You, like many another new mother, are being torn between the conflicting claims of baby care folklore, and dimly remembered snippets of child psychology. Somewhere in between, you still have to deal with your own instincts, your own anxieties, your own patterns deeply ingrained in childhood.
Can you spoil a newborn baby?
You wake uneasily at night in the maternity ward and you hear the plaintive wails of the babies in the nursery down the hall, “It won’t hurt them a bit to cry,” the nurse reassures you cheerfully. “Just exercising their lungs.”
When you leave the hospital, they may tell you to “establish a four hour feeding schedule as quickly as possible.” Your doctor tells you to get plenty of rest: “Don’t let the little one get the upper hand.” is his advice.
At home with the baby, you’re enraptured and exhausted all at once. Her fussiness during the evening hours looms up as the most baffling, frustrating and important of mysteries.” Just let her fuss; she’ll settle down,” mother-in-law consoles. “She has to get used to not being picked up all the time.”
You are being indoctrinated with one of the most powerful of our culture’s fairy tales: That baby is an omnivorous, devouring creature who is engaged in a kind of power struggle with you to determine who will be boss.
Even some of the newest baby-care books warn you against “being too permissive,” “letting baby sense any weakness on your part,” or “giving in to his demands.”
How to tell what your baby’s cry means?
Baby’s cry becomes a signal for tension. You sit on the edge of your chair in the living room, “getting your rest” and determinedly not listening to his wails.
Part of you is glad to listen to the advice about not spoiling, because his crying makes you feel guiltily inadequate: after all, you’ve fed him, burped him, changed him, walked him … what on earth does he want now?
Facts, however, are facts. Psychologists have known for years that there can be no question of a struggle for control with an infant under three months of age, because the infant simply has no idea of himself as a separate person, let alone the intellectual capacity to engage in a battle of wills.
- “Babies cry for only one reason – they are expressing a need.” is the flat assertion of psychologists. Tiny, helpless, completely dependent on its parents for its very life, the baby can ask for food, warmth, comfort, relief from pain, or human company only by crying.
- “Baby’s only way of communicating is to cry,” said one child-care expert, “and it’s very rude to turn your back on someone who’s talking to you.”
Infants are completely incapable of postponing satisfaction: Either their needs are meet adequately and they are content, or their needs are unmet and the continue to protest and demand to the point of exhaustion, or they are so neglected, so despairing of satisfaction that they “learn to be good babies” and give up demanding altogether.
The needs that prompt the crying aren’t always diagnosed easily, however, and here’s where new mothers tend to get anxious.
One professional advises new mothers to watch more experienced parents handle unexplained crying:
“They try to find the reasons for it, of course, but if nothing works, they still don’t get harassed and try to hush up the crying. They pay attention to it, they respect it as the language of the child and in the last resort they cuddle and hold and rock the warmly wrapped and securely supported baby … the universal rockabye that is the continuation of the swaying and rocking motion in the womb.”
Is there such thing as spoiling a newborn?
Slowly, during the course the first three months, the chaos of the baby’s impulses comes more coherent. She adapts to the rhythm of the family life, she’s awake and wanting to be held when the family is together.
Mothers who succumb to society’s pressures for “discipline” and “scheduling” (“get her to sleep by six so you can have a quiet dinner” — “let her cry for midnight feeding a few nights in a row and she’ll soon stop bothering you”) often find they have a colicky, fretful baby on their hands.
Baby’s fragilely balanced organism reacts fiercely to strong frustration. As researchers have established, eczema, sleeplessness, frequent colds, gastric upsets and even constipation may be caused by undue attempts to control.
(An inexperienced mother’s anxiety about always doing the right thing may also make the baby tense and colicky — as she learns to relax, so does he.)
Far from spoiling, the responsive mother is ensuring the future emotional and intellectual strength of her child.
The great irony of our society’s horror of “spoiling” babies is that dependent, whining, clinging children are those whose dependency needs have not been fulfilled deeply enough in infancy.
It is precisely the “spoiled” baby, the cuddled and responded to baby, who does not have to grow up clinging to his mother.
The astounding truth is that each tiny infant is involved in the momentous task of creating a world.
How does the relationship between mother and newborn develop?
He cries for food and instantly a mother with food is there for him. He comes through the crucial first three months with a dawning rareness that all his needs have been answered so well not by his own magical creation but by a separate person … and he begins to realize his utter dependence.
He is attached to her, and being attached is the first step in the rich complexity of human emotions. Loving, hating, making up, trying to please, self-awareness, and letting go. To this “attachment phase” researchers have traced the springs of joyful creativity, inner discipline and morality.
Mothers, of course, don’t brood over these profundities when they happily drop what they are doing to offer breast or bottle to the infant, and they don’t agonize over the inevitable occasions when baby must cry impatiently while the bottle is being warmed.
It is the natural and cumulative effect of the reliably responsive mother that counts. And all this complex growth, mother and baby achieve without a second thought other than their pleasure in each other.