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Can You Spoil an Infant?

‘Don’t pick up the infant. You’ll spoil her.’

A caregiver’s desire not to spoil their infant is a rich topic, one that is of real concern and a source of anxiety. Research has shown that infants who fully trust that they are central to someone are less demanding and better able to manage their emotions (not spoiled).  

Jasdeep was an educator who had not long finished high school. She adored children, especially babies. All her life she had been surrounded by a large extended family who knew they could rely on her to entertain and care for their youngest. She loved playing with them. She loved hearing their gurgles erupt into giggles as she said ‘peek-a-boo’. She watched the rise and fall of their bellies as they slept. When they cried, she picked them up and cuddled them. Jasdeep was proud of how she could soothe her baby cousins. Their cries quietened. Their bodies relaxed.

“She’s such a natural,” her aunties would say.

Jasdeep left school and began working in the nursery room at a centre. She was room assistant to an experienced senior educator, Linda, and was excited to learn from her. Linda was pleased with Jasdeep’s work, and after a couple of weeks, gave her responsibility for a small group. Whenever these babies were in childcare, Jasdeep would be their primary caregiver. Jasdeep was determined to do a good job and got to work learning about each of these babies, one of whom was Hannah.

Hannah was seven months old. Her Mom had not long returned to work after six months of parental leave and Hannah had never been cared for outside of her family home. Because of Covid-19, she had not even met many other adults or children and was finding the transition into childcare difficult. Hannah was crying, refusing her bottles, and not sleeping. Jasdeep thought about what Hannah might need from her to feel safe in this new place.

Jasdeep created a comfortable space in the room with cushions and toys and spent a long time cuddling and singing to Hannah after her mom left. Other babies crawled over to Jasdeep. She smiled at them, sang to them, and encouraged them as they turned around and went to explore other spaces and toys in the room. Jasdeep was relieved to find that Hannah eventually settled enough to take her bottle. Hannah finished feeding and Jasdeep found she would now tolerate sitting next to her on the mat, and even began to get interested in a mirror Jasdeep had placed beside her.

“She’s doing so well today!” Jasdeep said to Linda.

Linda agreed, “Yes, she’s definitely getting there.”

Seeing Hannah was settled, Linda asked Jasdeep if she would help with some nappy changes and to get bottles ready for some of the other babies.

“Sure,” Jasdeep said, then got up and went with another baby to change his nappy. When she returned, she noticed Hannah had stopped exploring the mirror. Hannah was looking toward Jasdeep, her bottom lip trembling.

“I’m right here, Hannah,” Jasdeep said, and made her way toward her.

Linda, who was bottle-feeding a baby nearby, called out to Jasdeep, “Don’t pick her up. You’ll spoil her.”

Jasdeep paused. She wasn’t sure what to do or say. She trusted Linda who had been doing this work a long time, but her instinct was to go straight to Hannah, who was now reaching up at her with her little hands, her whimpers turning to cries.

Jasdeep bent toward Hannah and began rubbing her back. Hannah stretched her arms toward Jasdeep, her face reddening and her cries growing louder.  Jasdeep looked to Linda, “I think she’s getting more upset,” she said.

“Give her a toy,” Linda said. “Try and distract her, then leave her for a bit. If you pick her up all the time she won’t learn to self-soothe. She’ll always expect to be picked up.”

“Oh,” said Jasdeep. She didn’t want to stop Hannah learning to soothe herself! Jasdeep sat beside Hannah and began shaking a rattle. “Look Hannah,” Jasdeep said. “Ooooh, look.”

Hannah turned her head away. Jasdeep shook the rattle. “Can you hear that sound?” she asked.

Hannah’s eyes were scrunched tight. Tears streamed down her face. Cries spilled, shrill, from Hannah’s wide-open mouth. Jasdeep wanted so badly to pick Hannah up. Glancing at Linda, Jasdeep said, ‘I’ll just pick her up for a moment and when she’s calm enough, I’ll give her a toy.”

Linda shrugged her shoulders. ‘It’s up to you,’ she said, ‘but she’s going to have to learn sooner or later.’

