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Discipline for Babies?

I’ve been thinking about discipline lately.  I know the time is coming when we’ll have to set some boundaries for BabyC.  Given how quickly these last 9 months have flown by, I know that time is coming soon – or is it here already?  I want to be prepared, but just the word “discipline,” makes panic rise up in my heart.

An infant’s needs are straight-forward enough:  feed, diaper, help to sleep (OK, that one is tough), rinse, repeat, over and over.  Luckily, it doesn’t take much thought to meet a young infant’s needs, which is good, because we were too sleep-deprived to think much during that time.  But as BabyC gets older, she is more aware of how we react to events.  She notices the expressions on our faces and the emotions in our voices.  She is observing, processing, and remembering the new things that she is learning every day.  Her little personality is starting to shine, and it is a reflection of both the way her brain is wired and of her time spent with us, her parents.  She is reaching an age at which she will need some guidance about how to behave in the world and help to understand what is appropriate and what is not, not to mention what is safe and what is not.  It is up to us to provide her with that guidance, and that scares the hell out of me.

What got me thinking about discipline was a visit a couple of weeks ago from our good friends and their 15-month-old super-cute toddler, BoyO.  They stayed with us for a week, and our house was pretty much consumed with babies during their stay.  We lived in the same town until a few months ago, and we relied heavily on these friends to give us baby-raising advice, since they had gone through everything 6 months before us.  They came to the hospital the night I was in labor, toting along their 6-month-old and a pizza to fortify my husband and mom.  At the time, I remember thinking that their little boy was HUGE – practically a teenager already compared to the tiny peanut we’d have by the next morning.  But a couple of weeks ago, as we watched BoyO and BabyC play together, they suddenly seemed more like peers, and I knew BabyC would practically be a teenager soon, too.

BabyC: Watcha got there, BoyO?

BoyO: Hands off, BabyC!

BoyO is no longer a baby.  He is a toddler, and an assertive one at that.  During their visit, he tested his parents again and again.  I admired how they responded, consistently, again and again.  Over the course of the week, we watched how he learned which things in our house were off limits (the fireplace, the dog, the toilet, and the stairs).  BoyO dealt with all of this pretty well, but when he was tired of being told “no,” he wore his frustrations on his sleeve.  Actually, he did seem like a teenager in a way, sometimes unable to handle his emotions and sometimes wanting more independence than he could really handle.  At times, this struggle was more than he could bear.  He did at one point wind up to hit BabyC when she pulled a toy out of his hand.  And sometimes he was just about more than his parents could bear, particularly on a gorgeous evening when we were all supposed to be enjoying a picnic and wine but BoyO was seeking out every off-limits corner of the winery grounds.  But then there was a moment of pure sweetness when BabyC bonked her head on something and started crying, and BoyO came over to gently pat her on the back, his face as full as empathy as a toddler’s can be.  My BabyC seemed oblivious to all of this, but what I saw in BoyO and his parents was our rapidly approaching future.  The time would come when we would have to set and enforce limits for BabyC.  Would we be able to handle it as well as BoyO’s parents?

BoyO’s mama told me that he turned into a hellion (her word) at 10 months, suddenly hitting and biting to show his frustration.  She said it took her by surprise, because it happened so quickly and she hadn’t imagined that she would need to discipline her baby.  And so it took about a month for her and her husband to begin to implement a game plan for handling BoyO, but once they did, it worked wonders.  Now they enforce boundaries with firm and quiet voices and use short time-outs and redirection.  A few months ago, when BoyO started throwing food from his high chair, his parents decided that was a signal that mealtime was over.  They’re pretty sure that he lost a little weight during the week that he was learning that lesson, but we never saw BoyO throw food while they were visiting.

Initially, I watched and admired BoyO and his parents struggle to define boundaries and felt lucky that my baby hadn’t yet reached this challenging stage.  But then I started to think about what boundaries she has already tested and how many times I had responded by thinking, “She’s just a baby, she’s too young to understand right from wrong.”  BabyC started attacking the cat at around 7 months, and we laughed at how tolerant the cat was to having her ears boxed and her tail pulled.  Then, a couple weeks ago, I watched BabyC wind up for a similar attack on another baby at story time at the library.  Whoa, who taught her that behaving like that was OK?

BabyC looks maniacal here. The cat, on the other hand, was happy for any attention after being upstaged by first a dog and then a baby in our home. Husband and I laughed, inappropriately.

