Babies and Overindulgence

It’s very difficult for me to write about topics that I think of as obvious or simply common sense. Once I’ve researched something to death and the conclusion I’ve reached has become obvious to me, it’s easy for me to forget that others probably don’t see the issue in the same way that I do. I think that’s true for most people, actually.

Occasionally this fact is really brought home to me by a friend or acquaintance who says something that I didn’t realize people still believed, and the obvious-to-me thing that I want to write about tonight is babies. Newborn babies in particular, but really all babies at least up through 12 months of age.

I was reminded this evening of a common phrase said to and about new mothers who actually hold their babies and nurse on demand, “You’re spoiling that baby!” or “She’s going to spoil that baby!” This is usually uttered by a well-meaning older relative or friend who was warned against spoiling her own baby when she was a new mother.

After doing extensive research into the way other cultures raise their children and into the biology of how babies develop once outside the mother’s womb, I came to the obvious-to-me conclusion that babies cannot be spoiled or overindulged. I personally prefer the term overindulged because it is a more accurate representation of what people actually mean when they say a child is “spoiled.”

So, why do I believe that a baby cannot be overindulged? First of all, during at least the first year, a baby’s needs and wants are the same thing. Babies are not manipulative – they are not complex enough to manipulate their parents or to even understand what that would involve. Babies simply know that they are hungry, lonely, wet, tired, or uncomfortable and they cry until someone responds or until they give up on someone responding.

Once they get what they need, babies are generally content until they need something else so it’s mainly a question of figuring out what they need and ensuring that they get it for as long as necessary. Some babies need to be held constantly, others seem to need to nurse constantly, and there’s nothing wrong with holding or nursing a baby anytime they need it. It is not overindulgence because if they need it, they want it and vice versa.

Wants and needs become gradually more divergent as a baby gets older, but it’s very clear to me that babies were created to have their needs met during the first year and that they cannot be overindulged during that time – perhaps longer. Studies have even shown that babies who are responded to more quickly in infancy are less whiny and clingy as toddlers and preschoolers. Perhaps they’ve fulfilled their need for being close to their parents and are better able to move on. This is explained fairly well with Erickson’s first of eight stages of personality: trust versus mistrust, and has certainly been borne out in my personal experience with my two daughters so far.

My older daughter was held all the time when she was a baby until she began to crawl everywhere at 6 months and to walk full-time at 9 months! She was nursed on demand until she was a bit over a year old. She has gradually become more and more independent and is now almost 4 years old, an age where I could certainly overindulge her if I continued to treat her as a 4 month old since her wants and needs are often very different now. Still, treating her as I did when she was tiny, feeding and holding her on demand, did not cause her to be overly dependent on me as a preschooler and it certainly didn’t hinder her gross motor skills at all!

My younger daughter is basically following in her older sister’s footsteps. We no longer hold her all the time – she’s been walking for well over a year now – and many times when she asks to nurse I’ll offer her something else like a cup of water or milk and she’ll take it instead. Generally asking to nurse for her means that she’s hungry or thirsty and I really don’t have any milk right now since I’m pregnant so it’s important to for me to fulfill her actual need as well as to help her realize that she needs to eat or drink when she feels hungry or thirsty. If she wants to nurse because she’s hurt or tired then I don’t refuse or redirect her because that’s a need to nurse while cuddling and not a need to eat or hydrate.

I haven’t personally received any comments about “spoiling” my children in the past, but now that I’m living in a different part of the country, as well as living closer to my extended family, I’m expecting to hear that phrase at least some after this new baby is born. While I appreciate the concern that I know lies behind the statement, I am fully confident that I have done the right thing in the past with my babies and that I will be doing the right thing with this baby when I hold or wear him/her as much as possible, co-sleep, and breastfeed on demand.

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