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No, You Cannot Spoil a Baby

These tips and strategies can help caregivers understand.

Key points

  • Family members often chime in with their thoughts on how people are responding to and caring for their babies.
  • While unsolicited feedback can be difficult to hear, caregivers should know they cannot spoil a baby.
  • Babies depend on caregivers to meet their basic needs and nurture, so attentive caregiving is important.
  • Practitioners can support parental learning and skill-building to provide nurturing caregiving.
wong yu liang/Shutterstock
Source: wong yu liang/Shutterstock

This post was co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, and Rahil Briggs, Psy.D.

Across cultures, there are nearly a dozen holidays celebrated in the coming winter months, which means folks might be getting together with extended family. But even if it’s going to be yet another virtual holiday, family members may chime in with their thoughts on how people are responding to and caring for their babies. Generational differences of opinion abound.

This is something that, even while likely not welcomed, can still be difficult for parents and caregivers—especially new ones—to navigate. There’s something about having your parenting choices questioned that is so tough, and when that doubt is coming from your parents or other beloved family members, it can cut even more deeply.

How can practitioners ensure that caregivers are well-informed and can stay steady in the face of negative feedback or criticism? What can they say and do when they’re told, “You’re going to spoil the baby,” or “That baby is manipulating you.”

What Does It Mean to “Spoil” a Baby?

A spoiled child may be described as overly self-centered and immature as a result of parents not enforcing consistent, age-appropriate limits (McIntosh, 1989). That said, newborns (meaning babies under 5-6 months old) are fittingly self-centered for their age—they literally cannot survive without a caregiver—and do not need limits, per se. Many notable early childhood developmental experts, including Mary Ainsworth and T. Berry Brazelton, agree that responsive caregiving is the best practice for infant caretaking, as it builds the bonds of attachment through behaviors like picking up a baby when they cry and responding sensitively to their cues (Solomon, 1993).

These same behaviors may be seen by some caregivers as “spoiling.” But they are the same behaviors that have been shown to promote secure attachment and enhance infant mental health (Solomon, 1993).

What Caregivers Believe About Spoiling Matters

Many new caregivers feel inclined to stay close to their newborns; to pick them up when they cry and soothe them. These caregivers probably fall into the category of believing that a baby can’t be spoiled, or that if they can be spoiled, then that is a good thing (Solomon, 1993). On the other hand, some caregivers think that you can spoil a baby and that it’s a bad thing that will lead to spoiled children and adults (Solomon, 1993).

In a 1993 study, 25 percent of the parents surveyed believed, in line with the definition above, that infants (even those younger than 5 months of age) could be “spoiled.” Thankfully, that is a relatively small percentage. It is widely understood—and rooted in Jean Piaget’s seminal work—that young babies are not cognitively capable of consciously manipulating their environment or caregivers until the developmental milestone of object permanence, which is typically starting to emerge between 6-9 months (Solomon, 1993).

The Impact of Family and Culture, and Tips for Caregivers

The same 1993 study suggested that education, income, and race are associated with parental beliefs about whether or not you can spoil an infant (Solomon, 1993), indicating that upbringing and culture—religious, family, linguistic, and more—can impact views (Burchinal,, 2010).

What a parent or caregiver believes about whether their baby can be spoiled matters. The good news is that many caregivers do know that young babies cannot be “spoiled,” and that meeting their needs is important for their healthy development. Interestingly, more recent research shows that many parents automatically (and unconsciously) adjust their caregiving style as their babies develop and their fast-growing abilities and needs change (Young,, 2017).

Clinicians, family members, and others can help caregivers scaffold developmental understanding and provide responsive caregiving by:

  • Highlight when baby signals a need. Babies use their smiles, cuteness, and cries to engage in the crucial evolutionary process of getting their caregivers’ attention (Young, et. al., 2017).
  • Notice caregivers being responsive. When those in a supportive role point out that baby has indicated a need and the caregiver has met it, it reinforces this positive behavior.
  • Give information about typical development. When caregivers have a good understanding of their baby’s abilities, they are more likely to have developmentally appropriate expectations.
  • Be curious about beliefs and practices. When interacting and reflecting on caregiver-child interactions, always ask first. Ask if you can wonder with them about their baby’s cues. Ask about their beliefs about infants and their behavior.
  • Hold connection in high regard. Note and emphasize attuned, contingent interactions and responsive caregiving.

Parenting behavior is affected by caregiver beliefs about their child’s emotional needs and capacities (Siegel, 1985). When caregivers understand that meeting an infant’s needs is foundational, it is the first step in becoming better equipped to do so. Practitioners can support parental learning and skill-building with the suggestions above, as well as engage in reflective practice and information-sharing.


Burchinal, M., Skinner, D., and Reznick, J.S. (2010). European American and African American mothers' beliefs about parenting and disciplining infants: A mixed-method analysis. Parenting: Science and Practice. 10(2),79–96.

McIntosh, B. (1989). Spoiled child syndrome. Pediatrics, 83, 108-114.

Piaget, J. (1955). The language and thought of the child. New York: Meridian Books.

Siegel, M. (1985). A study of maternal belief and values within the context of an intervention program. In M. Siegel (Ed.), Parental Belief Systems (pp. 271-286). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Solomon, R., Martin, K., & Cottington, E. (1993). Spoiling an Infant: Further Support for the Construct. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 13(2), 175-183.

Young, K.S., Parsons, C.E., Stein, A., Vuust, P., Craske, M.G., & Kringelbach, M.L. (2017). The neural basis of responsive caregiving behaviour: Investigating temporal dynamics within the parental brain. Behavioural Brain Research, 325(Pt B), 105–116.

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