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Does the Psychology of Manipulation Apply to Babies?

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Black adult and baby on facing one another while lying on the floor

In order to explore this topic with a little more detail and respond your questions from last week, we thought to write this brief article. First, let us define manipulation. Upon a quick search, the first three definitions of manipulation include,

  1. to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner;

  2. to manage or utilize skillfully;

  3. to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage.

For the purpose of discussing when and whether babies and toddlers can manipulate adults, the third definition reads as the best fit for the psychology of manipulation. This definition suggests that for an infant or toddler to be able to manipulate their caregivers, they would need to possess skills such as critical thinking (i.e., I want something that my caregiver will not want to give me so I need to figure out how to get it), impulse control (i.e., I will wait until later to get the thing that I want) and higher order empathy (e.g., cry when it is least convenient for my caregiver). As we learned last week, both critical thinking and impulse control are

Black baby crying

managed in the prefrontal cortex. Of all of the regions in the brain, the prefrontal cortex is the last to reach developmental maturity. This area of the brain develops slowly over time with appropriate modeling and practice from healthy environmental interactions. Remember, this area is not fully developed until an individual reaches their mid-twenties. While children under a year old can be taught to inhibit their responses in some circumstances for around 10 seconds, this short time period is not enough inhibition for manipulation to occur. Moreover, infants younger than that tend to have impulse control of no more than two to three seconds. Therefore, young children are not capable of manipulation. Similarly, some caregivers think that picking up babies when they cry means the baby is manipulating the caregiver and the baby will learn to cry even more. However, ongoing research over past 60 years, starting with Mary Ainsworth, has found that parents who waited to pick up their crying infant had infants who cried more often than parents who quickly picked up their crying baby. Initially, a baby's cry is an automatic reaction. When babies cries are tended to with nurturance, their cries become how they communicate their needs to us. The keyword here is their needs. Instead of framing our words to think that babies are trying to get what they want, remember that they are communicating what they need. Manipulation is about wants, not needs.

Aren't Needs and Wants Basically the Same?

In everyday language, we use the words wants and needs to mean the same thing. However, they are actually quite different. A need is something that supports our healthy and developmentally appropriate survival. That means without having a need met, we would eventually die or otherwise significantly change how we exist as humans. For example, human babies need things like food, drink, touch, and language exposure among other things. Without food and drink, a human baby would not live. Without human touch, a human baby's brain would not fully develop. Babies don't want to be held/picked up, they need it. Without language exposure, human babies do not develop language skills necessary for complex communication. Babies don't want your attention and communication, they need it. Do you see the pattern here?

Wants are things that add to the quality of our life. We can survive and develop appropriately without them. For example, when a child has a tantrum because they see candy, that is likely a want and the tantrum is an emotional reaction. It is frustrating to want something and not be able to have it right away. See, we are back to impulse control - not manipulation. I hope this is all coming together for you.


Okay, what are the things that you need to know about manipulation and babies?

  • When a newborn cries, they are communicating that they need something.

  • Sometimes when an older child, such as an eight-year-old, cries, they may be communicating a want, a need, or an emotion. This would depend on the child and their development.

  • Due to brain development, babies cannot manipulate anyone.

  • Needs and wants are different.

  • Picking up a newborn is giving them what they need.

We hope that these articles help you learn something or think about things that you know in a new way. Embedded in every post is the encouragement to nurture yourself and others. In spirit of that message, please take a moment to play a little today.


Dr. Dowtin


This article was all about emotions and the psychology of manipulation related to babies and young children. Feel free to leave a comment and let us know other topics that interested you. Engage in the conversation and share this post.

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Bell, S. M., & Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1972). Infant crying and maternal responsiveness. Child development, 1171-1190. Retrieved from

In. D. Suss and R. Knight (eds.), 2002. Principles of Frontal Lobe Function. Oxford University Press: New York, NY. Retrieved from

Nelson, J. K. (1998). The meaning of crying based on attachment theory. Clinical Social Work Journal, 26(1), 9-22. Retrieved from

Photo by Laura Garcia from Pexels.


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