Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Heresy: Maybe you CAN spoil a baby

It's fun to read antiquated parenting advice and laugh or shake your head disapprovingly at their strange and possibly harmful ideas.  Slate just wrote a piece about some of the more bizarre parenting ideas of the past few centuries, all of which were by the way written by men.  It's comical.  Bathing the baby in lard?  Ridiculous.  Introducing solids at only a few days old?  Idiotic and dangerous. Not playing with your baby or comforting her when she cries for fear of "spoiling" them?  Cruel.

Or is it?

Most of my friends have a story about their mom or grandmother admonishing them for being overly attentive to their infant.  "You're going to spoil that baby" they hear. "The baby is manipulating you" they're told when they run to pick up a fussy little crier. "He's turning you into a human pacifier" hears the on-demand breast feeder.

Foolish ancestors, we think.  Don't they know that "you can't spoil a baby?"

It's the conventional wisdom of our parenting age, doled out as gospel by every attending nurse in the maternity ward.  "They are establishing trust" we're told.  You must attend to their every infant whim.  We're told that under 3 months is a critical time of development and attachment building.  The baby is learning to "trust."

But I have no idea how anyone knows this for certain.  Sure, if you neglect a baby entirely it could do irreparable psychological damage.  But there's a huge spectrum between attaching junior to the boob 24 hours a day and utter neglect.  Does anyone really know what letting a child cry for 15 minutes a day will do to a 2 month old? Hell, apparently an entire generations have let children cry and they didn't all grow up into sociopaths.

So, now I'm finding myself questioning the conventional "you can't spoil an infant" wisdom.

Here's the why: letting a baby cry a bit seems to be the magical key to having the holy grail of motherhood - a good sleeper.  And the kicker is, the earlier you do it the better.

I first came across this idea in the book Bringing up Bebe, in which the author, an American expat in France, learns that the key to getting babies to "do their nights" (sleep through) is not running to them each time they cry.  From day one, you do a pause and give them an opportunity to "learn to soothe" themselves.  Remarkably, nearly all the French moms she meets have babies who sleep through the night before 4 months old.

This observations is born out not only in her fun ethnography, but actual science. A randomized trial of women who intended to breast feed their babies found that those who were given instructions just after birth, which included waiting to attend to their newborn and refraining from nursing during 5 hours of nighttime when possible, had much sleepier babies than those who did not receive any instructions.  In fact, amazingly, at 8 weeks 100% of the moms with instructions had babies sleeping through the night, compared to 23% of the control group.

All of which pisses me off.  Why am I just learning this now!?!?  Apparently this kind of gentle sleep training is possible to achieve until about 4 months, after which habits formed are hard to break.

Of course, I'm learning this after the magical 4 month widow has closed. I have a baby who at 9 months wakes every 2 hours to be comforted by his indulgent mother.  Last night he woke up 3 times.  Three times before I even made it to bed.  Then another 4 times throughout the night.  Each time I nursed him back to sleep.  Could he be spoiled?

Maybe.  You might just say I've denied him the opportunity to learn how to self soothe.  Or that he's become dependent on nursing-to-sleep associations. Our grandmothers just might have told me that I'm spoiling him.  Maybe there was some truth to it after all.


  1. You know, I lived in France. Sure, there are good sleepers in France, but they exist here in the US too. So first off, Bringing up Bebe is a stereotype that most of my French friends laughed at then cried because their children don't sleep. We attachment parent and the youngest was sleeping like a champ... until his next two teeth came in and now he doesn't sleep... at all. Get used to a baby's schedule and you know what? It will change. Don't beat yourself up, if you ask me this whole "pause" thing is just another trend. Sure, I paused. I still pause; and the kid gets to cry 15 minutes before the mommy guilt settles in and I spoil them crazy. Mother knows best is what I believe.

    1. I'm SOO interested to hear that. I kind of thought "no way, pas possible" when I read that book, but then I started hearing from other people who had similar experiences in France or French colonies. And then my brother, whose son slept through the night at only 6 weeks, told me that, hey, you know, we did that pause thing too. But who knows!? I know there are no real hard and fast rules for this and so much depends on temperment. Hell, I'm a light sleeper and so our my boys.