Then I remembered the one time that I have effectively defined a boundary for BabyC: when she started biting while nursing, at about 7 months old.  That behavior was not one that I could laugh about or put off dealing with.  It was painful, and it was impossible to not respond.  But again, it took me off guard and took me some time to figure out how to respond appropriately.

The first few times it happened, I think I said “OWWW” loudly and pushed her off but then continued nursing once I had pulled myself together.  Then came the time that BabyC bit me, watched my response, and then grinned at me with glee:  “Mama, isn’t this game FUN?!”  No, BabyC, it is not.  I said my firmest “NO” (I have had a lot of practice with that voice with my dog), quietly removed BabyC from my breast, and set her on the ground.  She looked up at me inquisitively, and I ignored her.  I think I had to do that one other time before the biting stopped.  It turns out that BabyC is not too young to learn – maybe not right from wrong – but at least what games I do and don’t find fun.

So, this discipline thing is new territory for Husband and I, but we’ve decided that it is time to set and enforce some limits – no more attacking the cat, no more standing in the bathtub, and absolutely no biting.  We’ve started talking about what our discipline style will be, which is fodder for another post, because our own parents had very different styles.  I recently read this post and the resulting discussion from the “regarding baby” blog (It IS Possible To Discipline Children Effectively Without Shame- A Very Personal Post), and that solidified my intention to discipline with respect and to absolutely exclude physical punishment from our discipline strategy.

When did you find that you had to start setting boundaries for your baby?  And what worked for you?  We need all the help we can get!



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11 Comments
  1. LC #

    Hey there Amy! I found your blog on Eugene Moms Meet-Up Group and thought I'd say hi & welcome to Eugene 🙂 Your post resonates loud and clear with me, as my Baby D is 16 months and starting to challenge boundaries I didn't really even know existed until they're being pushed–dancing on the sofa? Nyet! Here are some tips and resources I can offer–in my heart, I want my baby to explore and, yes, even push those boundaries, without having to worry about 1) his safety, 2) my/others' safety. Tips would be to establish a safe environment, where kiddo can explore without mom worrying about whether a fork is being stuck in an outlet; keep your expectations realistic for your DD's age; practice using positive behavior management strategies, like redirection (useful now) and pre-correction (useful soon); praise/reinforce the desired behavior ("hey, thank you so much for sitting down on the sofa!") rather than only emphasizing the undesired behavior. I've shared some links below for more resources I like. I hope these help and that we get to meet IRL one of these days…you might also check out the "Coolest Mamas in Eugene" group on Facebook, this is an ongoing discussion there.All the best :-)Leah CallahanPS: Full disclosure, I'm one of the co-founders of Attachment Parenting of Lane County, a support group for AP families. One of the principles of attachment parenting is to practice positive discipline.http://www.facebook.com/pages/Attachment-Parents-of-Lane-County/169989426353646http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/disc.phphttp://store.positivediscipline.com/blog.asp_Becoming Attached_ by Robert Karen, PhD_Unconditional Parenting_ by Alfie Kohn

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    September 5, 2011
  2. Hi Leah!Thanks so much for the comment and the welcome to Eugene! I hope we get to meet in person at a Meet-Up. We've gone to a few, but my baby and I love her naps, so that keeps us close to home these days. I'd love to meet more moms in Eugene, though.I love all of your tips. We need to work on baby-proofing our house a little better to give BabyC more freedom. I love watching her explore, and I know it is so important for her learning process. I'll check out your links, and I'm sure I'll be posting more on this topic as we experience the joys of raising a toddler. Right now I'm enjoying the crawling/cruising/easily redirected stage. Hope to meet you and Baby D soon!-Alice

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    September 5, 2011
  3. Hello Alice,Enjoyed your thoughtful post. It's amazing how much our babies know and understand. Now our girls are bigger and talking, but they still surprise me all the time.Hope all is well with you – hugs from DCMary (Jen's friend)

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    September 6, 2011
  4. Ok, so no answers yet but you inspired me to order a bunch of toddler parenting books through the library – Tim & I have some required reading to do & we can discuss next time we get together:-)

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    September 6, 2011
  5. @Mary – So nice to hear from you and thanks for reading the blog! I love seeing photos of your girls. They sure look like fun kids!@Sarah – You'll have to let us know what books you find helpful. I find the world of parenting advice so overwhelming, and entering the blogosphere hasn't helped in that regard. So many buzzwords and techniques. I'd like to think we can follow our hearts a little, but then again, I don't want to make TOO many mistakes along the way. Thanks for reading and commenting:)

