Spoiled baby or secure attachment?

Dr. Dave, I know that you do a lot of research on self-discipline and self reliance. I work with new parents and many are worried about "spoiling" their babies by responding immediately to their cries and picking them up. How should I respond?

Cheryl, Mississippi

Cheryl, Your question reminds me of a time when I was a guest on a call-in radio show during the first week that my book No, Why Kids of All Ages Need to Hear it and Ways Parents Can Say It came out. About halfway through the show, a grandmother called in to ask me a question that I have gotten hundreds of times.

"Dr. Walsh, I love what you are saying about self-reliance and it makes me worry about my grandson. As soon as my he cries, my daughter runs off to the basinet to comfort him. Will this make it hard for him to comfort himself? I am worried that she is spoiling him right off the bat."

Can you spoil a baby?

Anxious to get their kids off on the right foot, lots of parents want to focus on independence and self-discipline right away. This can easily lead to the idea that holding a baby too much or comforting him might spoil him. 

Here's how I responded to the caller:

"It sounds like you care a lot about your grandson and you can be rest assured that your daughter is doing a great job parenting him. While it might seem like responding to a baby would spoil him, the opposite is actually true! Holding babies, comforting them and interacting with them in the first year of life lays the foundation for the development of self-reliance and self-discipline later on."

The caller sounded quite relieved as I went on to explain how this works. Babies are born wired for human connection and, like little scientists, they immediately start running thousands of experiments that help them understand the way the world works. How a baby's parents respond to his cries of distress teach him important lessons  that will shape his behavior later on. Among other things, they help him answer the questions: Is the world a safe place? Do people care about me?

Secure attachment

Responding to a baby's coos and cries provides a critical sense of safety and security that will ultimately make the baby feel comfortable enough to venture out, explore and try things on his own later in life. Also, thousands of small caring interactions help solidify a secure connection between parent and baby. Child psychologists call this the "attachment relationship." Research is clear that babies who experience secure attachment are more capable of empathy, are better listeners, and are better at communication later in life.

Secure attachment is also the foundation of self-discipline. Connecting with your baby in the first year of life helps you more successfully say "No" to your toddler or teen. The fortunate babies who have a secure connection with their parents will want to preserve that connection by maintaining their parents' approval. If there is no connection early on, a young child may be less motivated to behave in line with his parents' expectations and become angry and distrustful when his parents attempt to set limits and enforce consequences. 

Laying the foundation for self-discipline

The building blocks for self-discipline and independence are laid in the first year of life. We lay this critical foundation by being present, attentive, attuned, and responsive to a baby's needs. There will be plenty of opportunities as that baby gets older for a firm "No" and real limits and consequences. Until then, enjoy building solid and secure attachment in partnership with your baby.

Here are 10 ways to form secure attachment with your baby.






Dr. Dave


Has your baby already grown up? It happens fast! Now it is time to balance caring attachment with limits and consequences. Here are Ten Tips to Prevent Discipline Deficit Disorder to get you started.