THE BLOG
12/07/2012 02:46 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Maybe Grandma Was Right, You Can 'Spoil' a Baby!

It's fun to read antiquated parenting advice and laugh or shake your head disapprovingly at their strange and possibly harmful ideas. Slate just did a piece about some of the more bizarre parenting ideas of the past few centuries, all of which were by the way written by men. It's comical. Bathing the baby in lard? Ridiculous. Introducing solids at only a few days old? Idiotic and dangerous. Not playing with your baby or comforting her when she cries for fear of "spoiling" them? Cruel.

Or is it?

Most of my friends have a story about their mom or grandmother admonishing them for being overly attentive to their infant. "You're going to spoil that baby," they hear. "The baby is manipulating you," they're told when they run to pick up a fussy little crier. Or, if you're an on-demand breast-feeder like me, you might hear my personal favorite: "He's turning you into a human pacifier."

Foolish ancestors, we think. Don't they know that "you can't spoil a baby?"

It's the conventional wisdom of our parenting age, doled out as gospel by every attending nurse in the maternity ward. "They are establishing trust" we're told. You must attend to their every infant whim. We're told that under 3 months is a critical time of development and attachment building. The baby is learning to "trust."

But I have no idea how anyone knows this for certain. Sure, if you neglect a baby entirely it could do irreparable psychological damage. But there's a huge spectrum between attaching junior to your boob 24 hours a day and utter neglect. Does anyone really know what letting a child cry for 15 minutes a day will do to a 2-month-old? Hell, apparently entire generations have let children cry and they didn't all grow up into sociopaths.

Still, "you can't spoil a baby" is a beautiful idea. Your job is simply to love them attend to their needs. It feels natural and right. It's how I've raised my babies.

So, why am I now finding myself questioning the conventional "you can't spoil an infant" wisdom?

Here's why: Letting a baby cry a bit seems to be the magical key to having the holy grail of motherhood -- a good sleeper. And the kicker is, the earlier you do it, the better.

I first came across this idea in the book Bringing up Bebe, in which the author, an American expat in France, learns that the key to getting babies to "do their nights" (sleep through) is not running to them each time they cry. From day one, you do a "pause" and give them an opportunity to "learn to soothe" themselves. Remarkably, nearly all the French moms she meets have babies who sleep through the night before 4-months-old.

This observations is born out not only in her fun "ethnography," but actual science. A randomized trial of women who intended to breastfeed their babies found that those who were given instructions just after birth, which included waiting to attend to their newborn and refraining from nursing during five hours of nighttime when possible, had much sleepier babies than those who did not receive any instructions. In fact, amazingly, at 8 weeks 100% of the moms with instructions had babies sleeping through the night, compared to 23% of the control group.

All of which pisses me off. Why am I just learning this now!?!? Apparently, this kind of gentle sleep training is possible to achieve until about 4 months, after which habits formed are hard to break.

Of course, I'm learning this after the magical window has closed. I have a baby who, at 9 months, wakes every two hours to be comforted by his indulgent mother. Last night, he woke up three times. Three times before I even made it to bed. Then another four times throughout the night. Each time, I nursed him back to sleep.

Could he be spoiled?

Maybe. You might just say I've "denied him the opportunity to learn how to self soothe." Or that he's "become dependent on nursing-to-sleep associations." Our grandmothers just might have told me that I'm spoiling him.

Maybe (my attachment parenting instincts be damned) there was some truth to it after all.