Childraising literature today tells you that you cannot spoil a baby. Usually this is in the context of picking your newborn up. Several decades ago, popular psychology said that it was bad to pick a baby up every time it cried… you would create a demanding baby. It was also bad to feed a baby when it cried (you were supposed to use a clock), to coddle it “just because” (you should encourage independence), to co-sleep (cribs only please), and to hold it too much (use a jumper or seat instead). All these types of things were pampering the baby, “spoiling it,” and preparing it to be needy and insecure in life. Of course, this turned out to be false.
So today we are sort of in a reactionary environment where experts have swung to the other extreme. Recognizing the follies of the old style of parenting, they write books, articles, pamphlets, leaflets, and every other thing they can think of as if you yourself might still be clock-feeding your baby. Suffice it to say that I don’t know of anyone who parents their baby the way their grandmothers or great-grandmothers did. Do you? But the experts are still worried.
They have reason to be, in the sense that a newborn in particular is a very, very delicate thing. You should never ignore him or her, especially if you think they’re hungry. But that still doesn’t answer the question: Can you spoil a baby?
Yes and no.
You cannot spoil a newborn by picking him or her up too often. The old experts were right that picking the baby up DOES teach it about being picked up. But that is a good thing! When a baby cries and is picked up, they learn very quickly that they are not alone in this world. That someone is there to meet their needs. They learn that speech is part of communication. They learn that being touched self-soothes. Babies who are neglected in orphanages learn to be quiet instead of cry because they are neglected. They don’t cry for food, they don’t cry to be held, and they therefore suffer sleep, food, language, motor and sensory deprivation. No mom in their right mind wants that for their baby! So don’t let the fear of spoiling make you alienate your baby.
The same goes for holding the baby, feeding it, etc. Especially when you are dealing with the early months, your holding, touching, feeding, singing is not just nice but it is stimulating. They may be getting “spoiled” in some sense (I prefer, “coddled”) but that encourages healthy baby development. Coddling is good teaching.
But, I’m sorry to say that too much pampering CAN spoil a baby in the long run. From the get-go, if your pampering means lax limits, then a baby learns that too. It is only a matter of time before it will rear its ugly head. A three or six month old will probably express their first attitude in an isolated area (usually nursing, diaper station, crib, or high chair will be the first place). But an older baby, usually around the nine month mark, can cross over into the spoiling arena more significantly . Nine month old babies are very smart. And if you keep shuffling them around from station to station, giving them a cookie whenever they cry, holding them all day in a sling, allowing them to crawl all over you in the bed, letting them neglect their naps, etc., they will learn to be spoiled by twelve months. This 9-12 month time is when you want to start (gently) weaning them onto boundaries if you haven’t already. You can move your six month old from walker to jumper to seat to lap if he’s fussing, and that doesn’t spoil him. (Well, it may but he won’t remember it.) But keep that up towards the first year mark and you are in for an exhausting toddler year. They start encoding life.
That doesn’t mean you should become rigid and militant on the 9month birthday =) It just means that babies grow and learn quickly from your teaching, and something more cognitively advanced starts kicking in during the second half of the first year. They go from being innocent to spoiling to suspicion! Even up to the fifteen month age, a child can persist in being pretty innocent to how much you’re holding them, talking to them, giving them treats, letting them get away with things. But somewhere around that fifteen to eighteen month mark, they’re going to go from feeling blessed to feeling entitled. They will expect the great treatment you’re giving them because they will have internalized it as normal, part of the routine. And then they will, understandably, act up when they don’t get it!
So start the naps and food training earlier, before that twelve month mark. Start giving them small activities to do, some supervised and some unsupervised. Start making them get down when they want to walk all over your couch or table. Start denying them the food you’re eating every time they ask for it. Teach them “no-no” for putting their hands in your mouth, touching cords, pulling your hair, or messing up the pages of your book while you’re reading it. Teach them “no” for putting things in their mouth that they shouldn’t, for being feisty during a diaper change, for pulling up your shirt to nurse, for doing bad things in their crib at night or during naps. These are all things that nine to fifteen month old babies can learn, which will mitigate whatever “spoiling” they got before. Also get them on an eat/sleep routine of some sort. Eating and sleeping are notoriously the areas little kids first try to start controlling. Get the good habits going so you can simply enforce them as time goes on.
And remember that it is probably better to spoil your baby at first and then back off, than it is to never indulge them. Babies DO learn from indulging, good things along with the bad. This is often why either firstborns or lastborns are the smartest of the bunch (whoever got the most indulging ;-) Going out of your way to privilege them or not put them out teaches little children that you love them, that you’re there for them, that you pay attention to them, that they are communicating with you, that resources aren’t scarce, etc. It also gives them ample opportunities to develop skills. They learn that there are good things in the world, that there is reason to be motivated to get them, that there are discoveries if they branch out of their boxes. These are all very important things that are worth giving too many cookies or too many privileges even if later, as a toddler, you realize that you have to revoke some.
And really don’t worry about the 0-3 month age at all. Do whatever you want. Try to figure out what you’re doing more by six months, but don’t stress over all the tricks of the trade that EVERY MOM uses to get them to go to sleep, eat the food, stop fussing, etc. Somewhere around nine months, start trying to wean your baby onto the simplest of limits, and work a couple things in by twelve months. Once they are babbling with you and showing more upsetness or frustration at limits (that fifteen to eighteen month mark), then seize the moment and start your child on the path you want them to follow during the two year old year. I promise, promise, promise that you will have an easier time that year, if you do.