Struggling with setting limits with a baby? Encourage his curiosity while establishing boundaries to keep him safe as he begins to explore.
My baby—once so small he felt like a swaddled blob over my shoulder—was now all over the place. At 10 months old, he’d crawl everywhere, giving me a heart attack with each turn. He’d pull himself up on shelves and curtains and wanted to keep playing instead of sleep.
How can parents set limits with our now mobile babies—and should we?
For many parents, the thought of disciplining babies feels impossible. They’re so young and curious, but at the same time, doing things they shouldn’t be doing. How can we address their behavior at this stage?
I’m not a fan of discipline in the typical sense, like time outs, counting to three, or slapping the hand. Discipline is teaching our kids how to behave, not a power struggle or a plan to isolate them. It’s acknowledging your child’s intentions, showing empathy, and guiding him to appropriate behavior.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“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 they still don’t. They’re built to test theories and push boundaries to better understand their surroundings.
An 11-month-old knocking down a pile of books loves what he just made happen. He’s not thinking about the mess you now have to clean up, or that you prefer a pile of books on the table instead of on the floor.
He’s doing what babies do and being curious, not naughty.
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Setting limits with a baby
Does it feel like you say “no” (in its various forms) all day, policing your child and telling him what he can and can’t do? But the more you tell him not do something, the more he misbehaves. Saying “no” can even be your default response, especially when every action seems to warrant another reprimand.
And you might even assume you’re doing your job when you harp on him. You’re supposed to keep him out of trouble, right? Guide him away from what not to do?
While you should set boundaries, you’re also not stuck policing him all day, either. You can spend a majority of your day not saying “no” and instead enjoy spending time with him. Besides, you’ll likely run into these mistakes when you tell him what not to do all the time:
- You don’t honor his spirit and curiosity. You’re not able to pause and see what he’s doing. You tell him not to run without acknowledging that running itself isn’t bad, just not through a busy mall.
- You’re in constant battle mode. Even though it feels like you’re just doing your job, it doesn’t feel good to reprimand him all the time. You hover and highlight what he shouldn’t be doing, and it becomes even more wearisome when he continues to misbehave.
- He doesn’t understand what’s off limits. When everything warrants a “no,” it’s hard for him to decide what’s actually off limits. Running across the street shouldn’t bear the same weight as making a mess of his stuffed animals.
Letting a few things go doesn’t mean you’ll be permissive and will let him get away with everything. You need to establish boundaries to keep him safe and can’t let him grab the sharpie or stay up all hours of the night. You also want him to take care of himself, other people, and certain belongings.
How? Set limits while honoring his intentions, needs, and development. Here are a few tips to do just that:
1. Give your baby freedom within confines
It’s a drag telling your child “no” all day long. Instead of catching him in the act of doing something wrong, prevent him from doing so in the first place.
Give him the freedom to explore within a safe space by baby proofing your home (or even a section of your home). Rather than telling him not to open kitchen cabinets, place locks so he can’t open them at all. Set breakables, valuables, or dangerous items out of reach.
Another way to let him explore in a safe space is by giving him items he’s allowed to play with. If he’s adamant about throwing things around the house, hand him soft toys and balls instead. You’re creating an environment for him to explore without telling him to stop or not do something.
2. Redirect your baby to another activity
Redirecting your baby to a more appropriate activity is a fantastic way to keep him out of trouble. And unlike distraction, you’re still honoring his intentions and showing empathy. If you have a chance, use redirection to set limits.
So, how does redirection look?
Let’s imagine he got a hold of your books and is turning and crinkling the pages with glee. Redirect by acknowledging his intentions: “You’re curious about these books, aren’t you?”
Then, steer him toward 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 his curiosity, just channeling it towards an acceptable way.
3. Don’t overreact
How you communicate with your baby makes a huge difference whether he follow through or not. Keep your reactions minimal.
For one thing, you don’t want to scare or startle him into thinking he’s a bad person. And second, he’ll wonder how and why he managed to get a reaction from you (and might be tempted to repeat the behavior to test it out).
Reserve your attention for safety-related issues, and even then, maintain a compassionate demeanor. He’s wired to explore and needs you to guide him to what’s allowed and not. Keep your sentences short, firm and low, but don’t take it so far as shaming him.
4. Make sure your baby’s needs are met
One of the ways you can prevent your baby from misbehaving and having a meltdown is to make sure you meet his needs. When he fusses and tests your boundaries, ask yourself if he’s hungry, tired or has a dirty diaper. Maybe he needs your attention but doesn’t know how to articulate it.
A clean and well-rested baby is more likely to listen than if he 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 him to play with an old cell phone while the other prefers that he doesn’t.
Once you notice a discrepancy, decide right away what to do moving forward. Nothing confuses a child more than inconsistent rules between his parents. When one parent takes away the cell phone, he throws a fit because the other one allowed him to have it.
By being consistent, he clearly knows what’s allowed and what isn’t.
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 baby’s behavior is that bad. Weigh the pros and cons of telling him “no” before you do. You might find that what you’re telling him 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 you discipline, pause before you react. Ask yourself if it’s dangerous or setting a bad example or precedent. Is it disrespectful to others, or not taking care of items or himself? 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, start by giving him freedom within safe confines and redirecting to a more appropriate activity. Avoid overreacting, and make sure his needs are met to prevent misbehavior.
Stay consistent with your partner about rules and expectations. And finally, be choosy about what’s off-limits, reserving your attention for issues that truly matter.
Get more tips about your growing baby:
- What to Do when Your Kids Don’t Listen to You in Public
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
- What to Do when You Tell Your Kids No Too Often
- Unique Ways to Meet the Emotional Needs of Your Child
- Parenting Your Strong Willed Child
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab your copy of the 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child below—at no cost to you: