Is picking up a crying baby spoiling a child?


The Piepers


Is picking up a crying baby spoiling a child? 

Q:I really enjoy your column and now I need some advice myself. I am very confused about whether and how long to let my baby cry. My pediatrician says that if we respond immediately when she cries, the baby will learn to cry in order to get attention. He recommends that unless we know she is dirty or really hungry, that we wait at least five minutes to see if she will stop on her own. He says that if we pick her up right away, she will turn into a child who cries at the drop of a hat. Yet I really hate letting her cry for five minutes before comforting her. It seems that during that five minutes her crying escalates rather than dies down and often when I go to her she is sobbing and hysterical. What is your perspective on this? Should we respond differently at different times, such as at night or during the day? L.H., Aurora

A:Actually, it’s not true either that babies cry to get attention or that they will learn to cry longer or more frequently if they are responded to immediately. Babies cry for one reason only—they are unhappy. The causes of the unhappiness can range from hunger, to needing a diaper change, feeling ill, being in pain, being overstimulated, being understimulated, being overtired and so on. The reality is that when you follow your good instincts and respond immediately to your crying baby, she will actually cry less, because she becomes increasingly confident that her cries will bring help. Empirical studies have shown that if a baby is picked up within 90 seconds of beginning to cry, the crying lasts an average of five seconds. Babies who are not picked up within 90 seconds cry for 50 seconds or more. Responsiveness is just as important at night as in the daytime. Babies who awake at night and are left to cry become much more aroused and have more difficulty going back to sleep than babies who are comforted immediately. So enjoy soothing your baby at any time of the day or night in the knowledge that you are helping, not harming, her.

My 3-year-old reader won’t read when we request it

Q:My 3-year-old has amazed her father and me by learning to read by herself (with a little help from “Sesame Street”). She can read chapter books. We are so proud that we often ask her to show our friends and relatives. I would think she would enjoy the admiration, but she has begun to refuse to read when asked. Now I find that she doesn’t want to read to her father and me anymore. I don’t understand this behavior and don’t know what to do. Should we insist that she read since we know she can? Please advise. J.T., Winnetka

A:It is wonderful that you have a child who enjoys reading enough to teach herself how to do it. However, like all children her age, she resists doing things (even things she likes) on command. Reading out loud was fine as long as it was her idea, but once it became a requirement, the fun went out of it for her. Because reading will be such an important part of the rest of your daughter’s life, you want to act quickly to preserve it as a source of pleasure for her. We suggest that for the time being you “forget” that she can read. Don’t mention this ability to anyone, don’t ask her to read to others or yourselves, and go back to reading to her. Once she realizes that the pressure is off, she may begin to read words or sentences again. Simply say, “Good job!” and continue reading to her. In other words, remove reading from the sphere of conflict and let it be entirely her choice once again. Then your daughter will reconnect with the enjoyment she first felt from reading and she will be back on track for success at school and in life.

My 4-year-old will not stop whining—what can we do?

Q: Could you please revisit the issue of whining? Our 4-year-old is driving us insane. Whenever he wants something, he kicks into whining mode. Even when his request is otherwise reasonable, we don’t want to give it to him when he whines because we feel it rewards this behavior. But when he doesn’t get what he wants, he whines even more. My neighbor told me she read a book that advised her to tell her whining child, “I don’t want to be with you when you act like that—I don’t listen to your whining voice but I listen to your nice voice.” When she says that, her child usually stops whining. What do you think of that approach—it seems harsh to me—and do you have other suggestions? M.W., Oak Park

A:You are correct that your neighbor’s approach to whining is too harsh. Appealing as it can sometimes be in the short run to browbeat children into behaving as you wish, in the long run, you teach children the unintended lessons that might makes right and that they can’t count on your good will when they feel upset or out of sorts. Children who absorb these lessons often grow into adults who run roughshod over other’s feelings and struggle to be compassionate with themselves and others.

When your child whines, it is much better to ignore the whining and respond as though he were speaking in a normal voice. If he says he needs something “right now” and what he wants is something he can have, say, “Sure, no problem,” and let him have it. If he can’t have what he desires and whines about it, don’t focus on the whining. Show him that you know it’s hard when he can’t have what he wants. When whining simply ceases to become an issue for you and when your son knows that you want him to have his heart’s desire whenever possible and you are sympathetic when he has a disappointment, clinical experience tells us that your son will stop whining. Most important, he will stop because whining has lost its appeal and not because he has been threatened or is worried about keeping your love and good will.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of  Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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