My husband and I bickered more during the first 12 months of our son's life than we did in all of the previous 12 years we were together. The argument? Whether one of us was doing something that was spoiling Nate. "It's common for new parents to worry about doing everything -- feeding, soothing, sleeping -- exactly right, because they think that getting into a bad pattern early on will hurt their child in the long run," says Carrie Masia Warner, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at William Paterson University, in Wayne, New Jersey. "But during the first year of life, you can't spoil an infant by being responsive to his needs." Still, if you unintentionally encourage certain behavior while your child is young, you may be setting yourself up for trouble later on. We'll help you make the call on five gray areas.
Do this both day and night for the first three months. You may fear that being so quick on the draw will prime your baby to be clingy or impatient, but being a responsive parent is essential right now. "It's not okay to let your baby cry for prolonged periods in the early months of her life," explains Maria Conwell, M.D., a pediatrician with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network. "She needs to feel safe and taken care of -- that's how she starts to develop trust. Responding to her cries and cues will help foster that." After 3 months, you can wait a few minutes to see if she'll calm down on her own (singing a soft song may help). As she grows older, you'll want to continue giving her opportunities to self-soothe whenever possible. By 9 months, she'll start to recognize that she gets attention when she wails, so try to determine if she truly needs your help or if she's just looking for comfort. To encourage independent sleeping, try simply waving or talking to her softly instead of scooping her up right away.
Hold off. After he reaches 1 month, the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend giving a pacifier at night to reduce the risk of SIDS, but that doesn't mean you should automatically pop one into your baby's mouth every time he starts crying. "You need to determine what the real need is underlying his fussiness first," says Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, in New Haven, Connecticut. For instance, if he's hungry because he's going through a growth spurt, he needs to eat rather than use his pacifier. As he grows older, he won't have to suck as much; once he hits 9 months, always give him a chance to settle down on his own.
It's fine for the first 3 months, when she may not be able to self-soothe, but between 3 and 6 months you should start to cut back. "She needs the chance to fall asleep on her own in order to develop that skill," says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Eventually she'll be able to sleep with or without you." If possible, give her a chance to doze off alone even earlier than 3 months, Dr. Mindell recommends. "You may be surprised -- some 6-week-old babies fall asleep gazing at a mobile."
At this age, you're better off if you just put electronics, keys, phones, jewelry, and everything else you don't want him to use as a toy out of his sight -- and out of mind. If he's always eager to suck on the remote control, don't relent, and, say, take the batteries out of it first. "That's what we call 'false teaching,'" Dr. Guddemi says. "Your baby won't know whether the batteries are in or out, so he'll think he can play with it any time he wants." You want him to be able to explore his environment, so everything within reach should be objects he is allowed to touch and hold, says Dr. Guddemi. "He won't really understand that he can't play with certain objects until later on when he's more verbal."
Sure, this is fine as long as you're munching on something healthy and safe -- like yogurt or skinless soft fruit -- and she eats well at mealtimes. (If your snack is potato chips or nuts, you can try to offer her something more appropriate.) It's perfectly natural for your baby to want what's being eaten in front of her, but be careful that you don't encourage any bad habits by indulging her. Whining may be a way for her to communicate right now, but you don't want to teach her that that's how she can get what she wants. "Wait for her to be calm for even just a few seconds before handing her the food," says Dr. Masia Warner. To encourage her verbal development while you're at it, you can also tell her the name of the food she's nibbling.