What Does “Spoiling” a Baby Mean? Can It Be Done?

Should you attach to or detach from a baby?

Posted Oct 11, 2020

I regularly hear from parents who are conflicted by the advice they get from family members to let babies cry, that parents should ignore their instincts to respond compassionately to their babies’ needs. And I can’t tell you how many times I hear American adults generally worry about spoiling a baby if, for example, you pick them up when they signal a need.

The idea of keeping babies from receiving tender care has been an infection of the American mind for almost two centuries, according to psychoanalyst Ian Suttie (1935), who called it a cultural “taboo on tenderness.” Early parenting book writers emphasized a cool, detached parenting orientation (e.g., Luther Emmet Holt, 1935; John Watson, 1928), discouraging affectionate care—which science has shown is vital for healthy development (Field, 1995; Montagu, 1986).

In contrast, researchers have been emphasizing the importance of parent-to-child attachment and child-to-parent attachment since the mid-20th century. John Bowlby (1982) is most associated with both concepts.

Mothers typically have a caregiving attachment that is triggered at birth, if not before. Infants develop an attachment to their mother or primary caregiver over the first months of life. Secure attachment is associated with positive child outcomes, like cooperation, happiness, and self-esteem (Sroufe et al., 2005). Insecure attachment is associated with various social problems and represents the social neurobiology of the brain that is less than ideal for getting along with others.

Warm responsiveness and consistent presence of the primary caregiver is associated with measures of secure attachment. Unresponsive and inconsistent presence is associated with measurable insecure attachment (of various kinds, depending on what kind of miscare accrued).

In the last posts, I reviewed several clinicians’ emphasis on early tender care after they’ve noted in their practice linkages of early infant care to later physical and mental health. Taking a research physician’s viewpoint, Dr. Margaret Ribble (1943) found that infant needs are best met by mother love. Dr. D.W. Winnicott (1987) gives us the therapist’s viewpoint in discussing “good-enough mothering” along with Dr. Weil (1992), who emphasized the need babies have for empathic care. During World War II, Dr. Moloney (1949) saw similarities in Nazi and American child-raising and contrasted the poor mental health of Americans with the amazingly good health of Okinawans devastated by bombings, linking the differences to early life care.

Neuroscience, clinical science, and developmental science all point to the necessity to meet babies' needs generously when they have them.

This is sometimes called attachment parenting, which is based on our species’ ancestral or primal parenting and similar to the evolved nest practices (which are more extensive and lifelong). This means a caregiver builds a reliable bond between themselves and the child from the first moments of life. As previous posts have noted, this can help build good physical and mental health as well as sociality and self-confidence.

So let’s address some of the discouraging comments adults make to parents using some of the aforementioned professionals’ responses.

Doesn’t too much attention spoil babies?

Dr. Margaret Ribble replies:

“It is obviously true that unwise attention prolongs dependency and thus spoils a baby. But mother love is a good deal like food; we do not stop giving it because the child may get too much or the wrong kind. It has to be expressed regularly so that the child expects; a little at a time, and frequently, is the emotional formula. When it is given in this way independence, rather than dependence, is fostered. For independence is the outgrowth of a feeling of security and completeness, whereas the deep dependency of the first months of life is a natural biological condition which characterizes babies, and not a trait which has been produced by too much care.” (1943, pp. 13-14)

Instead, and as attachment researchers have noted, consistent responsiveness to the deep needs of babies by familiar caregivers is vital:

“Assurance comes with inner growth but only if this is accompanied by love which must not only be abundant but consistent. It cannot be given to the child simply because the mother happens to feel in the mood. Babies become demanding when they are given a great deal of attention and then deprived of it. The art of mothering is to discover and satisfy the particular need of the individual child.” (Ribble, 1943, p. 14)

“A competent mother, interposed between the newborn infant and the hostile environment, can hold back most of the weight of the world. Provided this protection, the child gradually grows in strength. He finally acquires his own means of neutralizing external obstacles. He eventually becomes an individual confident of his own resources.” (Moloney p. 206)

Attending to baby’s needs is not spoiling them but assisting them in getting themselves together. A good-enough mother doesn’t just pick up a baby; she “gathers him together” (Winnicott, 1987, p. 43). She holds and treats the baby with kindness and tenderness.

What is the opposite of nurturing care and a calm child?

