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This Is the Difference Between Cuddling vs. Coddling a Baby

This Is the Difference Between Cuddling vs. Coddling a Baby

What happens when you coddle a child often—and avoid being parents who coddle to much


Should you coddle a baby? Studies of babies raised in orphanages, left to cry in their cribs for long periods, have helped child development experts conclude: You can’t ‘over-love’ a child. In fact, babies devoid of caregiver attention, nurturing, and physical touch suffer developmental delays, both physically and emotionally.

But therein lies the predicament—perhaps one of the greatest of parenting: walking that fine line between care and obsession, between attention and over-stimulation, between anxiety and trust, between cuddling and coddling a child.

And the developmental experts are in total agreement. Anxious parents create insecure children. Indulgent parents raise spoiled offspring. Over-protective parents don’t allow a child to develop a sense of self, which is so necessary in an emotionally healthy adult.

“Coddling is when parents predict the failure of a child. It is a protective act,” says psychologist Erik Fisher, Ph.D., author of The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict.

An incredible desire to protect a newborn baby is a natural instinct. However, as baby begins to grow, parents often start to obsess about the sometimes cruel and unfair world we live in. They want to shield the child from injury, disappointment, other parents, failure at school, problems with peers, and a litany of other potential problems and conflicts. The overprotective parent ‘coddles’ when she believes that completely shielding her child from inevitable problems and disappointments is a necessary part of parenting. Subsequently, the coddled child will learn to depend on others to rescue him from life’s calamities, instead of having the will and know-how to rescue himself.

Nurturing vs. Coddling a Baby

The ultimate goal is to ‘nurture’—to guide your child and help her grow into an independent and resourceful person. “Parents must find a balance between providing the right amount of supervision and letting their child have enough esteem to make his own decisions,” urges Lauren Solotar, Ph.D., president and CEO of the May Institute.

Parents who “coddle” try to manipulate their child’s surroundings so he will be spared the disappointments he may have faced when they were young. “By giving their child everything he needs, [parents] are fulfilling what they didn’t receive in their own childhood,” says Ilana Hever, a marriage and family therapist. Coddlers step in to negotiate for their child instead of letting the child work it out for herself. They intervene, regardless of the severity of the problem (whether it is an issue with a teacher, peer, or another adult). Parents who coddle their child also provide instant gratification for those things that the child wants (spoiling), as opposed to what he needs.

Children need to learn that one does not always get what one wants, and that life is sometimes unfair. Those who learn to cope and make the best of life’s disappointments are those who will ultimately be happier and more content. “Nurturing raises a child’s self esteem. It is healthy and positive," Dr. Solotar says. "Coddling has a more negative connotation. This is synonymous with overprotective parenting.”

Don't Coddle from Fear: The Dangers of Overprotective Parenting

Dr. Solotar offers the following example: “Parents are less likely to allow their children to walk from place to place because of fear of abduction.” Instead, parents should find a balance between the right amount of supervision and letting their child make his own decisions, she advises. The nurturer educates and trains her child to deal with problems on his own. She is there to tell her child she loves him, that she understands his feelings, and that she will be there for him when things go wrong.

But the experts concede this is often a difficult balance to obtain. Parents must look at each situation individually. They must evaluate each child’s maturity level and what is natural for a child to be doing, based on her age.

“I’m always afraid of my child getting hurt, but I also know he must be self-sufficient. I intervene if there is danger of serious injury,” admits Vivian Lake, an Upper West Side mom. She explains that being raised by an overprotective mother has made her more conscious about stepping in too soon with her own child. She says she has intervened at times on the playground when her son is not defending himself. “This teaches him what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” Lake says.

Today’s families have to cope with a more hectic and fast-paced lifestyle, compared to what families dealt with decades ago. For many, two incomes have become a necessity. Parents often have less time to spend with their children, and there is sometimes guilt associated with not having enough hours in the day to tend to their children’s needs. This can lead to coddling because parents are trying to make up for lost time. Parents might also be overly anxious to prove to their children that they are there for them.

“Thirty years ago it was a different world. Parents did not coddle their children too much. I have seen an increased anxiety with parents, starting during pregnancy,” says Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., a pediatrician and creator of Simply Parenting (a program designed to end parents' anxieties and bring parenting back to basics).

As an attending physician at Goryeb’s Children’s Hospital in Morristown, N.J., Dr. LoFrumento has seen first-hand how the world today has contributed to parents’ newfound fears. “After 9/11, the anxiety level went up, especially in the New York City and New Jersey areas.”

The Long-Term Effects of Coddling

What happens to children of parents who coddle too much?

Coddling can have serious future ramifications for your child, asserts Mel Levine, M.D., author of Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, which examines what he calls “an epidemic of work-life unreadiness” in young people in their 20s who can’t function in the working world.

Dr. Solotar says a child who is coddled will not become a successful adult. “Parents should provide guidance, but to constantly intervene prevents a child from learning. You put your child at risk when he doesn’t learn to communicate and interact with people.”

Well-meaning and loving parents can sometimes thwart a child’s development and set them up for work-life failure, according to Dr. Levine. Parents who coddle their child can actually be doing him a grave disservice. A child who is shielded from adversity, who is given too much too soon, and whose parents always fight his battles for him is being deprived of valuable lessons in learning from adversity. “Intoxicating levels of gratification and stimulation can drain kids of motivation and ambition,” Dr. Levine adds, creating kids who expect that they will always get what they want. Most kids who crumble in the working world are those who never had to struggle and thus have never learned resilience.

Hever agrees: “A child who is coddled will not be able to meet the demands of his peer group, the demands at school, or the demands of life in general.”

Finding a Balance Between Coddling and Cuddling

Finding the balance that is best for each child is a constant process, according to Dr. Solotar. "Parents should make their decisions depending on the child’s situation and where the child is going to be. It is a matter of figuring out what works for your family.” 

As most parents will agree, finding that balance between providing a safe environment and being overprotective is not an easy task. Dr. Levine advises parents to “set limits as a way of showing their concern for their kids,” and to be judicious about providing too many material possessions and exciting experiences that may lead to disappointment later on. “The best way to prevent an idol from falling,” he notes, “is to avoid giving a kid idol status in the first place.”

And parents should use common sense and caution when deciding it’s time for all of those ‘firsts’—first time down the street to a friend’s house, riding the subway alone, driving the family car alone, or simply toddling down a full flight of stairs by herself. Sometimes it might even feel like you’re jumping blindfolded into an abyss. But you take that leap, hold your breath, and hope for the best—because you trust that you’ve taught your child the skills he needs to navigate the world solo.

But when Is coddling okay?

Most experts agree it is good practice for parents to tend to their infant’s physical and emotional needs immediately. At this stage in a child’s development, parents are teaching their infant to trust his caregivers and to learn that home is a safe haven. Dr. Solotar agrees: “Infants are totally different. They are one hundred-percent dependent on their caretaker physically, cognitively, and emotionally.”

So, what can parents do instead of coddling?

Three experts weigh in with recommendations of what parents should do:

Though, as with all things parenting, what works for one family or even one child may not work for another.

Sleeping Issues

Getting your child to sleep: in the bed or crib or falling asleep on the sofa and transfer to crib or bed?

Samalin: Ideally, unless you believe in co-sleeping, it’s great if your child can learn how to sleep on her own. By eight o’clock, most normal parents are exhausted and ready to sit down themselves. When children are able to go to bed on their own, it also makes it possible for the parent to relax. In addition, it’s reassuring for a child to become familiar with a certain routine. This is what we have to teach our children to do. It’s not always easy, but necessary.



Dr. Diaz: If you want to get your child used to sleeping in her own room, it helps to have a consistent pre-bedtime routine and to make the child an active part of it. For example, the routine can simply consist of dinner, bath, brushing teeth, and reading a book.

There are several techniques one can try to help a child to go and stay asleep—in her own bed—but it is important to keep in mind that there are individual differences among babies and children. In other words, what works for one child may not work for another, and vice versa.

One widely used technique is the method proposed by Richard Ferber, M.D. He suggests a "progressive" approach to teach your child to fall asleep and sleep through the night. Briefly, he suggests that after a loving pre-bedtime routine, you put your child to bed while she's still awake. Once you put her in bed, leave the room. If she cries, wait a certain amount of time before you check on her (e.g. 5 minutes). When you do go back to her room, comfort her without picking her up or feeding her. Gradually increase the amount of time that passes between checks (e.g., 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, and so on). It is crucial to be very patient and consistent. This technique usually works in about a week. It is also important to rule out other conditions such as illness, pain, or stress that may be interfering with the child’s sleep. Also, if your child is old enough, it may help giving your child a transitional object or “security blanket” such as a stuffed animal, toy, or blanket to sleep with.

Waking up at night: letting baby cry it out or picking baby up to soothe?

Samalin: If a baby is usually a good sleeper and is unusually upset—he may have had a bad dream, or have a stomachache, or be upset in some way—then it’s okay to go in and pick up the baby. But if a child is simply whimpering or bored, it is unnecessary to go in. It comes down to the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’. You have to use your judgment to decipher whether your child really needs soothing and nurturing, or if he just wants attention. The statement ‘letting a child cry it out’ can become a dangerous one, because there is also a difference between a child wailing for 45 minutes and simply whining or complaining for your company.

Middle of the night: letting the child climb into parents’ bed or send back to room?

Samalin: The majority of parents want their children sleeping on their own. If you’re not a single parent, and you’re living with another adult, it would be nice if you could share your bed with your partner. You need to create both structure and limits with the child. This really falls into the category of want vs. need. I don’t criticize parents who allow their child to sleep in their beds if they’re doing what they want to do. In the short run, they may have a better night’s sleep, but this may cause problems in the long run. 

Meal Time

Weaning from breast-feeding: when mom’s ready or when baby’s ready?

Samalin: It doesn’t matter whether the mother or baby is the first to want to stop. It’s all about mutual respect. It may be a pleasurable experience for the mother and a nutritional need for the baby, but once the baby is ready to stop, we need to respect his wishes. For instance, when a child stops showing interest in the breast and starts showing interest in bottle or cup, you need to give her that respect even though it may be hard for you and you wish this stage could go on for much longer. Moving on from the breast is a natural developmental stage, and the mother should encourage it to progress.

