Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spoil Your Children!

As perhaps any woman who has borne a child can tell you, as soon as you announce your pregnancy you are immediately bombarded with “helpful” advice from seemingly everyone. The wealth of information is incredible, and often conflicting. With advice of doctors, books, friends, parents and absolute strangers, it can be hard to determine whose advice to follow; not to mention that common child-rearing practices may have changed since your own parents raised you.
For example, it was common practice, and highly recommended, that babies be laid on their tummies to sleep at night during the seventies when I was born. Today this practice is strongly discouraged because it puts a child at increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – commonly known as SIDS. The safest position for an infant to sleep is laid on her back (Murkoff, Eisenberg and Hathaway B.S.N. 150). This however may be the exact opposite of what your own parents may have done with you as a child and may not make much sense to them.

So in addition to conflicting advice we have other people’s own experiences and practices that worked perfectly well for them. Any woman who has had a child, no matter when, may consider herself an expert on the topic. She lived through it after all, and who’s to say that she’s wrong? Certainly not I. Certainly not you either, if you know what’s good for you. My best advice on this topic is to smile and nod, and file the well-intentioned advice away mentally in case you might need it someday.

Perhaps the most commonly given advice with infants is “don’t pick the baby up every time it cries or you’ll spoil it.” I will begin by pointing out that this advice is not found in reference books, but passed on from others who are convinced that it’s true. For example my sister-in-law, mother of three, repeatedly offered this advice to my husband, who in turn passed it on to me. In fact it is my experience that this advice is offered routinely by people who have had children of their own.

What do the experts say? Overwhelmingly the consensus is that you should always attend to a crying baby (Lees, Reynolds and McCartan 214). A study at the University of Turku found that “more-sensitive mothers had more-contented infants” (Howard) which also led to less crying in the end. suggests that there are seven reasons why babies cry, including a desire to be held, ( but that it is impossible to spoil an infant by holding her when she cries.

This brings me to the best advice I received before or after my own daughter was born, and pretty much the only advice I myself pass along. Out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of tidbits shared with me, this one arrived in an innocuous e-mail from entitled “Your 2-month old: Week 3”. Within the email was a quote from a forum board hosted by the website that read:

“My son likes to be carried around all the time. Whenever I get tired of holding him, I try to remember that a year from now he's going to be squirming to get out of my arms — and I'm going to miss these days!’, Kelly”.

While not offered specifically as advice, it was the best argument I’d seen on the topic and brought an immediate end, in my mind, to any discussions to the contrary.

Many of the sources I have read, and referenced above, suggest that an infant child is incapable of coercion or purposely manipulating the actions of their parents. While an older child, or even an adult, might cry simply to get sympathy or what they want, an infant’s thought processes are not yet that complex. In her article, Barbara Howard went on to suggest that perhaps the advice not to pick up a child every time it cries is offered is to assuage the advice-bearer’s own guilt at not being as attentive with their own children (Howard).
Taken to an extreme, yet related and very interesting, is an experiment conducted by Fredrick II, emperor of Germany in the early 13th century.

He bade foster mothers and nurses to suckle the children, to bathe and wash them, but in no way to prattle with them, for he wanted to learn whether they would speak the Hebrew language, which was the oldest, or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perhaps the language of their parents, of whom they had been born. But he labored in vain because all the children died. For they could not live without the petting and joyful faces and loving words of their foster mothers (Adler and Proctor II).

This is not to suggest that the results of not picking up a crying child would be so dire, but to point out that human contact, with a child especially, is paramount. Humans are social creatures and infants especially need coddling. It is important that a child, helpless in almost every way, knows that their parents will tend to them and their needs.
I also do not suggest that a parent should rush to their child every time it cries. So long as the baby is safe from danger, she’ll not die from crying. A seemingly inconsolable infant can be very trying on new parents and sometimes not tending to the child immediately may be best for all.
However, I do suggest that no one should ever be made to feel guilty or like a bad parent if they choose to pick up their baby and coddle it when it cries. Now that my daughter is 21 months old I know Kelly, whoever she is, was absolutely correct in what she said. Angelina is much too busy to let mom hold her for very long these days and I do not regret one moment of the times I picked her up and “spoiled her.”

Works Cited
Adler, Ronald B. and Russell F. Proctor II. Looking Out/Looking In, Twelfth Edition. Thomson Learing, Inc., 2007. "Seven reasons babies cry and how to soothe them." November 2006. 4 April 2009 .
Howard, Barbara. "Are you spoiling your baby?" February 2005. 4 April 2009 .
Lees, MD, Christoph, MD, Karina Reynolds and Grainne McCartan. Pregancy and Birth: your questions answered. DK Publishing, Inc., 2002.
Murkoff, Heidi, Arlene Eisenberg and Sandee Hathaway B.S.N. What to expect the first year. New York: Workman Publishing, 2003.