Aug 10 , 2020
Many new parents are given conflicting advice. The baby should sleep on their stomach… wait no, the back or… the side? The baby should sleep with the mother, no, in their own crib, no, in their own room. Sometimes the advice comes from a trusted place, like a doctor or a family member. Most of the time it’s unsolicited from well-meaning people, who often chirp things like, “Enjoy this age while it lasts!” “Catch up on sleep when the baby sleeps,” and the cherry on top, “Stop holding the baby so much — you’re going to spoil them.”
Parents struggle when it comes to comforting a crying baby. Their instinct is to rush over and hold their child, but with advice like, “don’t spoil him,” they might hesitate the next time they hear the cry.
The good news is there is no reason to hesitate when cuddling with your crying baby. Here’s the truth: it’s impossible to spoil them.
The Purpose of a Baby’s Cry
Notre Dame psychologist Darcia Narvaez led a research team that found children become healthier and happier adults when they have parents who treated them with affection, sensitivity, and playfulness since birth.
“Sometimes, we have parents that say, you are going to spoil the baby if you pick them up when they are feeling distressed. No, you can’t spoil a baby,” said Professor Narvaez.
There are many possible reasons to explain why a baby is crying and Professor Narvaez reassures parents that it’s never wrong for wanting to give the child comfort.
“Part of it is following your instincts because we as parents want to hold our children,” she says. “We want to keep that child close, follow that instinct. We want to keep the child quiet and happy because the cry is so distressing.”
Professor Narvaez worked with two colleagues, Lijuan Wang and Ying Cheng, to conduct this research and their findings will be published in an upcoming article in the journal Applied Developmental Science.
The three professors surveyed over 600 adults about their childhoods. They examined things like how much affectionate touch was given in their household, how much free play they were allowed as a child, and how much positive family time they experienced. The researchers found that adults with less anxiety and overall better mental wellbeing had positive childhoods.
“These things independently, but also added up together, predicted the adults’ mental health, so they were less depressed, less anxious, and their social capacities — they were more able to take other people’s perspective,” said Professor Narvaez. “They were better at getting along with others and being open-hearted.”
J. Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a child psychologist, said that a newborn baby learns from his interactions with his parents that the world is reliable, and can trust that his needs will be met.
Responding to baby’s cries “isn’t a matter of spoiling,” he said. “It’s a matter of meeting the child’s needs.”
Open Letter to Parents
Professor Narvaez encourages parents to respond to their baby’s cries, whether it means holding them, touching them, or rocking them; it’s all good. 
“What parents do in those early months and years are really affecting the way the brain is going to grow the rest of their lives,” explains Narvaez, “so lots of holding, touching and rocking, that is what babies expect. They grow better that way. And keep them calm, because all sorts of systems are establishing the way they are going to work.
“If you let them cry a lot, those systems are going to be easily triggered into stress. We can see that in adulthood — that people that are not cared for well, tend to be more stress reactive and they have a hard time self-calming.”
The researchers found that free play in and out of doors is vital for child development, as well as growing up in a positive, warm home environment.
Narvaez believed that humans need these important things from the time they are born. Therefore, she recommends parents follow their instincts.
“Sometimes, we have parents that say, you are going to spoil the baby if you pick them up when they are feeling distressed. No, you can’t spoil a baby. You are actually ruining the baby if you don’t pick them up. You are ruining their development,” says Narvaez. “…So follow the instinct to hold, play, interact, that is what you want to do.”
After all, a baby’s cry is heart-breaking for a reason.
It Takes a Village
While a parent might feel relieved that they can pick up their baby every time he cries, this quickly becomes exhausting, especially if there’s only one parent at home while the other works most of the day. The at-home parent might struggle to eat, sleep, and do basic chores when they attend to the baby’s every cry.
“We need to, as a community support families so they can give children what they need,” Professor Narvaez says, who recommends involving grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends in the baby’s life.
“We really didn’t evolve to parent alone. Our history is to have a community of caregivers to help — the village, so that when mom or dad needs a break, there is someone there who is ready to step in.”