Effective Discipline for Babies and Toddlers

Discipline isn’t easy for children or parents, but it’s important to set limits to let your child know when behavior is improper. Discipline teaches children how to modify their own behavior, which is a crucial life skill.

However, at this young age, be aware of the difference between children trying something out for the first time versus doing what they know to be wrong. Usually, babies are merely exploring, learning, or communicating through their actions and should not be punished for behavior that adults might see as incorrect. But by time they approach age one, children begin testing their limits--and testing your limits.

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Some behavior can be socially inappropriate, or even dangerous. By using targeted and limited strategies, parents can teach their child effective behavior modification. Here are some ways to begin:

Introduce Rules and Consequences

Create a basic rule and tell your child (and other adults in the household) about the rule. Warn your child when she is about to break the rule. Then, if she persists in breaking the rule, enforce a consequence. Make your consequences simple: take away a favorite object, don’t allow a treat or a privilege, or have her play independently from others, for example. Be consistent and assign a consequence every time your rule is broken.

Ideally, consequences for very young children should be simple and linked to the bad behavior. For instance, a child who doesn't listen when told not to throw a ball around in the house gets the ball taken away; a child that is not playing nicely with other children can be separated from them for a brief period of time; a child that leaves their toys on the floor loses the privilege to play with the toy. Children should be told that this outcome will happen in advance so they cannot be surprised when the consequence occurs.

Redirect or Distract

The short attention spans of babies and toddlers can be used to redirect them to a different activity or distract them from ongoing bad behavior. Is your child pulling hair or grabbing the tail of your cat? Show him something more interesting that grabs his attention away from continuing with this behavior and it will stop.

Ignore Attention-Seeking

Never ignore behavior which is dangerous, of course, but if your child enjoys throwing things around the room to get your attention, for example, you might pretend it’s not even happening. Sometimes these things are funny, but try not to laugh, as she may see that as approval. Don’t scold or even glare in her direction--don’t make eye contact at all--and the behavior may quickly stop.

Stop It Before It Starts

When babies become mobile, they can get into all kinds of trouble. Make sure to set up an area for play that is safe and baby-proofed. Put dangerous items out of his reach, use baby gates, and avoid temptation to begin with.

Brief Time-Outs Can Help

We usually associate “time-outs” with older children, but very brief uses of this tactic can be used with children around their first birthday. Experts say the length of time-outs should be equal to a child’s age, so one minute for a year old, and upwards from there. Don’t put her in a room alone and out of your view--for safety and emotional reasons. Make sure she associates the time-out with the behavior. State what she’s doing wrong both before and after the time-out to reinforce your rule.

No Corporal Punishment

Even a mild swat can be damaging to a young child. Hitting your child might briefly stop his bad behavior, but it doesn’t teach him anything about changing behavioral patterns--and it could harm your relationship. Your child trusts you, and causing him pain can bring confusion and doubt. The more children are hit or spanked, long-term effects like anti-social and aggressive behavior become apparent, so it’s best to avoid this tactic altogether.

 

Remember, always be kind. You can be both firm and kind, so look for that balance. Learning new rules is a process for young children, so be consistent and have patience.