When an infant is crying, parents often wonder whether to soothe the baby or let the baby soothe itself. If they respond to every sob, does the baby stop crying? Doesn’t that spoil the baby?
As a professor of child development and family studies, I hear these questions often. The notion of pampering a baby remains widespread in the United States, although there is evidence that infants whose parents are responsive to their needs are better able to soothe themselves later in life.
Many of the students I teach say their parents have resisted quieting their screams and they have done well. Of course, there are individual differences in early childhood development. There is no panacea for parents.
However, development scientists have been studying emotion regulation in children and the relationship between caregiver and child for decades. There is an answer to the frequently asked question whether it is better to comfort a crying baby or to let him learn to calm down. let me explain…
Emotion regulation in infancy
Infants are born with a remarkable range of abilities. In fact, research shows that babies seem to ‘know’ a lot more about the world we live and grow up in than previously thought. For example, infants have an understanding of numbers, object permanence, and even morality.
However, the skills of infants are still immature. They rely on their handlers to hone these skills, much like other young mammals.
And one thing newborns can’t do is regulate their own distress—whether that distress is from cold, hunger, pain, or some other ailment. This ability does not develop until around 4 months of age. So infants need the help of their parents to calm down.
Because crying is one of the first ways infants communicate their needs to their caregivers and others, having caregivers respond to the infant’s cries is essential to the infant-parent bond.
In addition, research shows that infant cries create an apparent psychological need in others to relieve their distress. As such, infant cries serve a fundamental purpose for both the infant and the caregiver.
Crucially, infants also learn what it feels like to calm down through the responsiveness of their caregivers. This feeling is similar to the inner changes that adults and older children feel as they regulate their emotions—that is, their heartbeat slows and they feel good. This repeated experience gives infants new life skills: Longitudinal studies show that infants whose caregivers respond to their stress are better able to regulate emotions and behavior as they get older.
For babies, self-soothing likely means sucking on a pacifier or a fist. Later in life, these basic infant calming skills, learned in response to parental care, develop into more adult stress-regulating habits, such as counting to 10 or taking deep breaths.
Bond between caregiver and child
Parental responsiveness to infant cries also affects the infant-caregiver relationship. Caregivers give infants initial information about the predictability of the social world, the trustworthiness of others and their own self-esteem.
This lays the foundation for the quality of the lifelong relationship between the caregiver and the child. When infants are comforted in times of need, they learn that their caregiver is trustworthy and dependable. They also learn that they are worthy of nurturing, loving relationships, which will have a positive impact on their future relationships.
Nurse responsiveness is also linked to a cascade of well-documented outcomes in infants, children, and adolescents, including cognitive functioning, language development, self-esteem, and future sensitivity to infant needs.
The lack of responsiveness by the caregiver, on the other hand, is associated with later behavioral difficulties and developmental challenges. Studies show that neglected children have trouble connecting with their peers and coping with rejection.
Although a recent study reported that these negative effects may not occur at night — when parents make babies “cry” to teach them to sleep — the broadest consensus in the literature is that babies shouldn’t sleep until 4 months of age left to cry . I recommend no earlier than 6 months due to the formation of the attachment bond and strongly encourage caregivers to consider their child’s individual abilities. In fact, some children are better at self-regulation than others. Additionally, there are alternative ways to help babies self-soothe at night, including responding to infant distress.
Fortunately, caregivers are biologically primed to care for their infants. Research in animals and humans shows that there are hormones that drive nurturing.
Go spoil the baby
My best advice, based on the scientific literature, is that parents should respond promptly and consistently to infant crying up until at least 6 months of age.
But be pragmatic.
Caregivers know the peculiarities of their infants: some are more relaxed, others more excited. Likewise, culture drives the goals that caregivers set for themselves and their children. Therefore, responsiveness and adaptable caregiver-child relationships will look different for different families. Parents should act accordingly and adapt their responsiveness to their child’s needs and cultural context.
However you look at it, responding to an infant’s every cry does not mean “spoiling” the baby. Instead, soothing a crying infant gives the baby the tools to use to soothe itself in the future.
Amy Root is a**Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at West Virginia University**.
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