Even Science Agrees, You Literally Can't Spoil A Baby

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
spoil a baby
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“Don’t you ever put that baby down?”

“Aren’t you going to spoil him?”

“Start teaching him to self-soothe now, before it’s too late.”

Yup, these were things actually said to me when my babies were newborns. Nope, not even when they were a few months old. When they were itty-bitty babies fresh out of the womb, I had strangers, family members — and yes, even doctors — question whether I was going to spoil my babies by holding them all the time.

Looking back, I know how absurd these statements were. My boys are 4 and 9 now, and whiz by me so fast I have to beg them to sit down and cuddle in my lap like they did all those years ago. At the time, though, I didn’t know for sure that my babies would be totally independent eventually, so the critique definitely got under my skin.

The thing is, holding my babies almost 24 hours a day like I did in those months was not exactly a choice. It was a necessity. If I put my babies down, they wailed their little heads off.

Maybe I could have let them do that, and maybe they would have learned to soothe themselves somehow, but every instinct in my body told me that if my baby was crying, he needed to be picked up. And I went with those instincts, despite the fact that I sometimes received dirty looks and judgment.

Turns out, my instincts were absolutely correct. Babies do need to be held whenever they fuss — and not just because they’re sweet and cuddly and their hair smells like heaven. It turns out there’s a ton of research out there to back up the claim that you literally cannot spoil a baby. In fact, holding babies is actually vital for their health and development.

A study recently came out in Pediatrics that looked at the effects of skin-to-skin contact on premature infants. It took the long view, looking not just at the immediate effects of holding preemies against your skin in their early weeks, but also how it affected these babies 20 years down the road.

The preemies who experienced skin-to-skin had higher IQs, significantly larger areas of gray matter in the brain, and even earned higher wages at their jobs than those who did not experience skin-to-skin care. The skin-to-skin cohort also showed less propensity toward hyperactivity and aggression in school and were less likely to experience school absences.

Of course, this study looked specifically at premature babies, who are especially vulnerable and in need of TLC. But studies on full-terms babies have similar findings. This 2012 study from the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group’s Trials Register showed that full-term babies who experienced skin-to-skin care in their early days had better cardio-respiratory stability, higher breastfeeding rates, and decreased crying.

And it’s not just those moments right after they’re born. The simple act of holding your baby has significant positive effects for many weeks after birth. An older, but equally relevant study from Pediatrics shows that snuggling babies has a huge impact on their contentment and even their ability to feed frequently. Not only that, carrying your baby for a significant portion of the day reduces the fussiness and colicky symptoms that peak at 6 weeks old (raise your hand if you had a colicky baby and would have done anything to get that crying to end!).

Want more? Holding your baby during painful medical procedures like vaccinations and heel pricks significantly reduces your baby’s experience of pain, according to a significant body of research on the subject. Skin-to-skin also has substantial effects on a baby’s ability to breastfeed well, and regardless of feeding method, holding babies absolutely helps parents bond and form deep and lasting attachments.

If you’re a bit of a science geek and want to dive even deeper, check out this amazing article, originally published in the journal Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews, by Raylene Phillips, MD, and lactation consultant. Dr. Phillips explains that infant brains are in a critical period of development in those first few months and aren’t actually full formed yet, so the kind of care babies experience then is crucial in terms of optimal brain development.

“[T]he amygdala is in a critical period of maturation in the first 2 months after birth,” writes Dr. Phillips. “The amygdala is located deep in the center of the brain and is part of the limbic system involved in emotional learning, memory modulation, and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Skin-to-skin contact activates the amygdala via the prefronto-orbital pathway and thus contributes to the maturation of this vital brain structure.”

Whew! That was a whole lot, right? And I could go on and on with this stuff, too, because it turns out there is basically a treasure trove of scientifically backed-up data out there to prove that there is absolutely no way you can spoil a baby. Zero. Zilch.

In fact, almost all of the research points to the fact that not holding your baby enough could have negative ramifications in terms of health and development.

I almost wish I could go back in time and present all this data to the people who criticized me for keeping my babies in my arms or strapped to me in a baby carrier 24/7. But in all honesty, I’m pretty sure I was like most new moms out there — too exhausted and brain-fried to do much arguing or researching.

Thankfully, most moms have strong enough instincts and don’t need research to tell them that their baby belongs in their arms, and that the idea of spoiling a baby is a total load of bullshit. But if you need any scientific data to prove this, trust me, it’s out there — with more of it coming out all the time.

Or you could always just give any naysayers your best “resting bitchface,” grab your baby and make a run for it. That works just fine too.

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