When you first bring your baby home, discipline may be the furthest thing from your mind. But soon your little bundle of joy is crawling and exploring her new world. This can lead to some unfavorable and sometimes dangerous escapades, such as pulling the cat’s tail, biting electrical cords, or sampling a taste of your houseplants. To curb these behaviors, and encourage her curiosity in safe ways, some form of discipline is in order. But how do you discipline a baby or toddler?
Perhaps a starting point would be to rethink how we define the word “discipline.” T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., renowned pediatrician, professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of numerous parenting books, cautions parents to not confuse discipline with punishment. “Discipline means teaching, not punishment. Physical punishment is not respectful and is bound to undermine the child’s self-image,” explains Brazelton in his book The Irreducible Needs of Children.
Brazelton describes good discipline as setting limits and guiding children without anger. He says that when parents discipline their babies and young children, they are not just discouraging bad behavior, they are taking an opportunity to show their children appropriate behaviors. So moments of discipline are really opportunities for teaching, and it’s important that parents practice discipline with patience and kindness.
Danielle Kassow, Ph.D., research associate at Talaris Research Institute in Seattle, says the foundation for good discipline is set early, and it starts with a positive parent-child bond that helps the child grow to know and trust their environment. She says at 0-2 years of age, parents can help establish discipline by forming and keeping to routines. “Setting limits and structuring the day within a routine helps children at this age know what to expect, learn how their parent is going to react, and develop a sense of security in knowing what is coming next.”
This good foundation for discipline helps give babies and toddlers confidence to explore their world. And once they start exploring, parents have an opportunity to set limits. Cathryn Booth-LaForce, Ph.D., FAPS, RYT, professor of nursing at the University of Washington, explains that children younger than 12 months of age do not have the cognitive ability to remember not to do certain things. So she recommends parents with babies younger than 1 year of age set limits by removing the things they don’t want their baby to get into.
“A parent may say no to a young baby trying to pull a leaf off a plant that’s on the floor, but the baby is not going to be able to remember that. They’re going to go right back over to the leaf. So the best thing to do at this age is to remove the plant. Make it a safer environment and move things out of reach, then redirect the baby’s behavior,” Booth-LaForce suggests.
Setting limits with your toddler
But when your baby gets older and starts walking, he has more autonomy, and you may discover he tests his limits to see where they are. Booth-LaForce says by the time your baby is a toddler, you’re out of the stage of removing things. You have to set clear limits by teaching and modeling with positive reinforcement. She recommends using praise and enlisting your child’s help for the behaviors you do want, such as picking up toys. You can also begin giving some simple choices at this age. Instead of telling a child to pick up her toys, give a choice like, “Do you want to pick up the cow toy or the horse toy first?” It’s important to only give choices at the times a child really does have a choice. Asking a child if she wants to take a bath when it’s almost bath time is not really a choice. But you can say, “Do you want to have a bath now or in five minutes?”
Discipline consistency is key
It’s important to be consistent and not give in to discipline when toddlers say “No!” or have a tantrum. Giving in will only set you back in your discipline efforts to set limits, and inconsistency can be stressful for children. “If a parent gives in, it can actually be anxiety-provoking,” Kassow explains. “If the parent is not always clear and consistent with their expectations and sticking to what they say, the child does not know what to expect. This can harm their ability for self-control later on.”
Instead of giving in, Kassow recommends being gentle yet firm, and physically getting down to your child’s level to talk with her in simple terms she can understand. “When you get down to a child’s level it’s not as scary for them, and you instantly set the stage to calm them. Then you can begin to help the child work through their emotions.”
Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance reporter, mother and stepmother.