Babies have very little self-control, but with your help, babies are gradually learning about and gaining some self-control across the first year.
Babies naturally act on their thoughts and feelings which they have no conscious control over. They can’t reflect on or think about their behavior; and they can’t stop themselves from acting on their desires. This can be tough at times for parents, as they try to understand a fussy baby’s needs and wants, cope with a baby who has difficulty sleeping, or quiet a baby who is not easily comforted. But with your help, babies are gradually learning about and gaining some self-control across the first year.
Help your baby feel calm and comforted.
One of the most important factors in developing self-control is the ability to soothe and calm oneself when upset. The first step in helping babies learn to soothe themselves is for their caregivers to calm and comfort them. Knowing there will be a loving adult there to soothe them when the world becomes overwhelming is a baby’s first experience with self-control. Parents put a pacifier back in their baby’s mouth, give their baby a “lovey” to help her fall asleep, and try to understand her facial expressions, gestures and cries in order to meet her daily needs. This sense of being loved and understood gives babies a foundation of safety and security that is essential for coping with feelings in a healthy way.
(This information was adapted from Groves Gillespie, L. & Seibel, N.)
** What You Can Do:**
- Stay calm yourself. You teach your child self-control by staying calm when she has lost control. This helps her feel safe and lets her know that you’ll always be there to support her—even during the tough times. You are also modeling for her how to stay calm and manage strong feelings.
- Give your baby some basic tools for regaining self-control. Provide just enough help to so that your baby can solve some problems herself. Put a lovey or pacifier within your baby’s reach, or teach an older baby a simple sign (like lifting hands to mouth) to show when she is hungry. Help your crawling baby find her “blankie” when she is sleepy, or move a couch pillow to help her find her missing toy.
- Show your baby what he can do. If he’s biting your finger because he is teething, instead of just saying “no” and taking your hand away, offer him a positive alternative. Give him a cool, wet washcloth to chew on or a soft teething toy to gnaw. This kind of response from you helps him learn right from wrong. It also gives him the chance to focus his energy in acceptable ways—a key ingredient in school success.
Use daily routines to make your baby feel safe and in control.
Daily routines are events (like mealtime, naptime, bath-time, and bedtime) that happen at about the same time and in the same way each day. For example, first comes a bath, then stories, then a lullaby, and then bed. Routines help babies begin to understand that the world is a sensible and organized place. And they help children learn what will happen next. This makes them feel safe and secure. Routines can also help babies cope during difficult times—like when there has been a recent change in their world. The ability to “get back to normal” after some type of disruption is what self-control is all about.
What You Can Do:
- Understand why your child lost control. Is there a particular time of day or specific experiences that often leads to a breakdown? If you can identify specific stressors, it will help you guess which times or situations may be challenging for your child. You can then change the environment or your daily routine to minimize the chance of a tantrum. For example, if you know your baby doesn’t like noisy, crowded places, you can be sure you’ve packed his lovey, and a favorite snack and small toy for these outings. You can also schedule such trips during his best time of day (not when he’s tired or hungry). And plan to keep your time out as short as possible.
- Use routines to help soothe your baby. For example, playtime is often fun, silly and active, and tends to get babies very excited. So it can help to have a relaxing naptime routine to help babies calm down after an active, playful interaction. You might give your baby a brief massage with a yummy-smelling lotion, and then read a gentle book and/or sing a lullaby to help your baby make the switch to dreamland.
Tune in to your baby’s temperament.
A child’s temperament—his individual approach the world–can influence how (and how quickly) he regains self-control. Temperament characteristics shape how easily babies and toddlers are able to manage their feelings and impulses, especially traits like:
- Overall mood (whether a child is mostly positive or negative),
- Intensity (how big a reaction a child has to situations and stimulation), and
- Adaptability (how easily a child adapts to changes or challenges).
Children who have a more negative mood, who are intense reactors and/or who are not very flexible or adaptable may have a more difficult time developing self-control. They tend to get upset more easily and will likely need more help from you to calm down. This doesn’t mean their temperament is somehow “wrong” or “bad.” But because their reactions are so strong, it may take more time to learn how to manage such intense feelings and responses.
Watching your baby and getting to know her personality and temperament gives you important information about her needs, strengths, and preferences. You will learn what is “too much” for her, and what situations she finds challenging. You will also begin to learn what to do in order to help her regain her self-control—is it a pacifier, a lovey, being swaddled, being cradled in someone’s arms, listening to music?
What You Can Do:
- Help your baby soothe herself. The calmer your baby feels, the more in control she will be. Experiment with different ways to soothe your baby. Some children need lots of physical contact–firm touch and hugging–while others respond well to being engaging in an activity. Still others need time to blow off steam on their own in a safe, quiet place.
