Monday 9 January 2012

Gentle Discipline for Babies

From The Hippie Housewife Facebook page:
"Was wondering if you could share anything about positive discipline and redirection for babies? I am always finding wonderful articles for toddlers and older children, but I'm sure I'm not the only one that wants to hear more on the subject for babies. Thank you!"

Babyhood is, for many, a delightful stage, filled with the joys of watching your new child go through all their exciting firsts: first smile, first roll, first time they reach for you, first time sitting up, first crawl, and on it goes. But it can also be the stage where parents feel the most helpless when it comes to discipline. After all, a baby cannot talk, lacks the reasoning skills of older children, does not comprehend cause-and-effect, and has yet to achieve understanding in many areas. What is a parent to do?


Prevention is the single most effective tool at this age. Keep dangerous or breakable objects out of harm's way. Provide plenty of baby-safe space for exploring. A few necessary off-limit objects are fine (ours, for example, included our Wii and one shelf of books), but a room full of not-for-baby items squelches their ability to explore, learn, and grow in a healthy and age-appropriate manner.

Prevention also includes the baby's physical and emotional well-being. A baby who is tired, hungry, overwhelmed, or lacking connection with their primary caregiver will be less equipped to cope with the situations that arise in day-to-day life.

Build relationship

This is the time to be focusing on building the parent/child relationship through the development of communication and connection, not training the baby towards obedience. At this stage, the "Seven Baby B's" outlined by Dr. Sears are an excellent launching point. These seven tools include:
  1. Birth bonding
  2. Breastfeeding
  3. Babywearing
  4. Bedding close to baby
  5. Belief in the language value of your baby's cry
  6. Beware of baby trainers
  7. Balance
These tools are typically a parent's first foray into learning to read, trust, and respond to the child's cues. As the parent and child learn to communicate through the giving and receiving of these cues, a strong connection grows between them. This connection and its resulting mutual trust and sensitivity will form the basis of the parent/child relationship and become the foundation upon which future discipline will rely.

Distract, redirect, and follow through

Other top tools during babyhood include distraction, redirection, and follow-through. Remain cheerful and matter-of-fact throughout. "Oh, not for baby! Here's your toy, let's play over here." Say it and then do it. Calmly and consistently follow through by picking them up, removing them from the situation, and moving them to a more acceptable activity. These tools can be applied to a number of situations, including wiggling during diaper changes (distract with a toy or song), touching off-limit items (redirect to an appropriate object), or wanting to crawl away when that's not an option (distract with a busy bag).

Specific issues


Biting while nursing is often the first "discipline" issue that arises in a child's life. For the sake of the continued nursing relationship, nursing manners and boundaries must be established at a developmentally-appropriate level, often beginning with boundaries regarding biting. The most effective way to demonstrate that biting is unacceptable while nursing is to immediately end the nursing session. For a more detailed discussion of what to do when baby bites during nursing, see Kellymom's article on "When Baby Bites".

Particularly during teething, biting is common even when the child is not nursing. The most important thing to remember is that this is a stage. Truly, this too shall pass. However, the fact that it is normal and usually temporary does not make it something that should be encouraged or accepted. Be alert in order to prevent most bites, but if a sneak-attack does get through, let the baby know how it felt with a startled exclamation: "Ouch! Biting hurts!" (Be careful, however, not to overdo it and make the reaction an object of desire! Just keep it firm and simple.) Then replace the undesirable action with a positive one: "Here, you may chew on this."


Ideally, the parent will be alert to the forthcoming hit and will be able to catch the baby's arm mid-swing. Regardless of whether the hit lands or is stopped, however, the response remains the same. Similar to biting, this response should include a) an exclamation and b) a replacement action. Our script has remained the same: "Ouch! Hitting hurts! Touch gently." Then, while stroking the child's hand against our cheek, we repeat the word "gentle". As the baby grows, this script is soon shortened to a simple reminder of "gentle", at which point the child replaces the would-be strike with a gentle stroke of our cheek.

Practice this word during calm moments as well. "Can you show me gentle? Oh yes! That's so gentle." It then becomes a fun bonding moment in addition to a reinforcement of the simple phrasing.


One of the most common questions from parents of babies is how to make them stop screaming. Once they've found their voice, screaming and shrieking is an exciting way for them to experiment with this exciting discovery, but it's often not so exciting for the parents!

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to stop a child from excitedly shrieking. The best proactive measure, however, is to turn the opposite skill - whispering - into a fun game. Practice talking as quietly as you can, and then as loud as you can, and then quietly again. This develops the skill of using a quiet voice and associates it with a single word that can then be used when the screaming starts.

What to avoid

Physical discipline is inappropriate for any stage, and babyhood is no exception. Parents are often admonished to slap legs, squeeze hands, pull hair, pinch arms, swat mouths, and spank bottoms of even the smallest babies, always accompanied with dire warnings of raising spoiled, self-centered little monsters if you fail to properly put them in their place right from the beginning.

