Manipulative Babies – A Myth

I’m sure many parents have been told at one time or another that continually picking up their crying babies would “spoil” them. It has also been said that babies manipulate parents through crying.

Studies have now shown that this is neurobiologically incorrect. The human brain consists of three parts – two of which are the from our evolutionary origins: the reptilian brain (brain stem and cerebellum), the mammalian brain (limbic system), and the rational brain (cortex and frontal lobes).

The reptilian brain is responsible for essential bodily functions that help sustain life, including hunger, digestion, elimination, breathing, circulation, temperature, movement, posture, balance, territorial instincts, and the fight or flight response.

The mammalian brain is responsible for emotions such as fear, rage, separation distress, caring and nurturing, social bonding, playfulness, explorative urge, and lust in adults.

The rational brain provides higher brain functions responsible for creativity, imagination, problem-solving, reasoning, reflection, self-awareness, kindness, empathy and concern.

When a baby is born, much of the rational brain is undeveloped. They are ruled largely by their reptilian and mammalian brains in the first few years of life. “In order to control an adult, a baby needs the power of clear thought, and for that he needs the brain chemical glutamate to be working well in his frontal lobes [within the rational brain]. But the glutamate system is not properly established in a baby’s brain, so that means he is not capable of thinking much about anything, let alone how to manipulate his parents” (Sunderland 39).

When humans first evolved and began to walk on two legs, our pelvis became narrower. As we got smarter, our brains also increased in size. A narrower pelvis and an bigger head meant that babies had to be evicted from the womb “about three months before they are fully mature” or they would not be able to get through the birth canal safely (Karp 65). As such, babies behave like an external foetus at birth and require a fourth trimester outside the womb.

A baby is born with a very limited repertoire of actions – the ability to cry to communicate his needs, the root reflex for feeding, excretion and sleep. Crying is a baby’s only means of saying, “I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m overstimulated”.

A baby moves easily into fear of threat and shock… too bright, too harsh, too cold, too hot, too sudden. The amygdala in the lower brain, which functions as a detector for potential threat, is perfectly online at birth… How can she know that the noisy liquidiser is not a predator that will come and attack her? How can she cope with the shock of being undressed and immersed in water when you lower her into a bath? (Sunderland 37)

When a baby cries, he is not trying to exercise his lungs or control his parent. He cries because he is communicating a need whether emotional or physical. A baby’s emotional need is no less important than a physical need. When a baby has an emotional need that is unfulfilled, the pain he feels can be as strong as a physical hurt.

When a baby cries to be picked up, she is not being “needy” or “clingy”. “The separation distress system, located in the lower brain, is genetically programmed to be hypersensitive [because] in earlier stages of evolution, it was very dangerous for an infant to be away from her mother… if she didn’t cry to alert her [mother] her whereabouts, she would not survive” (Sunderland 50). With age, the development of the rational brain helps to keep the separation distress system in check.

Babies can’t be spoiled and they don’t know how to manipulate. It’s a fact. The difficulty then is identifying the moment when their awareness kicks in and they start to realise that certain actions produce specific results.

Sunderland, Margot. The Science of Parenting. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2006.

Karp, Harvey. The Happiest Baby on the Block. New York: Bantam Dell, 2002.


  1. […] wrote a blog post some time ago that babies are not manipulative and that they cannot be spoilt.  I posted that article on another website and received the […]