- Read your baby’s signals. How does your baby communicates through her cries, facial expressions, and gestures? By watching, you will discover how your child “tells” you about her needs, wants, and feelings. Maybe she rubs at her eyes when she is tired, or puts her fingers in her mouth when she is hungry. When you are able to understand your baby’s communications, you can help her regain control more easily. Also be aware of your child’s daily rhythms and basic needs. It is hard for children to cope when they are tired, hungry, sick or stressed.
What You Can Do
Stay calm yourself.
You teach your child self-control by staying calm when she has lost control. This helps her feel safe and lets her know that you’ll always be there to support her—even during the tough times. You are also modeling for her how to stay calm and manage strong feelings.
Give your baby some basic tools for regaining self-control.
Provide just enough help to so that your baby can solve some problems herself. Put a lovey or pacifier within your baby’s reach, or teach an older baby a simple sign (like lifting hands to mouth) to show when she is hungry. Help your crawling baby find her “blankie” when she is sleepy, or move a couch pillow to help her find her missing toy.
Show your baby what he can do.
If he’s biting your finger because he is teething, instead of just saying “no” and taking your hand away, offer him a positive alternative. Give him a cool, wet washcloth to chew on or a soft teething toy to gnaw. This kind of response from you helps him learn right from wrong. It also gives him the chance to focus his energy in acceptable ways—a key ingredient in school success.
Understand why your child lost control.
Is there a particular time of day or specific experiences that often leads to a breakdown? If you can identify specific stressors, it will help you guess which times or situations may be challenging for your child. You can then change the environment or your daily routine to minimize the chance of a tantrum. For example, if you know your baby doesn’t like noisy, crowded places, you can be sure you’ve packed his lovey, and a favorite snack and small toy for these outings. You can also schedule such trips during his best time of day (not when he’s tired or hungry). And plan to keep your time out as short as possible.
Use routines to help soothe your baby.
For example, playtime is often fun, silly and active, and tends to get babies very excited. So it can help to have a relaxing naptime routine to help babies calm down after an active, playful interaction. You might give your baby a brief massage with a yummy-smelling lotion, and then read a gentle book and/or sing a lullaby to help your baby make the switch to dreamland.
Help your baby soothe herself.
The calmer your baby feels, the more in control she will be. Experiment with different ways to soothe your baby. Some children need lots of physical contact–firm touch and hugging–while others respond well to being engaging in an activity. Still others need time to blow off steam on their own in a safe, quiet place.
Read your baby’s signals.
How does your baby communicates through her cries, facial expressions, and gestures? By watching, you will discover how your child “tells” you about her needs, wants, and feelings. Maybe she rubs at her eyes when she is tired, or puts her fingers in her mouth when she is hungry. When you are able to understand your baby’s communications, you can help her regain control more easily. Also be aware of your child’s daily rhythms and basic needs. It is hard for children to cope when they are tired, hungry, sick or stressed.
Parent-Child Activities That Promote Self-Control
Read books about feelings.
Look for stories that explore feelings in all of their complexity. My Friend and I by Lisa Jahn-Clough, which depicts an argument and forgiveness between two toddlers, When Sophie Gets Angry by Molly Bang, about a toddler who has a tantrum, and How Are You Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers and My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss (general stories about emotions) are great choices for this age group. As you read, talk about what you see in the pictures and how the different characters may be feeling.
Play games that encourage your child to practice self-control.
Set up an obstacle course where your child has to climb over couch cushions, wiggle through a cardboard box tunnel, hop over a stuffed animal. The catch: He has to wait at the “starting line” while you say “one, two, three….go!” Learning to wait helps your child develop self-control and learn to manage his impulses—in this case, to run onto the course.
Frequently Asked Questions
My son is 14 months now and has started whining to get what he wants. Some days it seems he whines all day. We aren’t sure what to do about it. We obviously don’t want to encourage whining as a way for him to get what he wants, but he’s so young we’re not sure if it’s possible to stop him. Why are one-year-olds whiny?
It’s not easy being a toddler. They have lots of thoughts and feelings but limited ways to communicate them! They will use whatever sounds or gestures they can to get the response they are looking for. As babies, they simply cry to let their needs be known. Then they move on to what you are calling “whining”, which is actually a step forward in their communication skills. The tears have turned into sounds, which let you know they are unhappy, frustrated, distressed, etc.
What to do about whining?
While “whining” can be quite irritating, it is also normal. There are a few things you may consider trying. Some parents choose to teach their child sign language for important needs (e.g., food, bottle or sleep.) There are many books and classes available on teaching sign language to babies. Most indicate that babies are ready to start learning to sign when they can wave “hello” and “bye-bye.”
If you don’t want to commit to the time and commitment it takes to formally teach your baby to sign, you can simply encourage the use of gestures in your daily interactions. For example, if you think he is whining because he wants to be picked up, say: Do you want daddy to pick you up? as you raise your hands in the air. This will help him learn to use gestures to communicate over the next few months.
