Even the most angelic baby can act a little devilish sometimes -- pulling your hair, throwing her Cheerios all over the floor, or trying to stuff her waffle into the DVD player. While all that impish behavior may be annoying, keep in mind that your little rascal is just doing her job: learning all about the world around her. "At around 6 months to 1 year, babies are naturally explorers," says Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., professor of child development at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and author of The New Baby Answer Book. "They're using all of their senses to get to know their environment, and that means they may try to touch, taste, or happily tear apart everything that's in sight."
Trying to instill rules or dole out punishments won't do any good at this age; your baby lacks the developmental ability and understanding of language to know right from wrong. But that doesn't mean you have to let her destroy your living room (or your new iPhone). With loving guidance you can steer her away from trouble while keeping your house and sanity intact.
If you catch your baby ripping the page of a library book, you may be tempted to let out a yelp. "But screaming will just confuse and scare him," says Dr. Goldstein. Instead, give him a more appropriate toy to manhandle as you remove the book. Or you can take your baby in your arms, play his favorite song, and dance around the room together.
Babies are easily distracted, so when you see your little one crawling toward the TV remote, simply scoop her up and show her something equally interesting: a colorful toy, a plush puzzle, a plastic bowl and wooden spoon, or even a crumpled brown paper bag, suggests Dr. Goldstein. Be sure to cuddle her and chat while you're redirecting her attention. "Hold her close and say in an upbeat way, 'Let's go see what fun things we can dig up in the Tupperware drawer!' "
Sometimes a baby's feisty behavior can be a clue to what he's feeling, especially when he's tired and ready for a nap or has had enough at mealtime. If your baby scatters peas on the floor, for example, it could be because he's doing a Galileo experiment to see what happens when objects are dropped from a height; but it could also be his way of saying that he's not hungry anymore. Take away the food and give him something a little less messy to drop, like a washcloth or an empty cup, suggests Barbara Polland, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of We Can Work It Out: Conflict Resolution for Children. You can always try to feed him again a little bit later.
Even though your baby might not understand words, he definitely picks up on your tone of voice, and a sharp, loud "No!" can be a powerful tool, says Dr. Polland. But if you use "No!" every time he does something annoying, the word will lose its efficacy. "Save it for times when your baby is actually in danger of hurting himself, such as when he's near a hot stove or during his attempts to climb furniture," says Dr. Polland. Then quickly pick your baby up and remove him from the situation, and put on your most serious frown. "Babies are very focused on facial expressions; it?s how they first learn to read people," says Dr. Polland. But don't expect him to remember your safety lesson next time -- you still need to keep a constant eye on him.
Of course, no matter how often you say to yourself, "She's just a baby!" there are times when her mischief-making can drive you nuts. The important thing is to catch yourself before you get so frustrated that you take it out on your baby. (An estimated 1,200 to 1,400 children are injured or killed by shaking every year in the United States.) Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and sit quietly until you've calmed down. Then call a friend to come watch her for half an hour while you go for a walk or soak in the tub -- or if no one's available, put the baby in her crib with a few toys while you take a ten-minute breather.
When your baby is a little older and in mid-meltdown, you can say, "Let's take a time-in. I'm going to hold you, and we'll breathe and relax for a minute until we both feel better," Dr. Polland suggests. Since she's seen Mommy doing it, she'll know it's not punishment but a healthy and productive way to deal with frustration and stress.
Actions speak much louder than words, especially if your baby is too young to comprehend what you're telling her. "Instead of constantly saying 'Don't do that,' demonstrate to your baby what she can do," advises Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of Positive Discipline: The First Three Years. "For example, if she's pulling the dog's tail, take her hand and stroke the dog gently with it, and say, 'Here's how we play nicely with Max.' "
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Parents magazine.