Disciplining a baby sounds, at first, like something both mean and unnecessary. Indeed, while a toddler's behavior (or misbehavior) is grounded in a solid understanding of who you are and how you'll react to what she does, an infant's "misbehavior" is not at all intentional. When she yanks on your necklace or tie, she is simply exploring the new and mysterious world around her -- of which you, the parent, represent the most important and alluring mystery. That's why your main objective during the first year should be creating the close, healthy bond that will form the basis of your relationship for life -- and that includes your efforts to discipline her.
But as your baby steps up her experimentation with tricks that are delightful to her but downright annoying to you, your discipline goals will quickly -- and drastically -- expand. How do you discourage your child from perfectly normal infant behaviors that drive you crazy without punishing her or repressing her natural exuberance? Here are some strategies for dealing with the scenarios that try the patience of all new parents.
Pulling, Grabbing, Etc.
Pulling, grabbing, and hitting
These behaviors are normal for infants as they discover all the fun things they can do with their hands -- and the more excited your reaction, the more fun it seems to them. Remember, a baby doesn't know that grabbing and hitting are "wrong" until you tell him. When your baby pulls your hair or hits your face, gently remove his hands and say, "You hurt Mommy," while looking into his eyes. Then show him an alternative to hitting, such as "Give me five," or offer him something else to grab, such as your finger. If he hits another child, tell him, "We don't hit, we hug," and demonstrate the alternative. If he pulls a pet's tail, show him how to be gentle. Finally, little hands are always looking for things to grab, so give the young explorer word associations to help him sort out what he may touch. Try "yes touch" for safe things, "no touch" for objects that are off-limits, and "soft touch" for faces and animals.
Biting during breastfeeding
This painful situation is most common when babies are 5 to 7 months old and begin to experience pre-teething gum pain. You are comfortably into a feeding, beginning to nod off, when suddenly your baby turns into Jaws, chomping down and transforming your tender nipple into a flesh-and-blood teething ring.
Even if your baby has no teeth, her gumming can cause you considerable discomfort. As you feel her gums begin to bear down, put your finger between them and your nipple or use your index finger to depress her lower jaw -- a gentle reminder to respect the breast that feeds her. If she gets an attack of sore gums, give her your finger or a frozen teething ring to gnaw on instead.
If your baby already has teeth, the pain is much more intense. The natural inclination is to pull her away from your breast and scream "No!" But some babies become so rattled by their mother's harsh reaction that they stop breastfeeding for a few days (this is called a nursing strike).
Instead of the yank-and-yell response when she bites, do just the opposite of what instinct tells you -- draw her closer into your breast. Because her nose will become covered, she'll automatically open her mouth to breathe, letting go of your nipple. Soon, your baby will realize that biting triggers an uncomfortable result and she'll adjust her behavior. Saying "No" or "Ouch, that hurts Mama!" is okay, too -- she needs to learn that you don't like it when she bites. Just don't frighten her.
A newly clingy 1-year-old can make any parent long for a little privacy, but take this as a compliment that your baby enjoys being with his favorite person. All too soon, you'll feel as if he doesn't need you anymore. Still, part of the discipline process is helping your child learn to feel comfortable separating from you. You can capitalize on the respect he feels for you by reflecting the behavior you're trying to encourage. In this instance, that message is, "It's okay for you to play alone; you can handle being alone." If you're on the phone, for example, and he grabs your leg, demanding to be picked up, don't ignore him, but don't immediately scoop him up, either. This just reinforces that there really is something for him to be anxious about. Instead, acknowledge his presence and reassure him: "Mama's busy right now -- it's okay, you can play a while." When your baby suddenly realizes you've gone to another room and starts to cry, instead of running to him, just maintain voice contact: "Mama's here. It's okay." When he understands that you think it's fine for him to separate from you, he'll begin to believe it's all right, too.
One day, as my wife and I played with our 8-month-old son, Matthew, we developed a theory as to why separation anxiety occurs and why it's healthy. As he crawled around the room, he would look up every few minutes to see if we were watching and would get upset if he couldn't keep a visual fix on us. Separation anxiety, which seems to peak just as your baby begins to learn locomotion skills, may be an innate safety mechanism that clicks on when he has the ability to move away from parents but lacks the ability to protect himself. His body says "go," but his mind says "no."
Bad table manners
When babies start feeding themselves, expect a mess. For one thing, babies are born clowns. When your baby drops a spoon or shovels cereal impatiently into her face, everyone reacts -- which delights the little performer, who does it again in hopes of getting the same reaction. But your laughter not only reinforces these habits, it can be dangerous; if a baby laughs while her mouth is full of food, she could choke.
To discourage bad eating habits, it helps to parcel out small dollops of food on a baby's plate so there is less to make a mess of. And although it's true that her emerging sense of competence gets a powerful boost each time her antics provoke a response from caregivers, enough is enough; if you want to keep this little ham offstage, don't laugh or get upset when she acts the clown. If her playing gets out of hand, assume she's not hungry and take away her food. Finally, even at this early age, table manners are taught by example. If other kids (or adults) are laughing with food in their mouths and making a ruckus, your little imitator will want to do the same.
Screeching and whining
One day I was counseling a mother about normal baby behavior when her baby started yelling. By reflex, Mom yelled, "Stop that yelling!" We both laughed when we realized how silly this sounded. Screeching -- which peaks at about age 1 -- isn't the baby's attempt to be annoying; he's just testing his siren to see how many decibels it can reach and how his audience responds. Maybe for this reason, he saves his loudest shrieks for the quietest places.
Teach your child what voice level you'll accept: "Give Daddy your nice voice." Or model a softer voice for him by whispering. When our daughter Lauren started screaming, we took her to the yard and jumped and yelled together as a game. The next time she started shrieking in the house, we repeated the outdoor act. After that, whenever she started to scream, we quickly interjected in a soft voice, "Only yell on the grass." We planted in her mind -- at an age when babies make mental notes of what activities go where -- that loud noise belongs outdoors.
Early screams and yells have shock value, causing all within earshot to stop and pay attention. Similarly, babies whine because it works. If that's the only way your baby can break through to you, whining will probably continue. Children need to learn that pleasant sounds get pleasant reactions. When your baby addresses you in a normal voice, quickly respond in kind. Sometimes babies need reminding about which voice gets the best response. As soon as your child starts to whine, get her to change her communication channel by interjecting, "Sweetie, you have such a nice voice. Use your nice voice." Eventually, you'll be able to head off an incipient whine just by saying, "Nice voice, please." Besides learning that screams won't get your attention, your child's language skills will improve, and yelling will become a sound of the past.
Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is the author of 30 books on childcare, including The Successful Child.