How do you discipline a baby? Are there certain golden rules that work best? You may be wondering this as your baby grows from the helpness newborn stage to a feisty little one. Months ago, your newborn was just a cuddly, cute bundle of joy. These days, she starts to show signs of the horrible tantrums where mealtimes and bedtime are a constant battle.
Before you decide on the best discipline strategy, one thing to note is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s important to understand why your little one behaves the way she does, and pick your battles wisely, so you can discipline with love.
Here are 10 rules you should know to raise your toddler the right way.
There’s no such thing as a bad baby
Child developmental experts say young children, with their underdeveloped impulse control, aren’t cognitively capable of being mean-spirited or malicious.
So the question is: why is your little one behaving so badly?
“Babies and children are naturally wonderful to be with. They don’t usually behave badly if adults understand them and are able to meet their needs,” says early child education expert Patricia Koh, chief executive and education ambassador of Maple Bear Singapore.
“On the other hand, parents who are impatient and unreasonable with their children tend to attract ‘bad behaviour’. Your child may have also misunderstood your expectations, and therefore not behaved correctly.”
(Also read: 8 secrets to toddler discipline)
Remember that she’s still young
Be realistic about your child’s needs, and understand why she might be acting up. “It’s unreasonable to expect a two-year-old to sit still through a 10-course Chinese wedding dinner, a church service or concert without demanding any attention,” Patricia says.
Don’t forget that, babies and toddlers are just like adults, they too, experience intense feelings or act up when they are tired, hungry, bored or unwell.
So, if your shopping trip coincides with your child’s mealtime, pack food to stave off hunger, suggests Sarah Chua, parenting specialist from Focus on the Family Singapore.
“Avoid scheduling too many activities at one go, or those that disrupt naptime,” she adds.
(Also read: Dealing with toddler tantrums)
Drop the naughty label
Do you tell your child she’s “naughty”? Don’t.
Such labelling doesn’t encourage good behaviour. “When used too casually and frequently, your child may think that you are labelling her character instead of the misbehaviour,” Sarah says.
Additionally, young children do not fully understand what the word – or any other negative label – means, Patricia adds.
The next time you’re tempted to say “you’re a bad, bad girl”, experts advise the best way is to state and explain what she has done wrong.
Be specific about it. For example, if she is screaming, Patricia suggests saying: “You are screaming. It is too noisy. Can you tell me what you want in a nice voice?”
(Also read: Would you use a child leash?)
The younger she is, the more rules she needs
Meeting your little one’s needs does not mean mollycoddling her. If you get into the habit of giving in whenever she screams, kicks or hits, she will learn that this is an effective way to get what she wants, and will continue to do so to get her way, Patricia warns.
Research has shown that a child’s early years are crucial when it comes to establishing behaviour. Once bad behaviour patterns are fixed, they may be difficult to change. The younger your child is, the more boundaries you should set – not the other way round, Sarah says.
Your baby should not be the one dictating when she bathes or nap, but you may engage her by letting her make some choices, such as her preferred choice of clothing (that purple skirt or this yellow dress?) after bath time or after-nap activities (play with blocks or puzzles?).
“As your child grows older and is able to think more independently, she can be left to explore and make more decisions for herself, especially if you’ve been setting healthy boundaries throughout the formative years,” she says.
(Also read: Dealing with anger towards your toddler)
Apply the law of cause and effect
A discipline tactic which the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocates is to let the consequences of your toddler’s misbehaviour unfold naturally. This means doling out tough love and not bailing your child out of sticky situations, even if it pains you to see her unhappy.
For instance, if your picky eater intentionally throws food on the floor despite repeated reminders, calmly clear it away and not offer more until the next meal, Sarah suggests.
“This is a better consequence than threatening to take away privileges – for example, ‘No TV unless you eat!’ – or forcing your toddler to eat. It lets her learn the value of food and the consequence of wastage,” she says.
(Also read: 6 toddler feeding problems: how you can solve them)
Timeouts work for toddlers
Timeouts are another tried-and-tested discipline technique which the AAP says works best on kids from age two, especially when your tot has broken a specific rule.
The rule of thumb is to set a minute of timeout for every year of age: a two-year-old gets two minutes, while a three-year-old gets three.
Take her to a place where it is safe and not distracting, such as a corner or chair. For this strategy to work, it is important to have a “debrief” session – speak with your child to help her manage her emotions and understand what she did wrong, says Sarah.
(Also read: How to use time-out on toddler)
Redirect Baby’s angst
As younger children have a short attention span, diversion would make a great sanity saving tool. The timeout technique will not work on an infant, so parents can try a simple “swoop and scoop” to remove her from the situation or simply distract her with something else, Sarah says.
Distraction works well on toddlers as well, and can help prevent full-blown meltdowns. “Using the distraction approach, young kids usually forget what they originally want quickly,” Patricia says.
She suggests redirecting your child’s unhappiness by using fun, wholesome activities – a simple game, story or action song. For example, if your whiney two-year old expects to be carried all the time, you could turn walking into a fun experience by having a race.
(Also read: Dealing with a defiant two-year-old)
Keep the rotan
According to the AAP, corporal punishment can leave lasting psychological marks on your child. Research has shown that kids who are spanked are more likely to become adults who are depressed, use alcohol, have more anger, as well as engage in crime and violence.
Patricia explains why using corporal punishment is ironic: “How do you tell a child not to hit or use physical force, if you are doing it to him? Children model after adults, so this form of punishment doesn’t help,” she says.
Sarah urges parents to first explore other alternative strategies. If physical discipline is really needed, you must “have self-control, and never discipline in anger”, she adds.
Discipline is about love
Almost every parent has lost her cool at a shrieking toddler and meted out harsh punishment that she later regretted. If you’re feeling stressed, take time out to recollect your thoughts and emotions before addressing your child’s misbehaviour, Sarah advices.
Always remember to offer a hug at the end of it to reassure your child that you love her, Patricia adds. After all, healthy discipline stems from your love for your little one.
“Discipline is not about punishment or making your child behave the way you want her to behave. It is about guiding her to behave rightly and establishing age-appropriate boundaries,” says Sarah. “Most of all, it is about wanting the best for your child.”
(Also read:Why you should discipline your one-year-old)
Everyone must be on the same page
Mummy says “no”, Daddy says “maybe” and Grandma says “yes”. So who’s the boss?
Eventually, your little one will figure out who the weakest link is when it comes to getting her way. Successful parenting is about consistency, the experts say.
“Your child must know that you are also on your spouse’s side, so he cannot get away with unacceptable behaviour,” Patricia explains.
(Also read: 10 signs that your toddler is spoiled)