How do you discipline your young baby? You don't

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Q: My seven-month old baby is a terror. He's a very active crawler and is already starting to climb all over the place - plus he puts everything into his mouth! It seems like I'm always saying "No" to him, but he just ignores me and keeps on doing what he's doing. He definitely needs discipline. What can I do to punish him in a way that will get him to change his behaviour?

Answer from 'Mr Dad', Armin Brott: Whew, it's hard to know where to begin. So let's start with a clarification: Even though people tend to use the words "discipline" and "punishment" interchangeably, the two are actually very different - or at least they should be.

Discipline is more about teaching, training, and getting people to follow rules.

Punishment is a penalty or consequence for disobeying those rules or for committing a prohibited act.

The goal of discipline is ultimately to teach your child to control his impulses on his own. Unfortunately, that's something that's going to be nearly impossible with a seven-month-old. 

To start with, at this age, your baby makes no distinction between a want and a need, and his behaviour is driven more by instinct than by desire. He's crawling everywhere because, after millions of years of evolution, nature has told us that that's the best way for him to learn about the world. He's climbing because he wants to learn about all those cool things that are just out of reach. Along the way, he's using all his senses. Seeing, touching, and smelling are pretty obvious, but by putting everything in his mouth, he's learning about how objects taste. And when he touches or squeezes or drops something, he's learning about the sounds it makes.

Second, your baby doesn't know the difference between good behaviour and bad behaviour (or even what "good," "bad," "right," and "wrong" mean). If he pokes you in the eye, head butts you when you're leaning in to give him a kiss, or knocks over the fish bowl, he's not doing it to cause trouble or antagonise you. And since he doesn't understand right and wrong, trying to explain the concept of consequences for bad behaviour is a complete waste of time.

Third, like all infants, your son has a very short memory. So even if he did understand that he'd done something wrong, by the time you punished him, chances are he'd have long forgotten what he'd done to get you so upset in the first place.

That said, as your baby's mobility increases, so does the likelihood that he'll do something that could be dangerous to himself or someone else. Here's where discipline comes in - in the form of limits. I'm not talking about rigid rules, just some basic guidelines to introduce your baby to the idea that certain behaviours are encouraged and others are not.


Right now, you really have only two options:

(1) minimise danger by thoroughly babyproofing your house, and

(2) distract him. If he looks like he's about to take a bite out of that priceless Van Gogh you accidentally left on the floor, offer him a teddy bear while gently slipping the painting out of his hands. And if he's making a break for the nearest busy street, pick him up - just like you'd do with your cat or dog - turn him around, and point him in another direction. Odds are, he won't even notice.

And even if he does, his disappointment will last only a few seconds.