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Boost Your Baby's Self-Esteem

When my daughter Lily was 11 months old, she grabbed our cats by the tail, flung CDs from their shelves, and crowed like Little Richard on helium. She seemed to have enough confidence for both of us. While some babies are hardwired to be more confident throughout life, experts say that parents can, and should, boost their baby's budding ego from day one. Luckily, the steps are pretty straightforward -- though some may surprise you.

MYTH Your newborn will turn out to be a wimp if you pick her up every time she cries.

TRUTH When an infant promptly gets what she craves -- a hug, a bottle, a clean diaper-she develops a sense of order and predictability that's the foundation of confidence, says Neil Boris, M.D., a founding member of the Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health in New Orleans. She also grows "securely attached" to you, and studies suggest that securely attached babies and toddlers are more likely to become confident preschoolers and grade-schoolers.

That doesn't mean you're Joan Crawford if you can't always immediately meet your baby's needs (good news for those of us who like to rinse the shampoo from our hair before exiting the shower). On the other hand, try not to make a baby under 6 months wait more than a few minutes when she's upset, says child-development specialist Stefanie Powers of Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. You can go a bit longer with an older baby.

MYTH To raise a confident baby, you have to let her do pretty much whatever she wants.

TRUTH Setting limits doesn't quash confidence; in fact, it helps a baby feel more secure -- "Mom and Dad are looking out for me!" -- which actually bolsters confidence. Some limits, such as stair gates and cabinet locks, are key to your baby's safety. Others, such as not allowing her to rip up your new copy of People, are key to your sanity. Just avoid too many of the latter because your baby can't become confident if she never tests herself by exploring her world. Ideas for encouraging her inner Marco Polo: Stock a low shelf or basket with sturdy stuff -- old Tupperware, measuring cups -- and let her fill and empty it at will. Keep coffee tables and the like clear of precious objects. (To cope with Lily's CD-hurling urges, we emptied our rack of the ones we cared about. If she scratched The Simpsons Sing the Blues, so be it.)

If your baby defies the limits you've set, use consistent, age-appropriate consequences. When your child sinks her claws into a tabby, experts say to give a brief and clear admonishment ("No grabbing -- ouch!"), move her away from the cat, and distract her with a toy.If she does the same thing at 18 months, make your explanation a bit more detailed and try a brief time-out. One consequence that -- to the cat's likely disappointment -- is never okay: physical punishment. Not only can it damage the sense of security that underlies a baby's confidence, but "it could also make her feel unloved," says Joan Luby, M.D., an associate professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

MYTH If you help your baby do everything, he'll never gain confidence.

TRUTH There's a big difference between nudging your little learner along as he tries to eat with a spoon or find a toy behind the couch and stepping in to do it for him. Take falling asleep: While he should figure out, eventually, how to soothe himself to sleep, he will not turn into a wuss if you rock, pat, or otherwise ease him toward slumber. (This advice is a radical departure from some experts' advice a generation ago.)

At bedtime, for example, you obviously don't want to just throw him in the crib, close the door, and let him scream for half an hour, says Dr. Luby. To help him learn to fall asleep on his own, go in stages, starting when your baby is at least 4 months old, suggests Dr. Luby. At first, rub his back or hold his hand to help him doze off. After a few days or weeks, you can let him do more of the work -- and come back to his room at longer intervals (one minute, then five) to soothe him if he's crying.

Take a similar approach with other new-to-your-baby skills. "If you make a challenge manageable for your baby's age or stage, he can master it -- and it's the mastering that's going to build his confidence," Powers says. Let's say your 10-month-old is struggling to pull himself up to standing. Offer your arm for "just enough support that he can feel like he's doing it himself." Over the following days or weeks, gradually move your arm away until-ta-da! -- he's standing like a pro and feeling oh, so confident.

MYTH You can't dampen your baby's confidence by the things you say; he doesn't understand you yet.

TRUTH "Babies may not understand the words, but if your facial expression is disapproving, if there's a tone of voice that's somehow ridiculing or otherwise negative, I think they'll pick up on that," Powers says. The same goes for other signs of disapproval. So while you needn't go crazy in the parental-praise department ("Oh, what a fabulous poop!"), it's good to treat your baby with respect and enthusiasm. Instead of always yakking on the phone during his meals, try yakking to him instead. When your baby learns a skill -- rolling over, waving bye-bye -- cheer and hug him with abandon. "The more you delight in a baby's activities," says Powers, "the more you send a powerful message that he really matters and what he's doing is important."