Jasdeep went with her gut. She brought Hannah in for a big cuddle. She did not want to dismiss what Linda was telling her, but something did not feel right about letting Hannah continue to cry when she was right there, able to offer her comfort. “Shhh’,” Jasdeep soothed, rubbing Hannah’s back.

Hannah’s cries quietened. Her little balled fist came up to her face, rubbing her eyes and ears.

“I’ll try to put her to bed,” said Jasdeep. Gently, Jasdeep lay Hannah in her cot, and sitting with her, she continued rubbing her back and repeating “Shhhh, shhhhh.” Eventually, Hannah’s eyes closed, and her breathing slowed. Jasdeep stepped away from the cot and grinned at Linda. “I did it,” she whispered, “She’s sleeping. Her Mom is going to be so relieved.”

Jasdeep thought Linda seemed annoyed. She wouldn’t look directly at Jasdeep, though she said, “Yes. Good. Write it in the sleep logbook.”

At home that night, Jasdeep lay awake thinking about Hannah and what Linda had said. Maybe I am spoiling her, she thought. Maybe I am preventing her from developing her independence and ability to self-soothe. Linda had worked in childcare for a very long time, and Jasdeep thought, I’m sure she knows more than I do about this. But… Jasdeep couldn’t help thinking, coming to childcare is such a huge change in Hannah’s life. She is used to being with her mother, and probably feels really sad and confused sometimes, wondering where her mother has gone, and not knowing why everything looks and sounds and feels different. Surely, it’s natural for her to want to be picked up and cuddled. She’s only a baby after all.

Jasdeep recalled her auntie’s voice when a woman at the supermarket once commented that her baby would be spoiled if she picked her up when she was crying instead of leaving her strapped in the trolley. “Babies are not fruit! They do not rot if you show them affection.”

The next day Jasdeep and Linda were meeting with a Circle of Security Classroom coach who was facilitating the COSP Classroom Professional Learning Series. The coach was scheduled to work with them throughout the year to embed the Circle of Security Classroom Approach across the centre. This week’s topic was The Circle with Infants. “Great,” Jasdeep thought. “This will be a good opportunity to ask some questions about picking babies up. How much is too much? Was it better to let babies ‘cry it out’ so they could be independent and wouldn’t rely on an adult picking them up all the time to soothe?” Linda and Hannah attended the COS group together.

The next morning, Jasdeep asked Linda what she thought about the discussions they had had with their COS Classroom coach. “I have to admit,” said Linda, “That was a hard conversation for me. It’s different to how I have done things for so long…but I can see that what she was saying makes sense – that babies need delight and affection and comfort and help with all their intense feelings to learn for themselves how to feel okay. I’m still a little sceptical – I worry that responding to babies every time they cry will stop them becoming independent… especially here where we need to look after so many at once … but I can see it working with you and Hannah. When Hannah is not okay you go straight to her. You stay with her. She settles so much faster.”

“I can see that too,” said Jasdeep. “I think when I leave her to cry, or try to distract her, she gets more upset.”

“I was always taught that babies needed to be left to cry it out so that they can learn to self-soothe,” Linda shared. “I learnt that when babies want attention, you shouldn’t always give it or they’ll want it all the time. So, I thought, they’ll be spoilt if I always cuddle them. You know what though? Hearing that the research doesn’t show that…that’s a shock for me. I thought I was giving them tough love, I guess, and that’s what they needed.”

Later in the day, Jasdeep notice Linda seemed very quiet. “Are you okay Linda?” Jasdeep asked.

“Honestly? I felt like I have been doing something wrong all these years. All these babies I’ve left crying, worried I would spoil them…” Linda’s voice drifted off.

Jasdeep sat with Linda. “I get it,” she said, “I always worry about how many needs I might be missing.” A baby began to whimper nearby. “Remember what the COS Coach said at the very beginning though?”

“What’s that?” said Linda, sitting down next to the little one and pulling him onto her lap.

Jasdeep grinned. “It’s never too late!”