You Can’t Spoil a Baby

(note to those who have followed me– Been pretty busy. I have made a promise to myself not to post filler material, but only content that seems substantive to me. I know you have found worthwhile things to do without me. I trust y’all.)

family photograph of father and mother holding their baby

Earlier this year I participated in a training on what’s called the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. (NMT). It’s primarily geared toward treating children who have experienced neglect or trauma. The originator of this model is Dr. Bruce Perry, author of The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog.

One of Dr. Perry’s main points is that in the first year of life, the key to successful development as a human being is attachment. As an infant, everyone needs a secure attachment to a caregiver.  The baby cries; it gets care. There is no such thing as giving a baby too much attention. Can’t be done– as long as it’s not traumatizing attention, as in picking the baby up and shaking it to stop it crying.  There are parenting books, most of them old, that espouse the “cry it out” theory where you ignore a crying baby and let it just get used to the idea that crying won’t automatically bring someone. Well, guess what? developmental brain science says you’re storing up trouble, big time. In the book noted above, Dr. Perry describes a case history of someone who was literally abandoned to “cry it out” in the first year of life and grew up to be completely incapable of empathy.  He doesn’t use the phrase in his book, but the description of the person (who was in prison, convicted of murder) is what we would, in street parlance, call “a stone cold killer.”

The essence of this has been known for at least a century. Piaget noted in his research that babies who were raised in state run orphanages achieved developmental milestones later than those raised in religious orphanages. When he looked into the reason, he found that the nuns picked up the babies when they cried, whereas in the state run orphanages they were left to cry.  It wasn’t possible to look at brain development then, but it was clear that physical and mental development lagged when there was less human contact.

One of the interesting things about this is the change in how research on attachment has changed focus over the last half century. At one point it was all about how babies are a bundle of instincts. More recently it has changed to recognizing that the grownups also have instincts– to make faces at the baby, to talk in a special cadence and tone of voice that transcends culture and is called “motherese” , and yes, to have an an instinct to pick up the baby, to make eye contact. And research has shown that babies only a few days old respond. Just in passing it’s fun to note that this research didn’t start to happen until women started getting PhD’s in child development.

So if the baby cries, pick it up. At least. It would be nice to feed it, change it, croon to it, make eye contact– but at least pick it up. It feeds the babies instincts– and your own.


(image from


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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