swaddle them in a receiving blanket.
  • Sing or talk to them in a soothing voice.
  • Play soft music.
  • Walk them in your arms, a stroller or a carriage.
  • Take them -- and yourself -- for a nice, easy car ride.
  • Put them next to a rhythmic noise or vibration, like a washing machine or fan.
  • Burp them to relieve any trapped gas bubbles.
  • Give them a warm bath (not all babies like this).

By paying attention to a baby's cries, parents aren't just responding to the child's physical needs. "Babies learn a sense of security, comfort, nurturing and warmth," which in turn gives them the confidence to explore and learn, says Dr. Deborah Campbell, director of neonatology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

In fact, studies show that babies who develop that sense of security from their caregivers in the first year will be more independent, self-confident and happier later.

"Babies can sense even in those first few months the unavailable parent," says Nugent, a professor in childhood and family studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Infants can become disconnected and develop "a real sadness, like 'somehow nothing seems to be working for me.'"

On the other hand, you won't cause your baby irreparable harm if you let them cry on occasion, either.

"In the first year, always do what you can, but especially if you feel like you're going to lose it and throw them out the window ... you should definitely put them down and walk out of the room," cautions Dr. Howard. "People need to know it's normal to feel that way ... it's just that you run out of steam."

When a child passes the 9-month mark and begins learning the art of persuasion, parents can become more selective in responding to cries, says Howard.

"The most important thing is not to give in because of an emotional outburst," she says. "How many times does it take until the child figures out that the way to get a cookie is to throw a tantrum? About one. They learn really fast."

With a technique called kangaroo care, neonatologists have found that holding a preterm baby closely as much as possible offers many benefits. Not only does the parent's body temperature keep baby warm, but the closeness curbs crying, helps regulate breathing and heart rate, improves weight gain and results in a better rate of growth.

That same theory applies to full-term infants, as well.

"When you carry a baby around in a sling or Snugli, it makes them feel secure," Campbell says. "The baby feels the warmth of the parent's body, hears the parent's heartbeat, and if a mother is breast-feeding, it's very easy to just nurse the baby discreetly and comfortably and continue what you're doing."

The proximity also encourages more interaction and bonding between a parent and child -- it's simply more convenient for getting to know each other. In fact, experts often suggest that fathers carry their infants in a sling to forge a closer relationship, particularly since they don't get the same head start as moms because they didn't carry the fetus in utero for 9 months.

Your baby will also learn more than if they are simply relegated to a playpen or infant seat. "Babies like to be held all the time, especially before they can walk on their own," Howard says. "They can look around, they get to see what the parent's doing, which they find totally fascinating, and that's good for mental development."

By talking to your baby as you carry them from room to room, you're also laying the groundwork for language development. "The talking that parents do helps build an understanding of language," says Campbell. "A baby who doesn't have good receptive skills isn't going to have good expressive skills."

Fortunately for your back's sake, babies do still need time on a blanket or floor to practice their motor skills, adds Howard. "But the more secure they feel about your availability (as they're held and nurtured early on), the more comfortable they are on the floor later."

For at least the first 4 months of an infant's life, pediatricians say parents should throw out their expectations about schedules or routines. Your little one will rule the roost, and that's as it should be. Some infants are needier than others, but part of a new parent's job is scoping out a baby's needs, personality and temperament.

"Your baby is the only guide you've got," says Nugent. "If you see him thriving on what you're giving, then you're all set. If he's still not feeling happy and contented, then you have to change. Everything from the batting of an eye to the loudest cry to a color change, a startle, a tremor are part of the baby's little vocabulary to tell you, 'This is who I am and what I'm all about.' "

Feeding on demand is imperative. Babies, even premature infants, will typically eat when they're hungry and stop when they've had enough. Expect rapid changes, too. Infants typically go through growth spurts at 2 to 3 weeks, 2 to 3 months, and 6 months. It's unlikely, Campbell says, that "the baby is overeating and getting too fat."

One area where it does make sense to help the baby develop a pattern is with night and naptime sleep patterns, but only after age 4 months, when babies typically don't need a night feeding anymore. Making sure you put them down to sleep at a regular time helps infants set their internal clocks and teaches them a sense of order.

But in general, you're not going to spoil a new baby by letting them call the shots for a while. "Parents are often so achievement-oriented," Howard says, "that they're worried they'll make their babies more dependent on them and less able to achieve in our competitive society ... But we need to pay attention to their emotional development, too. Our world has gone overboard on intellect and independence. What we don't have is connectedness and empathy, and it starts from the beginning. The way children develop a sense of kindness towards others is by being dealt with kindly."

The bottom line is that babies can only benefit from all of the love and nurturing their parents can muster.