Your baby is gradually becoming more mobile and independent. We tell you how to set limits in a loving way.

By the editors of Child magazine
October 05, 2005

This month is the ideal time to introduce the notion of limits to your baby. Her wanderlust means she is beginning to get herself into situations that could be dangerous; she has also developed a long enough memory to remember-or at least to begin to remember-that certain areas or activities are off-limits to her.

Saying no to your baby isn't necessarily a negative thing; in fact, it's an important tool for teaching him about the world. Small children inevitably get into mischief when they're trying to learn and explore; when you discipline them lovingly, you're teaching them that their world is consistent and fair and that they won't lose your love if they break the rules. When your baby is doing something harmful, simply say, "No, you can't have [or do] that," and remove him from the tempting or dangerous situation. Here are some ways to convey your message about limits effectively:

  • Be prompt. The more quickly you respond to your baby's misbehavior, the more likely your disapproval will sink in. If you wait even a minute, her focus is likely to shift, and she won't understand what she's being scolded for. But do pause a moment to consider whether the action is one that you really need to curtail. Remember, your baby is just trying to learn about her world.
  • Criticize the action, not the child. Instead of telling your baby that he is bad for pulling your hair, which threatens his self-esteem, tell him that pulling hair is a bad thing to do.
  • Distract your baby. After you've reprimanded her for something she's done, remove her from the situation and offer a toy or another object for her to examine. At this age, it may take weeks or months for your message to sink in, so leaving the temptation accessible will only frustrate both of you.
  • Be consistent with your limits. Forbidding biting one day and chuckling at it the next sends your baby a confusing message and makes him believe that your rules are flexible when, in fact, they are not.
  • Don't overdo it. If your baby is constantly hearing "no!" whenever she tries to do something, she's likely to feel inhibited and to get the message that the world is a rather frightening place. Make your home as safe as possible for your little explorer, then limit your no's to activities that threaten your baby's or another person's well-being and those that could cause real damage.
  • Offer your baby alternatives. Along with each no you give your child should come a yes: "No, you can't play with those good dishes, but here are some plastic plates you may have instead." Your baby's feelings will be less hurt, and you will have succeeded in diverting her attention without causing a scene.
  • Accentuate the positive. Just as you react with discipline when your baby is exhibiting "bad" behavior, reinforce "good" behavior with praise. And as when you are disciplining, praise the action, not the child. In other words, when he is eating very neatly, don't say, "That's a good boy," but "Thank you for eating so neatly today!"
  • Set a good example. When it comes to discipline, actions speak louder than words. In fact, as children begin to understand more of what you say, verbal discipline can become confusing. When you say, "Don't pull the dog's tail," your baby may hear, "Pull dog's tail." But if you say, "Pet the dog gently," and stroke the animal's fur, she can see the proper way to behave. It's also a way to give disciplining a positive twist.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.