Struggling with setting limits with a baby? Encourage their curiosity while establishing boundaries to keep their safe as they begin 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 without warning, giving me anxiety with each turn. He’d pull himself up on shelves and curtains and wanted to keep playing instead of sleep.
How can parents set age-appropriate limits with our now mobile babies —and should we?
For many of us, the thought of disciplining babies feels impossible. They’re so young and curious with little self-control, but at the same time, doing things they shouldn’t be doing. How can we address their behavior at this stage with patience and understanding?
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 taking our frustration out on 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 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 she just made happen. She’s not thinking about the mess you have to clean up, or that you prefer a pile of books on the table instead of all over the living room. She’s doing what children do and being curious, not naughty.
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Setting limits with a baby
Still, it can feel like you say “no” (in its various forms) all day, policing your child, and telling her what she can and can’t do. The more you tell her not to do something, the more she 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 her. You’re supposed to keep her out of trouble, right? Guide her away from what not to do.
While you should set boundaries, you’re also not stuck policing all day, either. You can spend the majority of your day not saying “no” and instead enjoy spending time with her. Besides, you’ll likely run into these mistakes when you tell her what not to do all the time:
- You don’t honor her spirit and curiosity. You’re not able to pause and see what she’s doing. For instance, you tell her not to bite without acknowledging that this is normal child development at this stage.
- You’re in constant battle mode. Even though it feels like you’re just doing your job, it doesn’t feel good to reprimand all the time. You hover and highlight what she shouldn’t be doing, and it becomes even more wearisome when she continues to misbehave.
- She doesn’t understand what’s off-limits. When everything warrants a “no,” it’s hard to decide what’s off-limits. Running across the street shouldn’t bear the same weight as making a mess of the stuffed animals.
Letting a few things go doesn’t mean you’ll be permissive and let her get away with everything. You need to establish boundaries to keep her safe and can’t let her grab the sharpie or stay up hours past bedtime. You also want her to take care of herself, other people, and certain belongings.
How can you establish these habits? Set firm limits while honoring her intentions, needs, and development. Here are a few tips to do just that. Hopefully, you can find them useful, as one parent did:
“Fantastic article! I think it is easy as a parent to get caught down in the weeds of parenting where we can’t see the forest for the trees. This is a good reminder to take a step back and analyze things from 30,000 feet and make sure we are making the right parenting moves every day. Thanks, Nina!” -Ashley
1. Give 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 to another activity
Redirecting your infant (and almost toddler) 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.
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 in a better way.
Read more about redirecting children’s behavior.
3. Don’t overreact
How you communicate with your child makes a huge difference in whether he follows 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 likely 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 guidance on 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 child’s needs are met
One of the ways you can prevent your child from misbehaving and having temper tantrums is to make sure you meet her needs. When she fusses and tests your boundaries, ask yourself if she’s hungry, tired, or has a dirty diaper. Maybe she needs your attention but doesn’t know how to articulate it.
A clean and well-rested child is more likely to listen and manage impulse control than if she were tired and needs your attention.
5. Be consistent between both parents
You and your partner might 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.
This goes for other caregivers, too. Be on the same page with whomever cares for him so that he receives the same message. With consistency, he 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 was that bad. Yes, the toy wasn’t made for standing, but 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 him 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:
- What to Do When Your Kids Don’t Listen to You in Public
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
- How to Stop Telling Your Child 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:
Fantastic article! I think it is easy as a parent to get caught down in the weeds of parenting where we can’t see the forest for the trees. This is a good reminder to take a step back and analyze things from 30,000 feet and make sure we are making the right parenting moves each and every day. Thanks, Nina!
Nina Garcia says
Thanks for your kind words, Ashley 🙂