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Can I spoil my baby ?
By Pinky McKay

As the parent of a crying baby, you will be sure to hear (and be pressured to believe) well-meant rationalisations such as 'Crying won't hurt her' or 'You don't want to spoil her'. Sometimes it may also be implied that you can 'teach' your baby to behave conveniently (that is, to cry less and sleep more) if only you are persistent enough. This approach is often couched in the language of the power struggle ('controlled crying, 'controlled comforting', 'parent-directed feeding') and soon it becomes all too easy to see your baby's cries as manipulation rather than communication.

'It's just so frustrating not knowing what to do when your baby cries and you know he is fed, clean and the only factor (I think) is tiredness. Well intentioned people-just this morning on the phone-can hear him crying in the background, and when you say, I was cuddling him, the reply comes, "Well, you've created a rod for your own back now!"

'Where does the guilt come from, as I watch his tears and screams subside as a quick cuddle in my arms does the trick? Should I not be feeling satisfied that I have the magic touch?" - Helen, mother of a three-month-old

There is no sense at all in entering a power struggle with your baby over natural functions such as sleeping and eating. By not responding to her signals, the only things that are being 'spoilt' are your relationship with your baby and your own self-confidence. As your baby fails to fit the regime you are trying to impose, you feel more and more inadequate (and possibly angry). And, as you struggle to teach your baby that you are in control, she may also learn, perhaps the saddest lesson of all: that she is helpless, that she has no power to communicate-so what is the use of trying?

Your baby's cry has been designed for her survival and you are programmed to react. A mother's body chemistry changes when her baby cries: the blood flow to her breasts doubles and she has a hormone-induced urge to respond. When you attend to your baby promptly, you not only get better at 'reading' her crying language but come to learn her pre-cry signals: wriggling, anxious facial expressions, little grimaces, flailing arms, 'rooting' at the breast (when you touch her cheek, she turns her head to that side in an attempt to grasp a nipple), changes in breathing, and little noises that say 'I am working up to a cry'. You will be able to see when she is bored, frightened, hungry, tired or overwhelmed, and as you respond accordingly you will be able to avert full-blown crying.

In the early months, your baby's cry is automatic. If you leave her to cry, she is likely to become even more upset as her crying picks up momentum. And after a little while she won't even know why she was crying in the first place-she will just be crying because she can't stop, and so will be much harder to settle. If you are breastfeeding, it is particularly important to respond quickly to hunger cues: a baby who is left to work up to a full-blown cry will have a more disorganised suck and may have difficulty latching on correctly, or she may only suck for a short time before she falls asleep with exhaustion

Apart from draining your own precious energy, imposing strict feeding and sleep regimes have been linked to mothers' milk supplies dwindling and to a 'failure to thrive' in infants. It may also have longer-term consequences for mental health: there is emerging evidence that distress at being left to cry (abandonment) changes the physiology of the brain and may predispose children to stress disorders such as panic, anxiety and depression later in life.

Paediatrician William Sears has commented that, "babies who are "trained" not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant or "good" babies. Yet, these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down the expression of their needs. They become children who don't speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest need adults."

So, be assured that when your little one switches from tears to grins the moment you pick her up, this is not an indicator that she is a clever little schemer with a parent (you!) wrapped around her proverbial little finger, but rather a demonstration of her growing trust in you. And your responsiveness could even make your baby smarter: neuroscientists and clinicians have documented that loving interactions which are sensitive to a child's needs influence the way the brain grows and can increase the number of connections between nerve cells; and a recent US study found that when mothers responded appropriately to their babies' cries during the first month, these children had higher language and cognitive scores at eighteen months.

In the early months your baby simply isn't capable of deciding which kind of cry will get attention. She can't be 'spoilt' and she can't be 'taught' to wait for her needs to be met. In fact, research shows that babies who are attended to promptly during the first six months, cry and whinge less in the next six months and even later-responding now could be cheap insurance against a demanding toddler!

This extract has been reprinted with permission from '100 Ways to Calm the Crying', by Pinky McKay.

Pinky is a Melbourne based writer and author specialising in Health, education and family issues. A Former nurse, Pinky is a mother of four grown up 'kids' and a bonus baby - the baby you have when your other kids can run their own baths, tie their own shoelaces - and even drive their own cars!

Pinky is also the author of 'Parenting By Heart'.
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