Result of Infant Stress
October 7, 2016
October 7, 2016

To Respond or Not: “Spoiling” Myths

The stress of isolation and infrequent feeding can cause infants to cry a great deal, which in turn causes more physical and emotional stress. Infants who have succumbed to the idea that crying for desired feeding and attention is futile suffer possibly even more stress, having no outlet for their ongoing frustrations. As seen in the last two chapters, the consequences of regular stress for an infant are far-reaching. Some parents believe that little they do before the age of 3 to 5 matters, since there are no memories before this time. Quite the contrary, early brain organization is a very powerful memory. While the specifics may be lost, unconscious memories are developed neurologically and biochemically from birth. Just as the tiny body needs to grow,?the brain needs to discover what kind of environment it exists in, so it can?develop accordingly.

Yet, many advisors suggest that delaying or avoiding response to infants and allowing them to cry over easily resolvable stresses is in their best interest. Some suggest that “giving in” to their “controlling demands” will cause them to become more demanding. But the extensive amount of research performed on this subject has shown that about half the children whose needs were neglected actually became more demanding, fussier infants. The other half became withdrawn, learning to suppress their emotions and not trust-mg their parents to be there for them, often making no attempts to engage their mothers at all. Some of the latter are what many call “good babies.” Desmond Morris refers to these kinds of infants as those who have been truly “spoiled,” in the sense of spoiled fruit. Their potential is being wasted.

Infants’ reactions to unresponsive caregivers is like that of patients in a busy hospital ward: When patients’ call button requests are not answered for very long periods of time, nurses know well that some patients will begin to signal over and over, eventually crying out frequently for assistance. Others simply stop trying, resolving to bear their pain, thirst, or other discomfort until help arrives on its own. For a telling comparison, let’s translate today’s prevalent baby care advice into marital advice: From the very start, withhold affection from your mate or he may come to expect it, or even worse, ask for it. Ignore his wishes for comfort so he does not become spoiled. Do not validate his feelings, and refuse to console him when he is sad or lonely so he will not bother you with those feelings. Forbid him to eat unless your watch says it’s time for him to eat…Needless to say, strong marital bonds could not be developed this way. Nor would you care for your helpless bedridden mother In this fashion.


Twentieth-century Western culture has stressed independence. Many experts assert that if an infant doesn’t learn to be independent quickly, it never will learn. Yet, attachment studies have shown that infants who receive strong responses from caregivers request holding less often and appear to enjoy holding more. Attached children also become more responsive to parental requests, a kind of “dependence” that is preferable. Lozoff studied a sample of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures around the world to observe the relationship between the kind of infant care provided and the outcome in the children. She found that the mothers were the chief nurturers of infants, providing lots of body contact throughout the day and night,?prolonged breastfeeding, and quick, affectionate response to crying. The children in these cultures achieved independence by 2 to 4 years of age, spending more than half their days away from their mothers. Apparently, infants are able to develop confidence in themselves and their environment when they are able to obtain what they need through their communication attempts. By contrast, delayed response creates a sense of helplessness.

One common bit of advice has been to respond to a baby only when she is being “good.” That is, when she is not expressing fear or sadness, or any desire for food or help. Psychologists have found that this kind of behavioral conditioning is very effective for creating individuals who hold their feelings in and can’t ask for what they need. These same individuals possibly also spend too much of their time trying to please others (this was termed “codependency” for some time, but the term has gone out of vogue). This kind of behavior can lead to inappropriate acting out in children and adolescents, and ulcers and other health conditions in adulthood. Similarly, a child who receives affectionate responsiveness only when he is ill may become skilled at developing illness and may practice this skill throughout life, even if it stops serving the initial purpose. Babies fed on schedules are left frustrated by their hunger between feedings, and as a result, they experience feeding as a way to relieve frustration. This could possibly be linked to eating disorders later on.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are predominantly Western society disorders, although they are now penetrating sectors of other countries where Western child care practices have become popular.” In France, responsiveness and other forms of affection are very high. Some point out that even though the French may worry about their appearance as much as Americans do, their eating disorder rates are much lower than ours, as are other psychological disorders.” A Minnesota survey of 30,000 adolescents found that eating disorders are related to “low family connectedness,” as well as other insecure attachment signs.”

Nighttime is important too, comprising nearly half of an infant’s life. Babies don’t turn off at night, no matter how much we sometimes wish they would. They continue to have hunger, to grow, and to consolidate brain pathways. Their minds, feelings, and needs continue, and they continue to learn during their nighttime experiences, as much as at any other time. For babies, just as with mates, nighttime is a valuable time for catching up on the warmth and comfort of togetherness?this reassurance is available each time baby stirs. And when baby is close, little effort to wake up is required?on the parents’ part for providing protection, comfort, feeding, and support throughout the night.

Text copyright ? THE BABY BOND by Dr. Linda Folden Palmer

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