Struggling with setting limits with a baby? Encourage her curiosity while establishing boundaries to keep her safe as she begins to explore.
My baby—once so small he felt like a swaddled blob over my shoulder—is now all over the place. At 10 months old, he’s crawling everywhere, giving me a heart attack with each turn. He pulls himself up on shelves and curtains. He wants to keep playing instead of sleep.
How can parents set limits with our now mobile baby—and should we?
I’m not a fan of discipline in the typical sense. Things like time outs, counting to three, slapping the hand. Discipline is teaching our kids how to behave, not a power struggle or a plan to isolate our kids. It’s acknowledging her intentions, showing empathy, and guiding her to more appropriate behavior.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Forget punishments, time outs, counting to three. Don’t think ‘me versus you’ when trying to discipline your child. Instead, think about what you can teach your child. What can she learn from this situation?”
But first, let’s dig into why babies do that to begin with. Children—especially babies—are curious about their world. We take for granted how much we know that our kids still don’t. They’re built to test theories and push boundaries to better understand their surroundings.
A 10-month-old knocking down a pile of books loves what she just made happen. She’s not thinking about the mess she made or that you prefer a pile of books on the table instead of on the floor.
She’s doing what babies do. She’s curious, not naughty.
Why we shouldn’t always say “no”
Sometimes it seems like we say “no” (in its various forms) all day, policing our kids and telling them what they can and can’t do. And the more we tell them not do something, the more it feels like they misbehave and need to hear it more.
Saying “no” can even been our default response to their behavior, especially when every action seems to warrant another reprimand.
And sometimes we even assume we’re doing our job as parents when we harp on our kids. We’re supposed to keep them out of trouble, right? Guide them away from what not to do?
While our role is to teach our kids their boundaries, we’re not stuck saying policing them all day. I’m learning we can spend a majority of our day not saying “no” and instead enjoy the time with our kids. Besides, we make these mistakes when we tell them what not to do all the time:
- We don’t honor their spirit and curiosity. We’re so quick to react with a “no” that we don’t pause and evaluate what our kids are doing. We tell them not to run without acknowledging that running isn’t bad, just not through a busy mall.
- We’re in constant battle mode. Even though it feels like we’re just doing our job, it doesn’t feel good to reprimand our kids all the time. We hover and highlight what they shouldn’t be doing. And it becomes even more wearisome when they continue to misbehave.
- Our kids don’t understand what’s off limits. When everything warrants a “no,” it’s hard for kids to decide what’s actually off limits. Running across the street shouldn’t bear the same weight as making a mess of their stuffed animals.
Setting limits with a baby
Letting a few things go doesn’t mean you’ll be permissive and will let them get away with everything. . We need to establish boundaries to keep them safe. We can’t let them grab the sharp pencil or stay up all hours of the night. We also want them to take care of themselves, others and certain belongings.
So we set limits while honoring their intentions, needs and development. Here’s how:
1. Give your child freedom within confines
It’s a drag telling your kids “no” all day long. Instead of catching them in the act of doing something wrong, prevent them from doing so in the first place.
Give your baby the freedom to explore within a safe space. One of the easiest ways to do this is through baby proofing your home (or even a section of your home). Rather than telling my kids not to open kitchen cabinets, I placed locks so they couldn’t open them at all. I set breakables, valuables or dangerous items out of reach.
Another way to let her explore in a safe space is by giving her things she’s allowed to play with. If she’s adamant about throwing things around the house, hand her soft toys and balls instead. You’re creating an environment for her to explore without telling her to stop or not do something.
2. Redirect her to another activity
Redirecting your baby to a more appropriate activity is a fantastic way to keep her out of trouble. And unlike distraction, you’re still honoring her intentions and showing empathy. If you have a chance, use redirection to set limits.
So, how does redirecting a baby look? Let’s imagine your baby got a hold of your books and is turning and crinkling the pages with glee. Redirect by acknowledging her intentions: “You’re curious about these books.” Then, steer her towards something more appropriate: “Those are mama’s books, though. Here, you can play with your soft books or this wrapping paper.”
That way, you’re not stifling her curiosity, just channeling it towards an acceptable way.
3. Communicate clearly
How you communicate with your baby makes a huge difference whether she follow through or not. Keep your reactions minimal. For one thing, you don’t want to scare or startle her into thinking she’s a bad person. And second, she’ll wonder how and why she managed to get a reaction from you.
Reserve your stern reactions for safety-related issues, and even then, maintain a loving demeanor. She’s wired to explore and needs you to guide her to what’s allowed and not. Keep your sentences short, firm and low, but don’t take it so far as to shaming her.
4. Make sure her needs are met
One of the ways you can prevent your baby from having a meltdown is to make sure you meet her needs. When she fusses and tests your boundaries, ask yourself:
- Is she hungry?
- Is she tired?
- Is her diaper dirty?
- Does she need attention?
A clean and well-rested baby is more likely to listen than if she were tired and needing your attention.
5. Be consistent between both parents
You and your partner will have different thresholds for what’s allowed or not. One parent might be okay with giving the pacifier during the day while the other wants it only at night. One allows the baby to play with an old cell phone while the other prefers that she doesn’t.
Once you notice a discrepancy, decide right away what to do moving forward. Nothing confuses a child more than inconsistent rules between parents. So when one parent takes away the cell phone, she throws a fit because the other one allowed her to have it.
6. Be choosy with what’s off limits
We react too quickly with our kids sometimes. Maybe we’re distracted or frustrated about something else and take it out on them. We fear the worst and overprotect, or assume we’re doing our job by deflecting any potential scrape or misbehavior.
Instead, ask yourself whether your child’s behavior is that bad. Weigh the pros and cons of telling her “no” before you do. You might find that what you’re telling her not to do isn’t so bad after all.
For instance, one of my twins stood on a toy. When I saw his feet stepping on the toy, my first reaction was to say, “Don’t step on that.”
But I held back and asked myself if it’s that bad. Yes, the toy wasn’t made for standing, but him standing on it wasn’t going to break it. It wasn’t dangerous, disrespectful or hurtful to others.
So I let it go.
Any time we discipline our kids, pause before you react. Ask yourself:
- Is it dangerous?
- Is it setting a bad example or precedent?
- Is it disrespectful to others?
- Is it not taking care of items or ourselves?
And if the answer is no, it’s worth holding back and letting it go.
By now, you learned that punishment tactics don’t work with setting limits with a baby. Instead, build a stronger connection with your child with patience and guidance. It’s normal for kids that age to test boundaries.
Understanding why, empathizing and redirecting are more effective when you need to set limits.
Want even more tips? Join my newsletter and get my PDF, 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child! Discover 5 ways to nurture and work with—not against—your child’s inner spirit and strong personality. Download it below—at no cost to you:
Get more tips about your growing baby:
- Parenting Doesn’t Have to Be So Overwhelming
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
- What to Do when You Tell Your Kids No Too Often
- The Difference between Distraction and Redirection
- Parenting Your Strong Willed Child
Tell me in the comments: What’s one way your child tested your boundaries when they were in the late infant and early toddler stage? What is your biggest struggle with setting limits with a baby?