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Appreciating What Baby Needs (Not Wants) for Healthy Development

One of the challenging issues for parents is the need to continually alter childrearing strategies as the child matures. For example, during the first months of life the rule is to gratify all of the infants needs to the extent that this is possible. The infant is relatively helpless and completely dependent. But by the end of the first year the infant has developed a certain amount of independence and new skills. At this point parents need to distinguish between needs and wants. Needs are those demands that are necessary for the child’s healthy development. Wants, on the other hand, may be something that may be pleasing to the infant but which may not be healthy. A one year old, to illustrate, may develop a taste for sweets or starches, but too much of either is not healthy. The child may want them but certainly not need them.


The baby’s increasing drive towards activity and independence may also clash with the parent’s interests and concerns. One example is at the end of the first year when the baby wants to feed himself or herself. When allowed to do this, however, the baby gets food on the floor, walls and all over himself or herself. As parents we, understandably, decide that the baby is not ready for self feeding and once again take over this activity. As we did when the baby was younger, we feed him or her with a spoon, and hold the cup up for him or her to drink. When we do this, what often happens is that the baby goes on a food strike, cries and complains, knocks the spoon or cup out of our hands and is generally a pain. At this point, if we are wise, we will appreciate that the baby needs (not wants) to engage in self feeding and that it is best to allow him or her to do so. The damage can be minimized if we put less milk in the cup and less food in the bowl, and replenish these as needed. The baby will go back to enjoying his or her meal and will develop better skills and coordination. It will not take long before decorating the kitchen with food will give way to effective and relatively neat eating behavior.

As parents we many sometimes have to put up with a little mess to accommodate the child’s healthy needs for activity and skill development. If we take the mess in stride, appreciate that it will be short lived, the stress can be averted and the child will be supported in his or her increasing independence and skill development.

By David Elkind Ph.D. Renowned child psychologist David Elkind Ph.D. shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood, and how you can support your child's healthy development every step of the way. 

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