Parent holding baby at homeShare on Pinterest
Getty Images

When your baby cries, you pick them up. And sometimes you wind up holding them a lot more often than you put them down.

Inevitably, this will spark some criticism, often from a well-meaning relative, friend, or acquaintance, though even strangers sometimes feel compelled to weigh in.

“You shouldn’t hold your baby too much,” they tend to say. “You’ll spoil them.”

A typical new parent might respond to this lofty statement with some panic, or at least some concern. Can you really spoil a new baby?

But the reality is, you may actually be helping baby by holding them frequently in those early weeks.

It’s a myth that’s persisted for a long time, despite the fact that experts have been saying for years that you can’t spoil a newborn.

In fact, as early as 1986, the journal Pediatrics published a study about a randomized controlled trial that found that new babies who were carried more tended to cry and fuss less.

“We conclude that supplemental carrying modifies ‘normal’ crying by reducing the duration and altering the typical pattern of crying and fussing in the first 3 months of life,” the researchers wrote all those years ago.

Here’s why you can’t really spoil a newborn: A newborn baby’s brain isn’t really finished developing yet. In fact, their brain won’t be mature for some time.

So, your proximity to baby helps them respond to all these new stimuli in their environment and begin to self-regulate.

Can you ever let your baby “cry a little” and see what happens? You could, and it would probably be just fine, from a long-term perspective.

A 2020 study looked at babies whose parents had sometimes let their infants “cry it out” and noted that babies who were allowed to cry in the first 6 months didn’t show any adverse behavioral or attachment issues at 18 months of age.

It’s worth noting, however, that the study found it was rare for parents to let their baby cry during the newborn period, and it became more common after 3 months of age.

The researchers acknowledged that it can be stressful for a parent to respond to every single cry from their baby, but as a subsequent 2020 review noted, it’s not harmful to let a baby cry sometimes within the context of a warm parent-baby relationship.

But if it stresses you out to let your baby cry, it might not be the best solution for you.

Another question that comes up for many new parents is whether to let their newborn eat as much as they want. The short answer is yes.

Pediatricians call responding to your new baby’s hungry cries as “feeding on demand.”

New babies need to eat every 2 to 3 hours on demand (or 8 to 12 times per 24 hours), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

They may go as long as 4 hours at night but probably shouldn’t go any longer than that — and honestly, your baby might not last that long before complaining loudly, anyway.

Start looking for early signs of hunger around the 2- to 3-hour mark. You might notice your baby:

  • putting their fist in their mouth
  • sticking their tongue out or licking their lips
  • instinctively turning their head to the breast, which is called “rooting”

By the time your baby starts crying, that means they’re really hungry. Get that baby some milk, stat!

If you’re breastfeeding or chestfeeding, the AAP suggests letting your baby stay on the nipple as long as they’re actively suckling. In other words, let them eat until they decide they’re full. Lots of babies will let you know when they’re finished, often by detaching from the nipple on their own.

And don’t be surprised if there aren’t a few periods when baby is even hungrier than usual. Growth spurts often happen around the second week and then again between the third and sixth week.

By the time your baby is about 2 months old, they should be stretching their feedings out to every 3 to 4 hours.

It’s not spoiling your child by responding to their actual needs. And in the newborn stage, they certainly are needs, not wants.

But you can start learning more about the cues that your child is giving you to determine what those needs are, which may affect your response (and how quickly you respond).

Believe it or not, newborns actually have several different types of cries. Some are hunger cries (“Feed me!”), while others are cries of discomfort. They may cry because they’re tired or overstimulated, and of course, some new babies cry when they need to be changed.

Crying, with its subtle and not-so-subtle variations, is your baby’s way of communicating with you and letting you know that they need something.

Once you have a better sense of why your baby is crying, you can tailor your response.

Something else you might hear from your parents’ generation (or maybe your grandparents’ generation) is that you’re letting your new baby manipulate you — and by giving in to that, you’re spoiling them.

Your newborn isn’t capable of manipulating you.

They have basic needs: to be fed, changed, held, and loved. And you’re the person who can meet those needs.

Don’t let the manipulation myth keep you from giving baby what they need. (You can decide whether you want to correct the people who try to push the manipulation argument, or if you just want to smile, nod, ignore them, and tend to your baby.)

Plus, 2013 research suggests that your early interactions with baby are shaping and molding their brain. A little skin-to-skin contact in those early days and weeks can be beneficial, too, especially for babies who were born pre-term or with low birth weight.

By 6 or 7 months of age, your baby may need some things but want others. At that point, you may be able to resist their demands a little.

It’s not so much that you’re spoiling them if you “give in” to their every wish, but it may be more beneficial to help them understand some limits (often for their own safety).

In the meantime, don’t worry if your aunt or your neighbor scolds you for holding your newborn too much.

Your baby needs to be cared for — and, yes, held — frequently, especially in their early weeks of life. And it’s your job to do those things for them.

Some babies may need to be held more than others, of course. With time, you’ll figure out what your baby responds to best.