Next to good health, the biggest thing we want for our babies is happiness. We want meaningful smiles on their faces and pure joy in their hearts. So how do we ensure that? I have the answer. Give them everything they want.
I'm not talking about the teddy bear at the store that they won't let go of when you meant to only shop for bulk diapers. Though I will say those stuffies have certainly saved my sanity by making my babies happy when we've been out doing something not exactly baby-approved. And my little one used to tug and tug on Grandma's fancy bracelet, practically begging for it in baby language, but it wasn't like we were going to tell Grams to take it off and hand over the jewels just to make the baby happy. (Though I suspect she would have.)
The secret to this baby happiness is all about responding to baby's cries. Soothe her, feed her, keep her diaper dry. You know ... all the things we instinctually do to give them what they want.
Experts agree. "The key task of infancy is to develop trust," says Dr. Michael Paff, PhD, a child and school psychologist. "The infant needs to know that if she is hungry, uncomfortable, or cold, the parent will respond. If her needs are met, then she can go on to develop other skills (like verbal speech), and other facets of her personality will emerge (like risk-taking). If not, development will be delayed, and the infant who does not develop trust may develop into an anxious, hesitant toddler."
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See? All that oohing and ahhing at our sweet little babies' faces isn't a waste of time -- you're putting in the work needed to make sure baby is happy. (And it sure works wonders on our own happiness as well.) You're making sure she knows you're there for her when she needs you. It builds a bond, and baby's confidence in that she is being heard, and those are all happy things.
It is all about our babies' cues, agrees Rebecca Nidorf, LCSW-R. "In order to have a happy baby, caregivers need to pay attention to their baby's cues, particularly from birth to six months," says Nidorf. "In those first six months, you are learning from your baby -- what she needs and how she expresses her needs to you."
Responsive parents pay attention to those cues and use their parenting magic to decode them. It's not always easy, of course. And some parents might wonder if they're going overboard by responding to every cry -- they're not.
"There is no such thing as 'spoiling' a newborn," says Nidorf. By tending to their needs with a timely response, you are giving the message that they are safe, nurtured, and they will be taken care of. This not only promotes strong parental bonds, but creates a very secure baby with healthy attachments to her parents."
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But Nidorf cautions that you should gradually back off a bit as your baby becomes a toddler. "As a child gets older, the skill of self-soothing is very important," she says. She cites work by Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, who wrote "overindulged children, whether showered with toys or shielded from emotional discomfort, are more likely to grow into teenagers who are bored, cynical, and joyless."
Nidorf says she sees this in her work with families. "Teens that were never given the space to figure out how to self-soothe as toddlers don't know how to be with uncomfortable feelings and turn to maladaptive ways to numb themselves, whether it's with video games, sex, drugs and/or alcohol," she explains.
And yes, that sounds totally scary, but all it means is that you'll have to stop giving baby everything she wants eventually.
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"As they develop into toddlers, let them begin to sit with their discomfort when they're experiencing hard emotions," she says. "Give space for them to figure out how to take care of themselves. This is so important in the development of self, self-love, and self-confidence and the overall development of grit, which is something we all need, at times, to get by."
I'm left thinking about the [pained on my part] hour spent in the toy aisle when I told my kids they can pick out one thing under $10 before we embarked on a shopping expedition that didn't seem fun to them (the new sponges I ended up finding were quite exciting for me though). The stuffies my kids ended up getting aren't going to help them long-term, though in the moment it's the best thing ever ... kind of like that fifth cookie you ate before your stomach starting hating you. I realize I can't do this every time we have to go to the store -- my kids will end up equating grocery shopping with toy-buying time. And I cannot afford that for reasons financial and otherwise. If they're occasionally disappointed with no toy reward, the self-soothing tactics they'll learn should continue into the big kid stage, then to their teens.
So the point in a nutshell? It's okay to indulge our babies -- and just keep loving them hard like we do, but once they start the toddler years, find ways to let them experience negative feelings and work through them, not only with you but by themselves. We want happy babies, but we also want our kids to be happy for life.