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Is there such a thing as holding a newborn too much?
Q: My cousin and his wife have decided that their newborn shouldn’t be held all the time because they don’t want to have to hold him so much when he’s older. I’m due to have my first baby soon, and I believe that a baby needs a lot of contact, love and comfort. Do I have to worry about holding my newborn too much? Is there actually a limit to how much you should hold your new child?
A: Joann, it sounds like you have good instincts. You’re right that babies need lots of attention and physical contact to stimulate healthy development and to bond with you. All of your interactions with your baby are important—holding her, feeding her, changing her diaper, calming her when she cries, talking and singing to her and making faces back and forth.

Babies are dependent on their caregivers. Child development experts say that one of the most important things babies learn in their first year is trust—that when they’re hungry you’ll feed them, when they’re cold, you’ll warm them up, and when they’re lonely or bored, you’ll play with them. Babies under 3 months of age are especially needy. And crying is their way of telling you they need something. It’s good to pick up your baby when she cries—it won’t spoil her. In fact, studies have shown that when babies cry and you pick them up promptly and take care of their needs, they develop a strong sense of security and reduced stress and anxiety, and they end up crying less overall.

Some pediatric experts refer to babies’ first three months of life as “the fourth trimester of pregnancy.” They suggest that young infants would be more comfortable in an environment similar to the womb—where they are constantly held tightly, kept warm and rocked. It is naturally comfortable and reassuring for young babies to be held, swaddled and rocked, and it has been found to be particularly helpful for fussy or colicky babies.

After the first few months, babies start showing us that they want a little more independence. They may still enjoy being held, but they also become more interested in looking at and exploring their surroundings. It’s good for their development to have some time when they’re not being held. For example, you can put a 4-month-old baby on her back on a blanket on the floor and she’ll enjoy waving her arms and grabbing her feet. Or put her on her tummy to practice pushing up her head and chest, which will help her learn to roll over and then crawl. As you become attuned to your baby’s cues, you will learn when she is content observing the world and playing on her own, and when she needs to be held.

If you’re particularly interested in the value of physical contact with your baby, you might consider infant massage. Skin-to-skin touching between you and your baby can be deeply soothing and satisfying for both of you. There are several articles on this website to get you started (search for “massage”).

Here’s the bottom line: Every child and every parent is different. Some babies need lots of attention, and others are happy sleeping a lot or entertaining themselves. Some parents want to hold their babies most of the time, and others want their babies to learn to be comfortable playing and sleeping alone. Different cultures also have different customs about how much babies should be held vs. left alone. Parents need to figure out what seems to feel right and work best for them and their baby.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician