There are so many questions in new parenthood–how long should they sleep? Are they nursing enough? Why'd their eyes just do that?! Why do their arms fly up in the air all the time?! But one of the biggest, and by extension, one of the most divisive, is "Can I hold my baby too much?"
When babies cry, moms are pretty much hard-wired to pick them up and soothe them. It's what we do. It's a biological imperative that it's hard to ignore. But is it ok to hold them every time they cry? Should we let them get used to not being held when they want to be held? Can we spoil them by holding them too frequently?
Why Do Babies Want to be Held?
Young babies, those less than around 4 months old, are in what some experts call the fourth trimester. It's a time spent becoming accustomed to the world outside their mother's body. For 9 months, they were held close, in a warm, safe environment, where they could hear their mother's heart. After being born into a loud, cold, wide-open world, it takes some time for them to get used to their new environment. Sometimes, or a lot of the time, they want that same close, warm, safe feeling they had when they were in the womb. Being held is as close as they can get to the comfort they're familiar with.
Being away from their safe spot, their mother, can be stressful for new babies and the way they convey that stress is by crying.
Can I Hold a Baby Too Much?
Whether to hold a baby every time it cries is one of the great parenting debates. Some people say yes, absolutely, hold the baby! While others are firmly in the "You'll spoil them" camp. According to Dr. Jennifer Shu, it's complicated. "It could be considered too much if it negatively impacts their physical development or safety," she explains. "For example, if over-holding limits the baby's chance to exercise and develop their muscles, that would be a negative impact. Also, prolonged sleep while holding could be a safety risk since sleeping flat in a bare crib or bassinet is recommended."
She also adds that the myth that you can spoil a baby by holding them too much isn't quite so cut-and-dried either. Holding "can help build a sense of security and comfort. That said, if it becomes a habit to fall asleep while being held, some babies will have trouble learning how to fall asleep on their own."
What If I Can\’t Hold My Baby When They Cry?
Sometimes, as much as you may want to, you just hold your baby when they want to be held. If you're cooking, tending to other children, or doing something that would make holding your baby unsafe, you might just have to let them sit till you have a free arm for them. And that's fine, says Shu. "It's fine to let babies cry sometimes even if they want to be held, especially if the parent is not available. It can teach delayed gratification," she explains. As long as their left in a safe place and a parent or caregiver is there to talk to them and reassure them.
One way to have the best of both worlds, a quiet, comfy baby, and free arms, is to wear your baby in a sling or carrier. "This can allow babies to be held while freeing the caregiver's arms. It's important to maintain safety. Caregivers should make sure the baby's airway is not compromised and that the baby is not at risk for injury such as burns from cooking. Babywearing can also change the wearer's center of gravity, so it's important to be careful not to fall."