Too Young to Discipline?

Your newborn cries, you pick him up. He’s hungry, you feed him. His diaper is wet, you change him. Of course you cater to his every need. Baby care is hard enough; surely, you think, you don’t need to worry about disciplining your little darling, right? But soon enough, baby gets a bit wiser, his needs morph into wants, and you find that you have to set a limit or two. Just how many times do you scoop the tossed pacifier from the floor or grin and bear the overturned cereal bowl?

We know what you’re thinking: 1 or 2 years old is too young for punishment. Ah, there’s the rub. Discipline isn’t about punishment. It’s about teaching and guidance, which can — and should — start in infancy’s earliest stages.

“Setting limits is a critical part of your responsibility as a parent,” says Claire Lerner, LCSW, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, in Washington, D.C. You’re helping your child to understand right and wrong, to follow rules, and to cope with frustration and disappointment. Of course, we all know that a baby who’s “misbehaving” isn’t doing so intentionally. When she tugs at your glasses, she’s simply doing her job — exploring the world around her. “Babies are constantly making observations about the world,” says Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam). “She mushes her food to see how it feels. She drops something from the high chair to see how it splats.”

So how do we keep her from breaking another pair of glasses without putting the kibosh on her world of discovery? Here are some sanity-saving, and, yes, discipline strategies, for newborns to 2-year-olds.

Discipline for Newborns

Age: Newborn

The Big Issues: Eating, Sleeping, and Pooping

In general, you can’t spoil a child in the early months, Lerner says. Infants need to feel safe and secure, and meeting their every need actually helps them become independent later on. When they develop a sense of security in their own little world, they’re able to venture outside of it, knowing they won’t get hurt. Dr. Karp puts it in perspective: “Holding him for 18 hours a day may seem like a lot from your perspective, but to a baby who was being held 24/7 in the womb, it’s still a 25 percent rip-off.”

Discipline at 4 to 7 Months

Age: 4 to 7 months

The Big Issues: Grabbing and Tugging

At this stage, you can start differentiating between needs and wants. “Your baby might want to fall asleep on your shoulder, but he doesn’t need to,” says Jane Nelsen, EdD, coauthor of Positive Discipline: The First Three Years (Three Rivers Press). “He needs to learn to fall asleep on his own.”

Likewise, babies this age start to grab at everything. It’s their way of exploring and learning what