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Am I Spoiling My Baby?

Q. I've recently gone back to work part-time, leaving my 7-month-old with an acquaintance who also takes care of a few neighborhood kids. Yesterday, when I went to her place to take my daughter home, my sitter said that I must be spoiling her because she wants to be held all the time. The sitter wants me to let my baby cry it out every so often so that she doesn't clamor for attention. To me, picking up a baby when she starts crying is common sense. Am I spoiling my child?

A. You just can't spoil a 7-month-old, especially by picking her up when she cries. In fact, ignoring her is immeasurably more damaging than responding to her requests for attention. Since she can't use words, a 7-month-old has no other means of communicating her essential needs  -- food, diaper changes, play, hugs, sleep  -- than by crying.

You also can't underestimate the importance of being held. Your daughter may be trying to tell your babysitter that she needs some extra loving and cuddling in the absence of her mom. She's only 7 months old  -- it's natural for her to miss you and terrific that she knows to ask for comfort.

Even when she's not missing her mom, a baby's desire to be held is not a sign of weakness or something that should be trained out of her. Her desire to be held is as real as her desire for food or sleep, and should be treated as such. In fact, research supports the importance of loving contact for children's development.

There is no such thing as getting attention more often than it's needed at this age. Babies whose moms respond to their signals  -- not just crying, but others, too  -- usually grow up to have better language comprehension, longer attention spans, and better social skills than babies whose moms do not read their signals adequately.

I think what is sometimes confusing is the distinction between being responsive and swooping in to pick up your baby at her first whimper. Being responsive doesn't mean that your baby will never have to cry. Rather, it means being consistent about your behavior. Under what circumstances do you let her cry? If you do it just to make a point  -- to show her that she can't expect to get everything she wants  -- it won't work. That makes no sense to her, since there are many reasons that she might be crying.

But if you let her cry for a specific reason  -- because you've put her down for a nap, or because you won't let her play near the fireplace, or because she's thrown her bottle on the floor for the sixth time and you're not going to play that game anymore  -- that is a different issue and something she can understand. Instead of randomly ignoring her, you are responding in a more predictable way.

When your child cries, the best thing to do is try to figure out why she's crying. Is she hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Bored? Lonely? If you listen to her cry, and look at other cues and circumstances (How long has it been since she last ate? Has she been sitting in her high chair or play yard alone for a long time? Can she reach any interesting toys?), you might be able to figure out what she needs. If she is, in fact, crying because you have put the kibosh on something unsafe or otherwise unacceptable, there is nothing wrong with using a little distraction and sympathy to soothe her. Teaching her to move on is not the same as giving in

One more note: Some babies might need to be held more than others; perhaps your daughter is one of these children. Many moms have found slings to be useful (Dr. William Sears calls it "babywearing"); they allow you to carry your infant around with you for as long as you like with your hands free. Your letter serves as an important reminder to all parents to make sure that they see eye to eye with their caregiver on philosophies of child-rearing. When you're searching for a childcare provider, ask specific questions about how she or he would respond to certain situations or different behaviors by your baby. Once you've chosen someone, continue to ask questions about how things are going. Don't assume that just because someone is a friend, she has child-rearing beliefs that are absolutely in line with yours. There are lots of wonderful caregivers out there who understand how to meet babies' needs and nurture their independence. With any luck, you'll be able to find one in your neighborhood.