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    September 6, 2011
  6. Great post! It's funny – "discipline" has a very negative connotation when I think about Jake, but not when I consider my job. The "discipline" of microbiology, specifically infectious diseases, is something I love. It requires consistent, thoughtful, and rigorous study, which may sound negative to some. But it's glorious for me, likely because of the exciting outcomes that it brings in my research.I guess that's the way I should be thinking about disciplining Jake. He's also started biting during nursing, standing in the bath, etc. We haven't experienced food throwing yet, but I'm sure that's not far off. We've been firm in saying no, but we haven't really put in the energy to consistently and rigorously redirect and define absolute boundaries. I just need to remind myself – the energy we invest right now will be worth it.Oh, and thanks for visiting our blog 🙂

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    September 6, 2011
  7. I think I probably started setting boundaries really early. Even as an infant, I would respond to being bitten with, "Ouch! That hurts mommy! No biting!" or to hitting with, "Gasp! Be gentle to mommy!"It sound ridiculous, but I think a lot of discipline approaches I learned from raising seeing eye dogs. The organization I raised them for emphasized intelligent disobedience and not letting a 6lb puppy do what you don't want a 60lb dog doing.So even when she was probably too little to know, I wanted to discourage poor behavior and encourage good behavior (Like "Oh! Mommy loves when you are gentle!").Our most recent battle now that my daughter is a toddler was with biting. She would only bite me and my husband, but it got so bad that we were constantly on guard around her! We tried expressing our pain and anger with words and by refusing to interact with her when she was trying to bit (putting her down, or leaving the interaction) while saying, "No biting."All that did was result in a chorus of "Nooo!" from her.What did work was saying, "Only kisses!" When she was about to bite, we would remind her- only kisses. When she did bite we would say, "No biting, only kisses." That combined with refusing to interact when she was biting seemed to work.I forget where I read it, but some parenting article suggested that instead of constantly saying NO to behavior, suggest an alternate behavior that you do want. We'll see how that works.

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    September 6, 2011
  8. @Mandy – I think "discipline" has a positive connotation as a noun but negative as a verb. My professional background is in science as well, and I agree that discipline is critical in that field. We follow precise protocols, document everything, never cut corners, work systematically. Haphazard science won't get you very far. I think we can apply many of the same principles as we teach discipline to our kids, in terms of being really consistent in our methods rather than haphazard. But on top of that, we have to honor and respect our kids and their emotions, and we have to follow our own hearts rather than (or maybe in addition to) a set protocol. It is more complicated than anything I ever encountered in the lab, but I'm hoping that it also becomes more intuitive for me.@momma – My husband and I have found the experience of raising a high-energy dog (Aussie) to be a great intro to parenting. Raising him required consistent discipline; speaking with a controlled, confident, calm voice; making sure he had a healthy outlet (exercise); and lots of love. I think I will strive to teach and discipline BabyC the same way – on a foundation of love and respect. I like your "only kisses" idea too. And the favorite part of our visit with BoyO was when he came over to comfort BabyC, even though he had probably been annoyed with her just a moment before. Surely empathy is one of the most important things we can teach our kids and goes a long ways towards teaching them appropriate behavior.

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    September 6, 2011
  9. Like your post and the great comments!

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    September 8, 2011
  10. Hi Alice!I think our strategy with A was simply to treat him like a person. I know that sounds trite, but it wasnt even purposeful, truthfully. Before I had A I thought infants especially where just lumps. But A was very much full of opinions and preferences right from newborn. He, and I think all kids, have a sense of fairness about life. I try to validate his feelings and explain in simple language why something isnt safe, etc. This is getting harder as he nears 5. He is full of 'great ideas' and has always had input into what we do as a family, where we eat, etc. Its a lot of listening and compromise but its something I remind myself to actively do all the time. One of the most useful toddler strategies someone told us about was the 'upcoming event warning.' When we needed to leave or change activities I would give him a warning that something specific was happening in '2 minutes'. I think this allowed him to emotionally separate from the friend, toy, activity he was engaged in, so he didnt feel ripped away. It worked well most of the time. Toddler raising is a lot of frustration prevention and management!Glad you are well! I enjoy your blog. xoJen

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    September 18, 2011
  11. Jen – Thanks for the comment and for reading my blog! I think your advice is great, and it is really simple, isn't it? Treating them the way we would want to be treated sounds like the way to go. You hope that they learn from your example and respect you for being fair. I think I'd want a two minute warning before I got yanked away from whatever I was engrossed in, too. I'm trying to embrace the impending toddler stage and am looking forward to learning more about how BabyC ticks.

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    September 18, 2011

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