Dr. Diaz: When the baby refuses to breast-feed—either gradually or suddenly—it doesn’t necessarily mean the baby is ready to wean. It is important to rule out possible causes of a “nursing strike.” These causes could be pain, illness, overuse of pacifier or bottle, over-stimulating environment, distraction, or stress, to name a few. Patience and persistence are the keys to getting a baby back to the breast. If either mother or baby becomes frustrated when the breast is offered, you can stop and try again later. Attempts to breast-feed should be kept as pleasant as possible, so that the baby will associate breast-feeding with positive feelings. Weaning should be a natural process and does not have to be a stressful event for the mother or the child. If the baby continuously refuses the breast before it seems the right time to wean, consult with your pediatrician or a lactation specialist.

Picky eaters: eating what’s put on the table or making a separate meal?

Samalin: I do not believe in making a separate meal for finicky eaters. The only people you should make a separate meal for are a spouse, a lover, or yourself. Becoming a short-order cook for a fussy eater can be a waste of time, since no child will ever say, “I really loved what you cooked and I appreciate it that you made something new.” However, I don’t believe in forcing kids to eat. If you put chicken and pasta on their plate and they don’t want to eat it, just tell them they don’t have to. Then if the child says she’s hungry, you can tell her she can fix herself something else, and point her to the peanut butter or the yogurt in the fridge. If you’re able to remain very cool and unemotional about what your child eats and doesn’t eat, you probably won’t have power struggles over meals.

Dr. Schuman: This is what I learned: My first job as a psychologist was at a camp where I was the counselor for a group of 11-year-olds. One of the kids was labeled a finicky eater by both the parents and the camp. While he was under my care for two months, I let him eat whatever he wanted and never forced him to eat. When the parents came to visit, they were amazed at how relaxed he was about eating. Kids are better off when their parents are happy and comfortable enough with themselves to be able to pass on their own relaxed mien to their children. You want to give them the message that they should enjoy food as much as you do. Like any rule, there are always exceptions. Suppose you want your child to have broccoli: Don’t ask the child, "Would you like to have broccoli?” because if the child says “no,” you will be unhappy. Therefore, the appropriate question is, "Would you like to have your broccoli now, or in 10 minutes?” It’s always better to give people, including children, a choice, but the choice should not be ‘no’ or ‘yes’. The choice should be ‘now’ or ‘in X minutes)’. This way, the child is getting a choice, and you are getting the assurance that your child is going to eat the broccoli. Always start with a small amount of what new food you want to introduce to ensure they’ll work up a desire for it in the future.

Dr. Diaz: If your child is getting a well balanced diet—you can check this with your pediatrician—you should not worry about her skipping a meal; she will compensate nutritionally with the next meal. Quarreling about food is likely to lead to power struggles, a lot of frustration and anxiety, and sometimes even to the development of eating disorders. Research in the area recommends not using food as a reward or punishment. It is important to separate discipline (eating behavior) from nutrition (food intake). You can prevent mealtimes from becoming a battleground by dealing with your own feelings of frustration and offering good food to your child without forcing it down. Also, make her feel that she is an active part of eating, let her try to eat by herself, and offer help only if she indicates she needs help. It is very difficult for a toddler, for instance, to sit still through a whole family meal. Let him sit and eat as much as he needs, and then get down to play when he’s ready to do so.

Putting Toys Away

Supervising child to do this or quickly doing it yourself?

Samalin: By doing it yourself, you will not help your child to learn. It would be great if they did it alone, but you will most likely need to help them out, even if it’s easier to just do it yourself. Ideally, it would be easiest if your kids had fewer toys, but that is not very likely. Without the surplus of toys, there would be less of a mess to have to clean up. However, since you have to pick your battles, it may be that this is something not worth fighting about.

Dr. Schuman: Do not do it yourself or the child will never learn to be responsible. You need to tell the child that you want these toys picked up, and then ask for their suggestions how to get the room to look neater and more organized.

Dr. Diaz: It is important to keep in mind that developmentally, children really clean up their toys at about age 4. Nevertheless, you can encourage your child to “help” put the toys away, in a playful way. Make the task reasonable for the age of the child. With little children, you may end up doing most of the work at first. As they get older, let them do more and more. If they feel like they are contributing, this will create a positive self-image, and the inclination to help out. Give an advance warning of the task—young children especially have a hard time making transitions from one activity to another. Saying, "In a little bit it will be time to pick up so we can have dinner,” could make the transition easier for them from playing to cleaning.

Break the big task into manageable little tasks and make it a game (you can use singing, counting, etc., and work along with the child; you can pick up the books and she can pick up the blocks). Use modeling and praise. You can also link cleaning up with something fun (a reward at the end of the task). If you decide to set consequences if your child refuses to clean up (e.g., putting what the child was playing with out of reach) be consistent; decide on a course of action and follow through. And lastly, set a good example by keeping your own room and the rest of the house clean.


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