Setting Limits for Your Baby

Don't Just Say "No!"

When you first start setting limits, simply saying "no!" may do the trick. Because your baby probably hasn't heard this word much before, especially delivered in such a stern tone, it may stop him from doing whatever he's doing. But as he grows older, he may begin testing this limit. He may turn, smile sweetly at you, and then continue on his merry way.

No matter how cute your baby is when he does this, don't let him get away with it. If saying "no!" doesn't stop your baby from doing something that's dangerous, harmful, or destructive, you must follow through immediately with actions that back up your words. What actions are appropriate before your baby's first birthday? It depends on the situation:

  • If he has somehow gotten his hands on something that's dangerous, remove it. Take it from your baby's hands (or mouth) and put it way up high where he can't reach it.
  • If he's exploring something dangerous that you cannot take from him, for instance, if he's chewing on an electric cord, then remove him from the area.
  • If he's hitting, biting, or otherwise hurting another child, then quickly separate the children. Keep them apart for five minutes or so until calm has been restored and they can play nicely together again.
  • If he's bent on destroying something of value, take it away or take him away from it.

Whatever you choose to do to back up your words, explain your rationale to your baby as you're taking action:

  • "No peanuts! You might choke."
  • "No biting on the cord! It could shock you."
  • "No biting! That hurts."
  • "No paint on the couch! That ruins it."

Will your baby understand all of this? Probably not. Regardless of whether he understands your words, chances are that he won't remember them for very long. The next time your baby sees a peanut or the electric cord, for instance, she may again be tempted to chew on it.

It doesn't matter whether your baby understands everything you say. But these brief explanations lay the groundwork for the ultimate objective of all discipline: teaching your child the differences between safe and unsafe behavior and right and wrong.

Does Punishment Fit the Crime?

Because your baby does not yet know the difference between "good" and "bad," it's neither fair nor reasonable to discipline her as if she did. (You'll have plenty of time for that later.) Neither punishment nor the threat of punishment helps to discipline an infant. When your baby doesn't do as she's told, she isn't necessarily trying to defy you or your rules. She simply doesn't understand or remember them.

Your baby doesn't know any better. Although ignorance of the law may not be a defense that works in court, it should count for a lot in the home. Because your baby is incapable of making connections between her own (unacceptable) actions and your (punitive) reactions, any kind of punishment is inappropriate before her first birthday. At this age, "No!" will teach her much more about behaviors to avoid than any kind of punishment will.

Infants learn little or nothing from any kind of punishment, whether time-outs, the withholding of treats, or spankings. Your baby just doesn't get it. To her, these punishments are unpleasant, unfair, and cruel things you do to her, not consequences of anything that she's done herself. Because punishment makes absolutely no sense to your baby, it shouldn't make any sense to you either. Punishment has no positive impact whatsoever on an infant.

Spanking a baby is particularly odious. Although a slap on the wrist may occasionally be necessary to prevent your baby from sticking a fork into an electric outlet (or another child), spanking (a punishment for willful misbehavior) does not make sense with infants. Your baby is not yet capable of willful misbehavior.


Make sure that anyone else who takes care of your child agrees with, or at least agrees to abide by, your views on spanking and other forms of corporal punishment.

In addition to being unfair and unreasonable to your baby, spanking

  • Teaches your baby nothing about right and wrong
  • Sends the message that might makes right, that problems are best dealt with through force rather than persuasion
  • Is dangerous when done in anger
  • Is cold and cruel when done calmly

More on: Babies

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bringing Up Baby © 1997 by Kevin Osborn. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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