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.
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?
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.