Dear Dr. Laura,
My son is 3 months old and everyone keeps telling me that I spoil him. Even my son's gastroenterologist thinks I spoil him too much.
My son has really bad acid reflux. Is it really possible to give an infant too much attention? If it is, then what's the right amount? What's the worst that could happen?
I assume you mean that you hold your son a lot and pick him up when he cries, and that others around you therefore think that you are spoiling him. You are indeed in a difficult spot. It sounds like the folks around you have very different ideas about child-raising than you do. Their views may be old fashioned, and contradicted by the last three decades of research on babies, but that kind of pressure can be difficult to resist, especially for a new mom.
With all due respect, gastroenterologists have zero training in psychology. In fact, I have noticed over the years that some folks with medical training -- by no means all -- learn to dishonor emotion because it gets in the way of medical treatment, which is often uncomfortable. And "spoiling" is about the psychology of the child, not the physical body. Your son's gastroenterologist has no more reason to tell you not to spoil your child than your plumber does.
You don't say who else thinks you spoil your son, but the most important piece of advice I can give you is that you are the expert on your own baby. If he has acid reflux, then you and he have probably had a difficult three months so far. He probably cries a lot, and spits up or vomits. You have learned to take care of him by responding to his needs, which is what nature designed mothers to do.
Naturally, a baby who is uncomfortable needs extra soothing, and it sounds like you have given it to him. That can't have been easy, but you are giving your son a wonderful gift. Even if you can't always make him feel better physically, he is comforted by your being there and is learning that the world is a good place to be despite his physical pain. His acid reflux will pass, but what you are teaching him and the bond you are creating with him will last his whole life.
The second most important thing I can say is that it is impossible to "spoil" a three-month-old. I do believe in "spoiling," meaning that I believe a six-year-old who always gets her needs met at the expense of those around her becomes a difficult, selfish person. But a three-month-old, or even a nine-month-old, cannot learn the valuable lessons that come later, about other people mattering.
They're too busy learning their own developmental lessons, like whether they can trust others to take care of them, and whether it's a friendly universe. (You'll be interested to know that Einstein thought that was the most important thing any of us ever learn.)
If spoiling is "ruining" a child so that he's not developing optimally and may end up being difficult, then leaving a baby to cry uncomforted is what will "spoil" him. Your goal is to raise a cheerful, well adjusted, adaptable child, who becomes increasingly independent and able to handle age-appropriate developmental tasks, right?
Extensive research shows that babies whose needs for comforting are met become toddlers who are ready to move on to the next developmentally appropriate task (like emptying your cupboards!) Babies whose attachment needs are denied, on the other hand, stay so preoccupied with those needs that they can't focus on their new developmental tasks as toddlers and preschoolers.
In summary, there is no such thing as giving a baby too much attention. You sound like a wonderful, attentive mother. If you need some support for your mothering style, check out the Attachment section of my website -- strong>Aha! Parenting.com, or Mothering.com, which has forums for moms who explicitly don't believe in letting babies "cry it out."
Blessings to you and your lucky son.
-- Dr. Laura Markham, PhD