      Babies do seem to regress when things like teeth come in and they start learning new skills. But I have an epicly bad sleeper on my hands and the thought that there is some kind of fix - even if I've missed the window is just so enticing. ; )

  2. Having kids roughly the same ages as yours I have of course heard that infants can't be spoiled. BUT, it never in a million years (until i just read your post) occurred to me that I should nurse a baby when I knew s/he wasn't hungry. that seems like asking for a spit up, not like spoiling an unspoilable baby. I mean, if my baby stopped crying when she rammed her head against the wall repeatedly, i still wouldn't let her do it, b/c i don't want her to have a bruise on her head. if i just nursed the baby 2 hours ago (assuming we are talking about a baby more than 3 weeks old) then the crying isn't hunger. feeding them isn't spoiling them, it just wouldn't even enter my mind as a possibility.

    1. Oh, I know he's not hungry. It's just that it's the only thing that will soothe him. I could try and rock him or pat him or sing to him, but none of those things work. Or maybe they would "work" if I did them for 45 - 60 minutes. But nursing simply works. I know he's pacifying himself, but it works beautifully and quickly and better than anything else. And it never causes him to spit up since there's not much milk in there. Sucking calms their nervous system - that's why so many people love pacifiers for their babies. But when your baby doesn't take one and they love to suck... it's just mom!

    2. I'm sorry. I forced binkies on both my kids the day they were born. Luckily they both took them. I guess it just never occurred to me to take the "can't spoil a baby thing" that far. I mean, I never thought "spoil" them to the extent that it was injurious to my health (repeated sleepless nights when you know they aren't hungry). it just never occurred to me. you have to take care of you too.

    3. oh, and as for the letting them cry and sooth themselves. what we do, if our kids wake up in the middle of the night crying, is we do go right into their rooms to check on them right away... i mean, who knows... maybe they have a fever, maybe they puked, maybe they bit their lip and they are bleeding. So, i always go check. But, upon discovering nothing really wrong, i don't remove the baby from the crib. i give her back her pacifier and her bear, i wrap her in her blanket, and lay her back down. i leave the room. if she starts crying again, then i let her cry for 3 minutes before i go back in and do all the same things. then i let her cry for 5 minutes, then 8 minutes, etc... eventually she falls asleep. Letting the baby cry like this doesn't happen night after night. with both our kids, after we did this a few nights in a row, they got the message. they would still occassionally wake up in the middle of the night, but then we'd just go in for 45 seconds (re-binkie, re-bear, re-cover) and then everyone fell right back to sleep.

  3. Okay Kim, I'm bite! Kid #3 is coming on or before 12.19. I'm going to try this hypothesis out about letting them cry a bit before soothing and see what happens. If my kid Sleeps through the night at 8 weeks being breastfed, I just might hop on a plane to give you a hug in Kenya!

  4. So funny, as I was reading your post my two and a half year old woke up calling for Mama and halfway through reading "pause" I was out of my chair and patting a back. Old habits die hard!

  5. I'm not sure there is such a thing as 'gentle sleep training'. I realise you are talking about 15 min max here, but I would never want my son to cry himself to sleep. And no, I don't think your son is spoiled. My son is two and stirs a couple of times a night to nurse back to sleep - and I think he is a happier child for it - knowing that I will ALWAYS be there to comfort him :)

  6. I have never understood why mothers consider it a measure of success when a baby sleeps through the night at such an early age of 8 weeks? I want to say, "Good job mom, you have successfully neglected your baby, made her starve through the night and prevented her from getting nourished! But YOU got your precious sleep! Great job there, mom."

    On the contrary, much research has shown that it is developmentally appropriate for young babies to nurse frequently. Routinely delaying nursing when baby cues a need to eat can harm milk supply, affect baby’s weight gain, and is very stressful to both mom and baby. By letting your baby stretch out nursing frequency on her own (and it will happen with time) – you are preserving your nursing relationship and meeting your baby’s physical and emotional needs. Remember that nursing is not just about food – it’s also warmth, closeness, reassurance, comfort, healing, love…all in one simple act! Nursing has even been shown to reduce stress and pain in baby, too. It’s very normal and developmentally appropriate for babies to nurse to sleep and to wake 1-3 times during the night for the first year or so. Every baby is I personally found with my two daughters. My 1st child was sleeping through the night (meaning 5 hrs. w/o feeding by 6 months. But my 2nd child was nursing 4-5 times during the night...and then at 13 months its like the sleep fairy sprinkled her magic dust and she has slept through the night ever since (she is now 2yrs.)

    When a baby is crying out...she is asking for something. She is communicating her needs and desires the only way she knows how. A mother has the ability to meet many of her baby's needs by a simple & loving act...its really not that crazy of an idea to just give the baby what she needs in that moment. To those who think it will spoil the child...I can't understand how? I say do what comes natural, and that is to soothe and give what she has been naturally equipped to do...Breastfeed that baby! :)


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