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Can You Spoil a Baby?

Before I had my first baby, I made a vow: I would never become an infant-indulging pushover. I had watched in horror as my friends jumped up every time their babies burped or whined, and I was certain that I had more fortitude than that. But you can probably guess the second half of this story: I had a baby -- and did all the same things.

With each new transgression, I shuddered at the thought of raising a spoiled child. But, according to experts, most of my worries were baseless. "During the first six months, it's really impossible to spoil a child," reassures David Mrazek, M.D., chairman of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. "Meeting an infant's need to be comforted, held, and fed in a predictable fashion helps him feel secure and builds a loving relationship between parent and child. It does not lead to spoiling."

Responding to your toddler also fosters independence, says Peter Gorski, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatricians' National Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care. "A child will be more willing to explore boundaries and explore his world if he knows he can depend on his parents," Dr. Gorski says.

It's not until the second half of a baby's first year that the risk of spoiling even begins. That's when you may find it necessary to make a few adjustments. "At this point in development, children need to learn to trust themselves as well as their caregivers," says Ester Schaler Buchholz, Ph.D., author of The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment (Simon & Schuster, 1997). "Of course, your baby still needs your care and love. But he also needs to start figuring things out for himself."

Obviously, this is often easier said than done. "Our older son, Gregory, always wanted to sleep with us," says Amy Pentz, of Suffield, Connecticut. "At first, we thought it was cute, but eventually we wanted a decent night's rest ourselves. It was a nightmare getting him to sleep in his crib. When our second son, Jackson, was born, we helped him go to sleep in his crib from the start."

Fostering independence, however, is not the only way to stop spoiling in its tracks. Here, three top tips.

Learn your baby's signals. Many parents don't realize that crying isn't always a sign of distress. "Infants use crying to convey a range of feelings, from hunger to exhaustion to overstimulation," Dr. Gorski says. Which means that rushing to hold and amuse your infant isn't always the right response. "Try your usual routines for comforting," Dr. Gorski advises. "If the crying persists, your child may just need time to rest without social stimulation." The break may do you both some good. "Spending some time alone is how a baby learns to entertain and soothe herself," Dr. Buchholz explains. "If a parent is constantly misreading her signals, the child may think it's natural to be held all the time." If your child averts her eyes, whines, or pulls away from you, it's time for a break.

Watch your own behavior. At 6 to 8 months, babies begin what is called social referencing. "They read their parents' facial expressions and actions to understand how to behave in different situations," Dr. Gorski explains. "If you appear anxious every time your baby encounters something new, he'll think there's something to be anxious about and become more needy."

Behaving in a calm, encouraging manner lets your child know that it's okay to explore. For example, if your baby starts to crawl into another room, don't jump up and run after him. Instead, as long as the place he's wandered into is safe, follow him and offer words of encouragement.

Let him cry -- a little. If your child is struggling with a toy, allow him to fumble some. He may wail a bit but may also learn a new skill. "Coping with minor frustration can be a good learning opportunity for babies," Dr. Mrazek says.

Your baby may also fuss when you try to establish routines such as bedtime. "It's important for you -- and your child -- that everyone get enough rest. There's nothing wrong with enforcing bedtime," Dr. Buchholz says.

Does this mean you should let your baby cry herself to sleep? "It's never the first choice," Dr. Mrazek says. "But if you have already tried every sleep-inducing nightly ritual you can think of, it may be the only way." He reassures parents that it will probably be harder on them than on the baby.

Ultimately, employing all of these tactics -- judiciously -- will teach your baby the two most important lessons: that his parents will always be there for him and that maybe, just maybe, he won't always need them.

"Fear of spoiling a child divides many couples," says Peter Gorski, M.D. Here, three sanity-saving strategies for coping with different parenting styles.

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