Dr. Moloney gives us some ideas:

“The demanding child is the product of frightened, authoritative parents. A child who is afraid of his own maturation drives, because his parent has broken his spirit, never loses an unconscious awareness of the seething rebellion that arises from such an insult. He feels humiliated for having surrendered his birthright. Yet he feels afraid that the inner normal maturative drives, reinforced by the rage due to self-effacement, will break their bonds. For both reasons, the rage becomes more intense—a rage which must be suppressed by invoking an intracorporeal image of the parental restricting authority. Such a fierce internal tension, denied its natural outlet, often explodes at an individual who has occasioned no provocation. Often the tension drains itself through psychosomatic short circuits, ruining the vital organs of the body." (Moloney, 1949, pp. 341-342)

“Children emotionally warped in early childhood by being subjected to traumata, at a time when they are too young and too helpless to integrate the experience, develop into fearful, unstable, and infantile adults. They frequently overcompensate for their fears with aggressiveness. Insecure, they develop neurotic techniques of mastery. They become demanding and selfish. They often become the bullies who start fights. And nations, comprise of such bullies, develop as bully nations that start wars.” (ibid, p. 314)

Winnicott (1987, p. 86) puts the desperation of a baby poetically:

"Behind [baby’s] needs lies the fact that babies are liable to the most severe anxieties that can be imagined. If left for too long (hours, minutes) without familiar and human contact, they have experiences which we can only describe by such words as:

Going to pieces,

falling for ever,

dying and dying and dying,

losing all vestige of hope of the renewal of contacts."

It is good for adults to understand what a baby feels when uncomforted.

Pay attention to subtle needs, and keep them with you.

Dr. Winnicott noted at the time that most babies are well cared for by mothers who adapt to the needs of the baby. They recognize that baby is dependent on them to provide for and protect them as they are incapable for years. Winnicott and Dr. Margaret Ribble both advocate attending tenderly and respectfully to the needs of babies.

Babies have bodily needs to be held, to be moved, to have soft contact, to be fed, to be burped, as well as not to be grossly disturbed by loud noises or mishandling (letting the head drop back). But there are more subtle needs for human contact—to feel and attune to mother’s breathing, to hear the adult heartbeat, to smell the parent.

“There is a need for sounds that indicate liveliness and life in the environment, or colors and movement, so that the baby does not become thrown back on this or her own resources, when too young or immature to take full responsibility for life.” (Winnicott, 1987, p. 86)

For Winnicott, good-enough mothering is needed for mental health, forming

“...the foundations of the individual’s strength of character and richness of personality. On such a good basis the individual has a chance as time goes on to reach to the world creatively and to enjoy and use what the world has to offer, including the cultural heritage. It is unfortunately only too true that if a child is not started off well enough then the cultural heritage might just as well never have been and the beauty of the world is only tantalizing color that cannot be enjoyed. In this way therefore there are truly the haves and the have-nots., and this has nothing to do with finance; it has to do with those who were started off well enough and those who were not started off well enough.” (1987, p. 25)

Mothers protect and “hold” the baby, facilitating healthy growth.

“[Holding] starts with the baby in the womb, then with the baby in arms, and enrichment comes from the growth process in the infant, which the mother makes possible because of her knowing just what it is like to be this one particular baby that she has given birth to.” (Winnicott, 1990, p. 119)

Through her adaptation to her baby’s needs—i.e., “holding”—a mother conveys to her baby the following messages: “'I am reliable—not because I am a machine, but because I know what you are needing; and I care, and want to provide what you need. This is what I call love at this stage of your development.’” (1987, p. 97)

“Baby’s development cannot take place except in relation to the human reliability of the holding and the handling.” (1987, p. 97)

References

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books

Field, T. (1995). Touch in early development. New York: Psychology Press.

Holt, L.E. (1935). The Care and feeding of Children: A catechism for the use of mothers and nurses, 15th ed. NY: Applegate.

Konrath, S. H., O'Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: a meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.

Moloney, J.C. (1949). The magic cloak: A contribution to the psychology of authoritarianism. Wakefield, MA: Montrose Press.

Montagu, A. (1986). Touching: The human significance of the skin. New York: Harper & Row.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Ribble, Margaret (1943). The rights of infants. NY: Columbia University Press.

Spitz, R.A. (1945). Diacritic and coenesthetic organizations. The Psychoanalytic Review, XXXII (2), 154.

Sroufe, L.A., Egeland, B, Carlson, E.A., & Collins, W.A. (2005). The development of the person: The Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York: Guilford.

Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological care of infant and child. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Weil, J.L. (1992). Early deprivation of empathic care. Madison: International Universities Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1987). Babies and their mothers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Winnicott, D.W. (1990). Home is where we start from: Essays by a psychoanalyst (compiled and Ed. By  C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M. Davis). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.