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Know When to Hold 'Em

Know When To Hold 'Em

WebMD Feature

Ask my 15-year-old if she knows any spoiled kids, and she'll rattle off a slew of examples (with a hint of envy): one friend whose parents gave her a $2,000 shopping spree, another who got a new car at 16 ... you get the picture. But if you're the parent of a newborn, don't sweat it, at least not yet. You can't spoil a baby.

Contrary to popular myth, it's impossible for parents to hold or respond to a baby too much, child development experts say. Infants need constant attention to give them the foundation to grow emotionally, physically and intellectually.

"A challenge of the newborn is getting to know that the world is somehow reliable and trustworthy, that his or her basic needs will be met," says J. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Children's Hospital in Boston and a child psychologist.

Responding to baby's cues "isn't a matter of spoiling," he says. "It's a matter of meeting the child's needs."

Myth No. 1: Let Her Cry a Little

When your baby cries -- and the typical infant will cry about three hours a day in the first three months, more if she has colic -- it isn't because she's trying to manipulate you. She hasn't learned how to do that yet. She's crying because she's hungry, tired, lonely or plain uncomfortable, and that's her only way of letting you know.

"A spoiled child is one that's manipulative, but babies don't learn until they're about 9 months that they can cry to get you to do something for them," says Dr. Barbara Howard, assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.

Ten Tear-Taming Techniques

After checking to make sure your baby isn't hungry, in need of a new diaper or physically ill, try these calming strategies:

  • Rock him in a rocking chair or hold him and sway from side to side.
  • Gently stroke her head or pat her back or chest.
  • Swaddle him in a receiving blanket.
  • Sing or talk to her in a soothing voice.
  • Play soft music.
  • Walk him in your arms, a stroller or a carriage.
  • Take her -- and yourself -- for a nice, easy car ride.
  • Put him next to a rhythmic noise or vibration, like a washing machine or fan.
  • Burp her to relieve any trapped gas bubbles.
  • Give him a warm bath (not all babies like this).

By paying attention to a baby's cries, parents aren't just responding to the child's physical needs. "Babies learn a sense of security, comfort, nurturing and warmth," which in turn gives them the confidence to explore and learn, says Dr. Deborah Campbell, director of neonatology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

In fact, studies show that babies who develop that sense of security from their caregivers in the first year will be more independent, self-confident and happier later.

"Babies can sense even in those first few months the unavailable parent," says Nugent, a father of two, ages 18 and 21, and a professor in childhood and family studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Infants can become disconnected and develop "a real sadness, like 'somehow nothing seems to be working for me.'"

On the other hand, you won't cause your baby irreparable harm if you let him cry on occasion, either.

"In the first year, always do what you can, but especially if you feel like you're going to lose it and throw them out the window ... you should definitely put them down and walk out of the room," cautions Dr. Howard. "People need to know it's normal to feel that way ... it's just that you run out of steam."

When a child passes the 9-month mark and begins learning the art of persuasion, parents can become more selective in responding to cries, says Dr. Howard, who has two children, 5 and 8, and two grown stepchildren.

"The most important thing is not to give in because of an emotional outburst," she says. "How many times does it take until the child figures out that the way to get a cookie is to throw a tantrum? About one. They learn really fast."

Myth No. 2: You're Holding Him Too Much

With a technique called kangaroo care, neonatologists have found that holding a preterm baby closely as much as possible offers many benefits. Not only does the parent's body temperature keep baby warm, but the closeness reduces crying, helps regulate breathing and heart rate, improves weight gain and results in a better rate of growth.

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