Ask The Expert {Dr. T} – Can You Spoil a Newborn?

Ask The Expert - Can you spoil a newborn NAM picWritten by: Dr. James Torkildson “Dr. T”

This actually is a quite common question which I am sure you have heard many different opinions. In answering this question let’s take a look at what is actually going on with this newest arrival. With the advancements made in brain science we have begun to understand so much more in regards to bonding, attachment and overall brain development in infants and toddlers.

A newborn has just left a warm and safe place that is all that he has known for approximately 40 weeks and has entered into a noisy, bright and big world. Entering into this big new world, a newborn immediately begins to experience this magnificent but scary change in environment. A newborn having no language ability can only do what he can to communicate his feelings and needs. That is to cry and newborns do cry for a reason.

It is important to realize that all behaviors even in the infant are purposeful and goal directed.

Whether he is hungry or tired, scared or lonely or experiencing constipation or gas a newborn is attempting to communicate a discomfort in the emotional or physical realm. This does not mean that a baby crying is in danger or that there is anything seriously wrong. It simply means that our baby is communicating to us that something is going on that they would like us to attend to. In knowing this, it points to the importance of responding to our baby when he or she is asking for help. They do this through the only way they know how to communicate; by crying.

Understanding a Newborn’s Brain

A newborn brain has approximately 700 new neural connections being formed every second. That is 42,000 every minute and 2,520,000 every hour of every day. This rapid brain development continues for the first few years of life and then eventually around age 5 or 6 a “pruning” will take place. This will be talked about more at a later time.

Neural connections are formed through the interaction of genes and a baby’s environment and experiences. There is a “serve and return” that occurs, which will be talked about more later, that takes place with interaction with adults and others in his environment. These earliest of experiences are incredibly significant as the newborn brain will develop hugely impacted by these experiences thus forming the connections that build brain architecture. This then becomes the foundation on which all later learning, behavior and emotional health will depend.

If a newborn is experiencing met needs, nurturing, love and safety then the brain can make healthy neural connections.

Continued Crying

We must be aware, however that there are situations where a mother is doing all she can and her baby does not stop crying or seem comforted. Be assured your baby is being comforted and needs that attention but it also means something else is going on such as colic, gas, constipation or another health related issues. In such cases it is important to “tag team” as this will wear any sane mother out. There are times when everything that can be done has been done and a baby must simply “cry it out” until they feel better. In addition, there are techniques that can be used to help the colicky baby or the baby that doesn’t stop crying. I am attaching a link for Dr. Karp “The Baby Whisperer” who present’s his 5’s secrets for the colicky baby. (video can be viewed at the end of this post as well.)

Definition of Early Childhood Mental Health

Can you spoil a newborn? No. Though bonding and attachment begins at birth we now know that it actually is a process that continues through most of the first two years of life. All brain development takes place within a social context. If we are providing a safe and loving environment for our babies then they can play and interact freely in this new and exciting world they have entered. We have defined “Early Childhood Mental Health” as

The capacity of a child from birth to age five to:

  • Experience, regulate and express emotions
  • Form close and secure interpersonal relationships.
  • Explore their environment and learn.

If we are responsive to our babies and attending to their needs when they communicate them then we significantly increase the probability that our children will experience healthy brain development. This in turn supports the development of mental, emotional and behavioral health. Children that seek attention need attention, children in power struggles need more power and sad and lonely children need more encouragement and support.

Sample Case

Recently, I worked with a mother and her two year old at a treatment center. She complained of her son always wanting attention and hanging on her. For two weeks I asked her give him attention whenever he asked for it through his language or behavior. I also asked her to initiate attention in the form of communication, initiating play and simply sitting by him and putting her arm around him (nurturing).

At the end of two weeks he became more independent, stopped hanging on mom and stopped seeking undo attention.

Children will seek to meet their needs until their needs are met. You will not spoil your baby but you will allow them to feel safe, secure and loved if you tend to them when they need you. They will then feel safe enough and secure enough to explore their environment and learn, regulate emotion and develop healthy relationships.

Dr T Signature

“Encouraging a Child is Christ Love in Motion; Compassion in Misbehavior is Christ’s Forgiveness Demonstrated.” – Dr. T.

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