I had taken a family – mum dad and baby – to an antenatal class to demonstrate baby massage to the pregnant parents. As this gorgeous little three month old chuckled with glee, holding out her tiny leg for a massage, one of the expectant fathers asked, “does this mean she will be ‘high maintenance’ later on?”
Although I jokingly deflected his question, I realized a few comments later that there was already a fear among the group about creating bad habits and ‘spoiling’ babies by giving them too much attention. Sadly, I also meet many new parents who feel they need to justify their actions or seek approval because their babies need help to settle or love to be held lots. For many parents, it seems that this fear of ‘bad habits’ is clouding the joy of being with their babies.
There is a lot of pressure to have a ‘good baby’ – a baby who will self settle and sleep for hours or at least a baby who doesn’t demand attention. The truth is, there is no such person as a ‘good’ baby: babies are just like the rest of us with legitimate emotional needs as well as the more obvious physical needs to be clean and fed. Some little people are more sensitive and some are more social than others. Also, just like us, some days they need extra cuddles (as do their mothers on these high need days!).
When we consider the baby’s perspective and how profound the sensory changes are from womb to room, is it any wonder that a tiny helpless being with limited communication and cognitive skills needs to be held close against a comforting heartbeat and rocked to feel secure and calm? To expect anything less of a newborn would be as unreasonable as expecting a little baby to dress or feed herself – learning to settle without cuddles is a developmental process that can’t be hurried without a lot of angst for both baby and mum, in many cases.
The good news is that your loving attention can make your baby smarter: neuroscientists and clinicians have documented that loving interactions that are sensitive to a child’s needs influence the way the brain grows and can increase the number of connections between nerve cells. Other research shows that rather than becoming ‘high maintenance’, babies whose needs are responded to in the first six months of life are less demanding toddlers. Erik Erikson, a classic researcher of child development, labels the first year of an infant’s life “Trust vs. Mistrust,” and describes it as the development of the ego. This means that if the baby’s needs are met, he feels worthy and develops into a confident, independent person.
So, rather than letting guilt or concern that you may be creating ‘bad habits’ or extra work in the long run by giving your baby ‘too much’ attention, why not relax and enjoy every sweet cuddle and coo. There will be plenty of time later on to change any habit ‘gradually with love’ and, whether you want to stop rocking your baby to sleep or encourage him to amuse himself on the floor, transitions will be easier when your child is developmentally ready. Meanwhile, ignore the critics who caution that you will spoil your little one as you consider the words of American paediatric nurse specialist Kittie Frantz who advises, “you’re not managing an inconvenience, you’re raising a human being.”
Pinky’s books Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Toddler Tactics encourage gentle parenting – see these at her website www.pinkymckay.com.au