Long Answer: You can never hold your baby TOO much. You will not spoil your baby by attending to their needs. Your baby is not manipulating you by crying; it is their only way to communicate.
My partner and I tried for 3 years before we finally conceived my daughter. For those three years (and many before that), I dreamed of the day I could finally hold a baby in my arms. Now, I will be the first to admit most days do not look nearly as peaceful as those dreams but I still count my blessings every time she rests her head on my shoulder.
Shortly after my daughter was born, I began receiving advice (I am sure well intentioned) on how I should be raising her. Where she should sleep, what she should eat, how she should play. I was told my life would be easier if I traded my breasts for a pacifier, or my sling for a crib. I was warned that running to her and scooping her up after every whimper would create a dependent child who would never learn to play or sleep on her own.
I wanted to hold her as much as possible, but I started to doubt myself. What if I was creating a spoiled, dependent baby who wouldn’t sleep in a big girl bed until her teen years? I needed to know that what I was doing was right, so I did what any good mother would do……Research! I scoured over library books, research papers, websites and Facebook pages, all while my baby nursed or bounced in my sling. Here is what I found:
1. When you attend to the cry of your baby, the less they will cry.
That’s right, turns out that when a mother (parent, primary caregiver) attends to her baby’s needs, it creates more security in their relationship and they trust that their needs will be met. One study (Hunzinger & Barr 1986) showed that children who had more responsive parents were more sociable, could easily sooth themselves and cried less (50% less).
2. Holding your baby helps them grow and develop.
Nurturing touch stimulates growth. Promoting hormones improves intellectual and mother development and regulates babies’ temperature, heart rate and sleep/wake patterns. Babies who receive nurturing touch gain weight faster and have better intellectual and motor development. (website: Attachment Parenting International)
3. Attending to your child’s needs (often by holding) helps them regulate emotions.
Children who are able to regulate their emotions are more social, have fewer behavioural problems and have more control over their behaviour. How did they get that way? They learned it from their parents. When a parent consistently holds their baby and responds to their cries, the baby creates a secure attachment to that parent. This becomes their emotional regulation system; the parents model emotional regulation strategies and soon the child is able to regulate their emotions independently.
4. Attachment and responsiveness helps baby’s regulate stress.
In one study (Nichmail et al.,1996) toddlers were placed in a situation designed to cause stress or fear. The toddlers who had a securely attached relationship with their parents showed no elevations in the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, another study on baby rats showed that the babies who were groomed and licked more grew up to respond better (less cortisol) to stressful situations. Cool right?
5. Babies will explore more, and with more confidence, knowing your arms are there for them if needed.
When they are ready (and trust me, that time does come) to crawl, walk, run and explore, children who have had their needs met in the past have formed a “secure base” from which to explore. This popular theory by Ainsworth states that children will readily explore a new environment when their mother or primary caregiver is present. If the mother or caregiver moves away, the child’s exploration will slow and their behaviour may change. Upon the return of their caregiver, they may signal to be held for some time until they feel confident enough that their secure base is there for them to explore.
6. Holding your baby helps them to become MORE independent.
That’s right, and a number of studies have found this to be true. One study showed that children who slept with their parents in infancy were reported to be more self reliant and show greater social independence at pre-school age (Keller & Goldberg, 2004). In another related study (Sroufe, Fox, & Pancake 1983), children who had been securely attached as infants were better able to work out problems on their own and sought teacher attention in a more appropriate/positive way than their peers.
There is a growing stack of information out there for parents who are hoping that their instincts to hold their child as much as possible is a good thing for them and their baby. Just this year, two popular books were published on the topic, with plenty of scientific evidence to back up their claims. Check out ‘Beyond the Sling’ by Mayim Bialik and ‘Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain’ by Sue Gerhardt. And don’t forget the staple book on the topic, the tried and tested ‘The Baby Book’ by Dr. Sears.
In the end, it is important for families to do exactly what is right for them, and to follow (and if needed, research) their instincts. After reading as much as I possibly could, I can happily say I truly believe I am doing what is right for me and my family. Yes, it is tough. Yes, I am tired sometimes and yes my house is a mess but I didn’t become a parent to get more sleep and have a cleaner house. I know that in time, my child will naturally become more independent. I can already see it happening now that she has started to walk. One day she may even look at me and say ‘Please mom, don’t hug me, that’s embarrassing!’, and on that day, the day she decides she no longer wants to be held, I can look back on all the hours I spent holding her with no regrets.
This blog was originally posted in 2012 and time seems to have either flown by or crawled along, depending on the day you ask me. I remember being in this state of mind, tired and frustrated with being offered so much advice but so little support!
I’m glad I kept listening to my gut though, I’m not going to say it was easy because it wasn’t, but no style of parenting is easy. Last week I launched my 4 year old into her first year of school, and this young lady (who everyone thought would be a clingy, dependant, monster) marched on into her classroom without even looking back. I’m not going to tell you that I hid behind a tree and for a few hours before I walked away because that would be silly!
Natasha Marchand is a birth doula, hypnobirthing instructor, and mother of the amazing 4 year old Sadie K. She is also co-owner of bebo mia and Baby & Me Fitness.
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