Discipline for Babies

Can you suggest some disciplinary methods that might be effective in dealing with a fussy baby? My child cries a great deal of the time, and I'm finding it difficult to get anything else done. What can I do to change this behavior?

We’d like to help you, but unfortunately you didn’t provide us with a crucial piece of information – the exact age of your baby. Because children pass through a wide range of developmental phases during the first year of life, there are different sets of parental responses appropriate to a child’s behavior at each stage.

To begin with, it’s important to understand that “discipline” as we normally understand the term is meaningless where infants are concerned. Babies who are not yet mobile and whose lives consist primarily of eating and sleeping are too young to understand instruction of any kind. When they cry or fuss, it’s usually because they need something – to be fed, changed, comforted, or rocked to sleep. What they require most from parents at this stage of development is consistent and loving attention and care.

Once a child becomes capable of interacting with his environment, whether by crawling or simply by touching and manipulating objects within his reach, the need to control and redirect his behavior is more pressing. But it would still be a mistake to think of such control or redirection as a form of “teaching” or “correction.” At this stage, a child is still incapable of willful rebellion. Most of the behavior that mom and dad tend to regard as “negative” or “troublesome” is simply an expression of his desire to explore. The parent’s major responsibility during this phase is to ensure the child’s safety. Generally speaking, this means establishing and enforcing boundaries within the home, whether by verbal reprimands, “child-proofing” measures, gates and barriers, or other methods of physically separating a crawling infant from potential hazards.

The need for genuine discipline doesn’t usually arise until about midway through the child’s second year. At this time, boys and girls become capable of understanding what you’re telling them to do, and as a result they can very gently be held responsible for their behavior. A firm “no!” or a mild slap on the hand can be effective in certain situations. On other occasions it may be far more helpful to impose a brief “time out” (two or three minutes at the most) or take away a favorite toy for a short period of time. Keep in mind that a child’s attention span and memory are extremely limited at this age, and that he will not be able to grasp the significance of long-term “punishments.” He can, however, begin to learn some basic lessons about boundaries and parameters in his relations with others and the world around him – for example, “no touch,” “no hit,” and “no bite.”

If you feel a need to discuss these ideas at greater length, call us. Our counselors will be happy to discuss your questions with you in a free over-the-phone consultation.


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Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Your Baby’s First Year: What You Need to Know part 1 and part 2

15 Tips for Taking Care of a Newborn

Infant and Toddler landing page

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