Gentle Discipline for Babies and Toddlers

Life seems like one big science experiment for curious little ones -- but you can't always let them poke, prod, and pour. Here's how to keep them out of trouble.

When and How to Set Limits

A newborn is so helpless and innocent that caring for him is an awesome task. He may scream at the top of his lungs, spit up on your brand-new sweater, or wake you at 3:30 in the morning, but you can't really blame him. However, as the months pass and your baby is suddenly into everything -- splashing in the dog's water bowl, grabbing a pen from your purse, popping a penny from under the sofa into his mouth -- you realize that you shouldn't let him get away with everything.

Of course, you can't send him to his room or dock his allowance. But you don't want to spend all day scolding him either. In fact, saying "no" too often could actually curb his natural curiosity. "A very young child tends to overgeneralize when he hears the word no," says K. Mark Sossin, PhD, professor of psychology at Pace University, in New York City. "Even though you want him to stop doing one particular thing, he might assume that playing or being spontaneous in general is bad."

It's helpful to remember that most "misbehavior" at this age -- from dumping a glass of water on the floor to digging up houseplants -- is about experimenting and seeking independence, which are crucial parts of your child's development. "Although toddlers can sometimes be intentionally naughty, they often don't know right from wrong," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, MD, author of Toddler 411. As parents, it's our job to teach them. Discipline means having realistic expectations for your child's behavior -- and being willing to set gentle, consistent limits when you need to. Here are seven strategies to help keep your baby or toddler out of trouble without squelching his enthusiasm for exploration.

Stop It Before It Starts

Avoid Temptation

When your baby starts crawling, you know it's time to put covers on your electrical outlets and store crystal vases in a high cupboard. That makes sense for safety reasons, but it'll also give him freedom to play. "A young child doesn't need to have the run of the whole house, but if you make sure that one or two rooms are completely babyproofed, you won't have to say no as often," says Sylvia Rimm, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland. Over time, you'll have to put even more things out of reach -- even things you'd never expect. Amy Caruso, of Cincinnati, had to put her cat's food up on the counter when her daughter, Isabella, turned 13 months. "It had never occurred to me that cat food would be appealing, but she kept getting into it, and it was simpler to just move it than to keep telling her it was yucky," she says.

Change Gears

Because young children usually have a short attention span, it's easy to distract them. If your child insists on ripping up the newspaper, get her psyched to play with a favorite toy instead -- or go to the mailbox together to mail a letter. "My boys love to bang on the television, so when I see one of them moving in that direction, I'll say something like, 'Where's your brother?' and it usually makes them forget what they were doing," says Kathryn Kaycoff Manos, mother of identical twin toddlers in Encino, California.

Focus on Sleep

Overtired toddlers are much harder to handle. "In my experience, fatigue is the number-one cause of misbehavior," says Will Wilkoff, MD, author of How to Say No to Your Toddler. "It's normal for a toddler to throw a tantrum to test the limits now and then, but if he's consistently difficult, he's probably sleep-deprived." Kids this age need 10 1/2 to 12 1/2 hours at night plus one to three hours of daytime napping. If your child isn't getting enough, make his bedtime earlier.

Look the Other Way

Most children crave their parents' attention so much that they're willing to do anything -- even something naughty -- to get it. "If you notice that your toddler starts screaming every time you get on the phone but there's nothing wrong when you check on him, your best bet is to just ignore him," says Dr. Brown. "Giving him attention -- or even getting angry -- will only reinforce his behavior." (Of course, you should always squelch behavior that could be dangerous.) When you're ignoring your child, don't even make eye contact. "You might be tempted to glare at him sternly, but don't," says Dr. Wilkoff. "Glaring is essentially the same thing as saying, 'Be quiet' and that's giving him a form of attention." If you're talking on the phone a lot, however, it's unreasonable to expect your toddler to play quietly. Try to save less urgent calls for naptime.

Introduce Consequences

Dr. Wilkoff recommends a simple three-step approach that can work with even very young kids: 1. Establish a rule. 2. Threaten a consequence whenever your child is about to break the rule. 3. If he ignores your threat, immediately enforce the consequence. This worked for Manos when her sons discovered a new favorite game: standing on the dining-room chairs. She warned them several times that it wasn't safe, but they continued to do it every chance they got -- and she realized she needed to be firmer. "Now when one of them starts climbing onto a chair, I warn him, 'Remember, no standing.' If he stands up, I say, 'When you stand on the chair, you have to go down on the floor,' and I lift him off and put him on the floor." Although the boys still try to get away with standing on the chairs sometimes, they're doing it less and less. Keep in mind that it can take quite a while for a rule to sink in. "Expect to repeat yourself 20 times or more -- especially if you've been inconsistent in the past," says Dr. Brown. But if you stick with it, your child will learn that you've changed your ways -- and he'll eventually change his too.

Try Modified Time-Outs

Most of us think of a time-out as a discipline strategy for older kids, but some experts say that you can use a version of it from about 9 months on, especially for more serious offenses. Let's say your child bites you on the shoulder when you're hugging her -- something that many older babies, unaware of the pain that can be inflicted with their new teeth, do at least once. Say, 'No biting!' and sit her on your lap facing away from you for one minute. "Losing your attention is a severe penalty for a baby or toddler," says Dr. Brown. "When a minute is over, repeat the phrase 'No biting,' and then give her a hug and move on. A young child might not connect the consequence with the behavior at first, but if you respond that way every time she bites, she'll catch on fairly quickly." By the time toddlers are 18 months or so, you can put them in a time-out in their bedroom for two minutes if you have a gate you can put up to block the doorway. "You don't want to close the door, because it can be frightening to young children to be left alone," says Dr. Rimm.

Don't Just Say No

Save the straightforward "No!" for instances when someone could get hurt or your child's safety is at stake -- when she runs out into the street, for example, or reaches for a hot oven door. "In less extreme circumstances, your 'No' can be followed by a compromise or an alternate suggestion," says Rahil Briggs, PsyD, an infant/toddler psychologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City. For instance, you could say, "You can't throw your ball at the lamp because we don't throw things inside. But you can throw the ball outside." Try to find an alternative that captures the energy and idea that your child seemed to have in mind so that you can show him you empathize with what he's feeling, says Dr. Sossin. This approach not only solves the immediate problem but also teaches your child to look for more appropriate alternatives in the future.

What About Spanking?

You've tried distraction. You've tried time-outs. But your toddler keeps pinching her baby brother. Is a swat on the behind an acceptable method of discipline for young children? Most experts say no. "In the short term, spanking can get your child to stop doing whatever it is she's doing, but it won't teach her anything and it could harm your relationship with her," says Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. "Children trust their parents, and when parents cause them pain it's very confusing for them."

There's also some evidence that spanking can have more serious consequences. Several years ago, Dr. Gershoff reviewed the results of 88 studies on the topic and found that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to be noncompliant, aggressive, and antisocial. (After all, they're learning that it's okay to hit when you're angry.) But will a moderate, occasional swat cause long-term damage? "Probably not," says Dr. Brown. "But if you are trying to be a good role model for your child, I wouldn't advise it."

Used with permission from Parents magazine.

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