When I was a first-time mum, the unsolicited advice came rolling in like the ocean tides after a storm. It was relentless. One comment rolled in on the cusp of another.
Don’t let your baby sleep with you, you’ll never get him out of your bed.
Don’t hold your baby too much, he will become needy. Don’t you want an independent child?
When your baby cries for you, let him cry. He needs to learn to self-soothe.
The pressure was enough to drown ya.
And while I had SO many doubts about being a mama, mostly surrounding my own enoughness for the job, these suggestions didn’t sit well. Despite not knowing what I was doing, I had a deep, intuitive knowing that this wasn’t the right path for me, and more significantly, my baby’s development.
As it turns out, my motherly instincts were on to something.
Attachment Isn’t Spoiling
In our ancestral environment, a baby’s cries may have alerted predators that their food - aka you and your young - was nearby. And so, alleviating a baby’s distress was not only nurturing to the child but a survival mechanism for the system. Over the years, the threats may have changed but the wiring has not. Babies still come into this world depending on us to survive.
When a baby is birthed, they leave the internal womb expecting an external womb. One where they feel safe, warm, soothed, and have their needs readily met. Because their brain is a cultural organ shaped by experience, the way we respond to our baby’s communication of needs - aka their gestures and crying - creates the initial blueprint for development, temperament, and overall functioning of their nervous system. And because they function primarily from their reptilian brain, they are wired to constantly assess, Am I safe and supported, or am I not?
When the answer to that question is yes, a secure attachment is formed. When our babies cry and we sweep them up in a loving embrace to coo, smile, and comfort them, we help them integrate their emotional arousal system into their environment.
As your child begins to recognize that she can count on you, she will come to view you as a safe haven during times of distress and a secure base to explore the environment when regulated. This type of parenting teaches children that others recognize their needs, and establishes foundations for trust, empathy, understanding relationships, and verbal and non-verbal communication. A child who is attuned with their primary caregiver is more likely to experience synchrony and rhythmicity in all aspects of life down the road.
According to Dr. Deborah MacNamara, author of the best-selling book Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), and the Director of Kid’s Best Bet Counselling and Family Resource Centre, forcing independence only leads to greater dependence. She says:
“Children can’t be too attached, they can only be not deeply attached. Attachment is meant to make our kids dependent on us so we can lead them. It is our invitation for a relationship that frees them to stop looking for love and to start focusing on growing. When kids can take for granted that their attachment needs will be met, they are freed to play, discover, imagine, move freely, and pay attention. It is paradoxical but when we fulfill their dependency needs, they are pushed forward towards independence. As a child matures, they will likely become more capable of taking the steering wheel in their own life and we will be able to retreat into a more consulting role.”
Why Cry It Out Doesn’t Work
The entire cry it out method or “don’t do whatever innate thing you want to do because it could spoil your baby” comes from a deep misunderstanding of child development.
Cry it out is incredibly outdated, stemming from the late 1880s and early 1900s when there were strong opinions about “stale, shared air at night” and germs, and therefore it was concluded that it was best practice if babies were rarely touched at all.
In 1894, a popular and prominent medical expert, Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, published The Care of Feeding and Children and first used the term “cry it out.” He says, “The infant should simply be allowed to cry it out. This often requires an hour, and in extreme cases, two or three hours. A second struggle will seldom last more than ten or fifteen minutes, and a third will rarely be necessary.”
Other physicians of the time mentioned that holding a baby would spoil them and turn them into “little tyrants.” And in 1914 and again in 1929, The Children’s Bureau’s Infant Care Pamphlet further expanded on Holt’s work and was widely distributed through government agencies with over 30 million copies distributed. Some quotes include:
“Parents should not spoil the baby by picking him up every time he cries. A certain amount of crying is not harmful; it even gives him some exercise.” (page 9)
“If a baby is picked up every time he cries, he will soon develop the habit of crying insistently each time he wakes until the mother does pick him up. This is not a good habit for the baby or the mother. It teaches the baby that crying will give him control over his parents, whereas a baby should learn that such habitual crying will only cause his parents to ignore him.” (page 54)
I mean yikes!! The shame. The guilt. And the pressure put on parents, warning about the dangers of too much mother love. All of a sudden, a mother’s ancestral intuition and wisdom were being drowned out by the privilege and platform of cultural influence. This revolution led to shifts in family structures and living patterns. Today, we still feel the tug of war between the expectations of what others say we should do and what our hearts know to do.
Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness and self-soothing, but at a deeper level, we barely exist as individual organisms. Our brains are built to help us function as a tribe. From early on, most of our energy is devoted to connecting to others.
Being able to feel safe with other people is one of the single most important aspects of mental health. It requires reciprocity - truly being heard and seen by the people around us. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow, we need a visceral feeling of safety.
Our babies are no different. They are attuned to our emotional shifts and make internal adjustments based upon our responses. When we offer secure attachment via responsive parenting, we are actually responding to a hierarchy of needs. It is when the basic needs of safety, hunger, and connection are satiated that our babies can develop future skills of independence, regulation, self-confidence, and empathy.
There is nothing wrong, abnormal, or cosset about a baby who cries for their caregiver. When a baby’s needs are met without distress, they learn that the world is a trustworthy place and that relationships are supportive.
So, can you spoil a baby? Nope.
Can you love her too much? Never.
Keep following your instincts, mama. After all, you are the expert.