Studies, however, have repeatedly demonstrated the damaging effects of physical discipline. Slapping hands has been shown to reduce healthy exploration and risk-taking, and the resulting lower self-confidence leads to lower IQ scores. The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to become noncompliant, aggressive, and antisocial. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not endorse spanking under any circumstance. It is a form of punishment that becomes less effective with repeated use, according to the AAP; it also makes discipline more difficult as the child outgrows it.

The word "no" is often a favourite among babies, and for good reason: it is typically the word they hear most often throughout the day. Avoid overusing the word "no". If possible, phrase your response differently and offer an alternative. Consider if there is a way to say yes. Can you sit down with the child to safely explore the item of curiosity? Can the "one-finger touch" rule be implemented with an older baby/toddler? While saying no is often the easier route to take, a child's learning can be greatly enriched when a parent seeks to find a way to say "yes" to healthy exploration. (Yes to every request for a cookie or a new toy? Not so healthy. Good judgement and common sense must always be the rule.)


Babyhood is the stage to be focusing on forming and strengthening the parent/child relationship. While this relational focus should remain throughout all stages, it is of particular importance during this formative year when the relationship has not yet been established.

With that focus in place, there are some tools that can be used to gently guide a baby through the trials of his or her first year. Proactive prevention, both in terms of the baby's environment and the baby's physical and emotional well-being, will set the child up for success and allow him or her the greatest opportunity to grow and explore in a healthy and age-appropriate manner. In addition to these proactive measures, distraction, redirection, and follow-through are excellent tools for guiding babies towards acceptable modes of play and exploration. Undesirable actions can be gradually, calmly, and consistently replaced with acceptable alternatives: teething toys instead of biting, gentle touches instead of hitting, whispering when necessary instead of yelling, and so on.

Ultimately, remember that babies grow out of the baby stage. They will grow out of it. There is often little you can do other than remaining proactive and keeping your responses calm. As they grow in their understanding, more and more gentle discipline tools can be added, but for now simply keep in mind that a baby is a baby. They are not being "bad" or "defiant" or "manipulative"; they are simply responding to the world around them in the only way they yet know how. Those reactions will be increasingly replaced with more appropriate responses throughout their childhood, but this need not, and indeed cannot, all happen now.

Additional Resources:
The Hows of Discipline
Gentle Discipline for Toddlers
Attachment Parenting Series: The Seven Baby B's

Do you have any specific baby-related discipline questions? What tools have you found to be most effective during the baby years? Share your baby-related gentle discipline tips in the comments below!


  1. Wow, thank you for this post!
    My 4-month-old has found her voice recently, and my goodness can she yell! Somehow in my foggy mom-brain I remembered how much I don't want her first word to be No - so instead of saying that when she is being noisy in the morning when Daddy is sleeping (the only time of day when it's better if she's quieter, really), I decided to try something different.
    When we come into the bedroom, I only speak in whispers. If she begins to yell, I gently say "Quiet time, MissBoo. Yes Mama." and softly place my finger on her lips.
    It works - she imitates my quiet tone and everyone has a peaceful morning!
    Now we're working on letting go of things when she grabs, haha.
    It is *amazing* how quickly she learns - people really don't give babies enough credit!

  2. Such a wonderful, well-written, inspiring article. Thanks a lot, Cynthia!!

  3. Yes, thank you for this! I have a 7 month old here and his big sister taught him to scream recently. :-)
    Once I got over how funny it was to watch them scream in each other's faces and laugh hysterically about it, I told her it was time to teach him "coffee shop rules," which is what we taught her from the time she was tiny (I had pretty severe postpartum depression after she was born so I had to get out. We spent a couple of days a week at our local coffee shop. So I had to have the kind of baby who could be around while people read books, studied, or had quiet conversations). It is entirely possible, despite what lots of people think, and without hitting or threatening.
    He seems to respond well just like his sister did and now only screams as part of a game or something. We practice sometimes by alternating screams and whispers all together.

  4. This is great, thank you. One needs to be reminded to react calmly and that its just a phase :)

  5. Thanks for this post! There's so much on toddlers and older kids regarding positive discipline, but not such much for babies. It's important to get in the habits of practicing positive discipline ASAP!

  6. You can totally say yes to every request for a cookie or new toy. "Yes, after you eat a healthy dinner." "Yes, after you earn X stars on your chart." Etc. Replacement works well for those, too. "How about some carrots instead?" "How about we get out some of the toys you haven't played with for a while?"

    But again, I guess that's more for older toddlers and children :).

  7. Tropigoth Mama and Kate, loved hearing your tactics for cutting down on screaming. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Karyn, "yes, when..." is a great example of saying yes instead of no. Although we don't use sticker/rewards charts, our "yes" for toys includes "yes, you can add it to your birthday list", "yes, you can use your Christmas money for it", or "yes, you can earn some money for it by doing extra jobs around the house". Definitely a tactic for much older toddlers/children though!

    For babies, I'm more inclined to use distraction in those cases: "Yes, that is a neat toy! Let's put it back on the shelf and see what's down here."

  8. Thank you so much for this. Redirecting has worked great with my 18 month old, as has the fact that I've used most of the B's with her from day 1. She is extremely strongwilled but also listens when I tell her no, because I try not to do it unless absolutely necessary. I believe firmly in letting children explore their world! :)