Don’t worry about “spoiling a baby.” It cannot be done!
New parents are often told not to “spoil the baby.” Some people envision “little emperors” demanding their way, with parents running around like servants. How undignified.
True, people who feel entitled are very annoying—they think they are better than the rest of us and deserve special treatment—and throw tantrums when they don’t get the treatment they expect.
But does the ‘entitled emperor’ analogy aptly apply to a baby?
It is true that babies expect a lot. They have built in needs for growth that require particular care, represented in the evolved nest (which includes pretty constant touch, as well as rocking). Born 18 months early compared to other animals with only 25% of adult brain volume at full term birth, they need an “external womb” experience to grow properly—millions of synapses a second. They must feel good to grow well—a good biochemistry, rather than a stressed biochemistry—is fundamental to growing brain cell connections (Niehoff, 1999; Stiles, 2008).
Babies will let you know when they feel something is not right. Traditional societies watch gestures and grimaces for early signals (crying is a very late signal) and move to keep baby happy. Hunter-gatherers are attentive to baby’s state and move in quickly (e.g., Morelli et al., 2013). It is best for caregivers to practice learning baby’s signals early on (skin-to-skin carrying is ideal) and it will get easier and automatic with practice.
To build a resilient body and brain, caregivers need to be ready to provide the support needed. Sensitive periods for growth last until around age six when 90% of brain volume is set to be completed.
What do relatives mean when they tell parents not to spoil the baby?
- “Don’t respond when they signal their needs. Have some grit and harden your heart to their pleas.”
What is it parents are teaching their babies when they do not respond to their cues for help?
- “Don’t count on me to help you. You are on your own, Bub. Don’t signal your needs—why ever for? In fact, try to ignore your needs. Bury them.”
The recommendations actually “ruin” baby’s trust. Burying needs and feelings in early life are what people spend years in therapy to uncover and heal. Lack of responsive care is linked to primal wounds, a feeling of basic fault (Balint, 1968).
Remember that babies sleep lightly and wake frequently expecting breastmilk that is designed to keep them regulated and growing optimally (McKenna & Gettler, 2016). Because they are born so immature (18 months early compared to other animals) they need nearly constant touch and physical presence of caregivers (Montagu, 1968; Trevathan, 2011). These are components of our species evolved nest.
Just like infamous John Watson, the behaviorist, it seems as if advisors want babies to be instant grown-ups. Watson, in his 1928 parenting manual, told parents to pretty much ignore their babies so that would learn early not to be annoying college undergraduates. Government pamphlets also emphasized not coddling babies (Blum, 2002). Right, they did not know much at all about child development! They did not know how early life stress is toxic to a child’s developing systems—a burgeoning field of research (e.g., Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Shonkoff et al., 2012).
Why are people so impatient with babies?
I attribute it mostly to lack of experience—not growing up around babies, not having many babies in their lives as adults, not perceiving how 2 and 2 fit together—that an undercared for baby leads to an anxious or demanding insecure child and a less-than-optimal adult (sickly, stress reactive, disagreeable, self-centered, rigid).
A lot of western cultural root metaphors for reality also play a role—for example, that humans are machines; people must be controlled to be good; work and productivity are more important than autonomy and unique self-expression (Bowers, 2003). These ideas have been passed down generation to generation with a taboo on tenderness that is common in the USA, along with resentment toward the needy (Suttie, 1938). There is a strain of I didn’t get [xyz], and I’m fine [so why give xyz to this child?]. Or, you shouldn’t have what I didn’t get. The illbeing among American adults steeped in these perspectives is widespread (Metzl, 2019).
Instead, an ongoing cultural meme is to teach baby “independence” (which also means parent independence from feeling too close to baby’s needs). Teach the baby to have grit—to just bite the bullet and get ready to be obedient to parents’ desires. ‘Life isn’t about wellbeing and happiness, it’s about doing what others tell you to do [starting with me, your parent]. This is a slave mentality, probably built in the parents’ own experience of undercare. “Life is unfair so teach the baby that from the outset.” Like John Watson who urged mothers to treat their babies like college students—make babies get used to undercare now. Unfortunately, it builds in anxiety and a sense of scarcity.
What help do babies need?
In their first 18 months, babies are getting used to living outside the womb without the placenta giving constant support and mom’s biochemistry guiding baby’s development. After birth, babies rely on mom and other caregivers to help them learn to function in all sorts of ways. Every system is guided in its proper development by caregiver support (e.g., positive touch promotes proper respiratory and cardiac function; breastmilk promotes the development of the microbiome which supports a good immune system). Babies are expecting companionship care (the evolved nest). Babies who receive only food and diaper changes fail to thrive (called “hospitalism;” Spitz, 1947).
What happens when you build a house with a faulty foundation? As bilked homebuyers find out later, the house collapses under stress. If we want our children to be resilient against life’s stresses, we need to support their proper development from the beginning. Humanity’s nest evolved to do just that.
Balint, M. (1968). The basic fault: Therapeutic aspects of regression. London: Tavistock Publications.
Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. New York: Berkeley Publishing (Penguin).
McKenna, J., & Gettler, L. (2016). There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping. Acta Paediatr, 105(1),17-21. doi: 10.1111/apa.13161
Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.), Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford.
Morelli, G., Ivey Henry, P., & Foerster, S. (2014). Relationships and resource uncertainty: Cooperative development of Efe hunter-gatherer infants and toddlers. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray, Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, childrearing and social wellbeing (pp. 69-103). New York: Oxford.
Shonkoff, J.P. & Phillips, D.A. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Research Council, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Shonkoff, J.P., Garner, A.S. The Committee on Psychosocial Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, and Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Dobbins, M.I., Earls, M.F., McGuinn, L., … & Wood, D.L. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129, e232.
Spitz, R. (1947). Grief: A peril in infancy. [film] University Park, PA: Penn State.
Stiles, J. (2008). The fundamentals of brain development: Integrating nature and nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Suttie, I. (1935). The origins of love and hate. New York, NY: The Julian Press.
Trevathan, W.R. (2011). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective, 2nd Ed. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.