Remember that whining can also be a sign of frustration.
One-year-olds are on the verge of developing many new skills, such as getting into a standing position by themselves, crawling, and walking. Until they master these skills, they can get very frustrated at needing you to do so much for them and not yet being able to clearly communicate these needs.
Try to put what you think he wants to say into words. “You can’t reach the toy. That is so frustrating! Let’s see how we can help you get it.” Even though he won’t understand what you are saying, your soothing voice and actions will let him know he is being heard. This may reduce the whining.
Whining can also be a way to communicate boredom.
Another possible cause of the whining may be a need for more stimulation or interaction. Try introducing the next level of toy to him – ones that teach cause/effect like pop-up and busy boxes. Toys that are more challenging may hold his interest longer. Babies this age also really enjoy turn-taking activities such as rolling a ball or “doing” activities like art or music. When all else fails, change the environment – go for a walk, a ride in the car, etc. Sometimes just seeing new scenery is enough.
Whether or not you can figure out why your child seems fussy, what’s most important is staying calm and patient since this will likely have a calming effect on him. And remember, all kids have fussy days.
My 13-month-old has started biting me and I don’t know what to do. He will give me a hug and bite my shoulder or will start to give me a kiss and bite my cheek. How can I teach him that biting hurts?
For young toddlers like yours, biting behavior is normal and often a temporary behavior. It sounds like your son just needs some help expressing his loving and excited feelings in a different way. When he gives you a love-nibble, your natural, immediate reaction–jumping, startling, yelping–is often very effective in letting your child know that he’s done something unacceptable.
Next, say in a stern tone with a serious face, “Biting hurts! No biting.” Although your child might not understand the words now, he soon will. Until then, your expression and tone of voice speak volumes. Let your son know you understand that he is just trying to show you how much he loves you, and demonstrate another way he can express himself, such as by hugging or kissing you only with his lips!
What to do when biting is more than a brief phase?
With some children, biting is more than a brief phase. Watching and reading a child’s cues helps parents learn more about what situations set their child up for biting. When and where is he more likely to bite? Is it out of frustration, stress, fear, anger, or excitement? If a child tends to bite when he’s overwhelmed or upset, for instance, notice when he is showing signs of stress and help calm him before he loses it.
Recognize his feelings–“It feels so bad when someone takes your toy”–and give him a firm hug, which often helps children settle down. As he grows, you can teach him to put those feelings into words, and offer him alternate ways to work them out such as banging a xylophone, stomping his feet, or making a lion face and roaring.
Sometimes biting is due to a need for oral-motor stimulation. Research has shown that some children bite because of a physical need. When these children were offered objects they could safely bite as well as crunchy snacks (ideally healthy) throughout the day, they were less likely to bite. You can experiment to see if these tactics seem to reduce your child’s biting. It may also help to brainstorm some ideas with a health care provider or child development specialist, if you suspect your child’s biting is due to a physical need.
My 16-month-old is in that phase where he wants to do everything by himself, from opening a lollipop wrapper to pouring his own milk. He’s too little to do some things without making a mess or getting hurt–he even wants to cut his own food with the knife. How can I reason with him?
You can’t. Sixteen-month-olds are not logical beings, so forget any strategies that include reasoning. What you can and should do is congratulate yourself. You have nurtured in your son a strong sense of self-confidence and an eagerness to learn. That said, curious, confident kids can also be a handful because they want to do everything by themselves! There is a lot you can do to encourage your child’s sense of competence, while also keeping him safe and yourself sane.
- Compromise. If he wants to feed himself but you can’t wait all day for him to get an ounce of food in, give him one spoon to feed himself while you use another to get most of the meal into his mouth.
- Find safe alternatives. There will certainly be times when you have to just say no. Setting these kinds of limits is your job. You can explain, “These sharp knives are for Mommy and Daddy to use.” Then show him how he can use his hands to break up certain foods, or help him use a safe, blunt, plastic knife.
- Be his coach. When he’s frustrated because he can’t do it all himself, label his feelings: “It makes you so mad when you can’t open the container!” And introduce him to the word “help.” Then provide the assistance he needs to master the challenge without appearing to do it all for him. This may mean holding your hand over his as you unscrew the top. It helps him feel like he has been a part of the solution.
- Let your child practice new skills within limits. For example, if he wants to pour his own milk and he won’t let you help, consider taking the milk and cup outside, or somewhere else you don’t have to worry about the mess, and letting him try. If that’s not possible, you can insist on pouring the milk for him, but later give him some cups he can fill and empty out in the bathtub. These experiences also give him the chance to practice so that one day he will be able to pour his own milk.
- Invite him to be your helper. Involve him in activities you’re doing, like mixing pancake batter or putting together a new toy. This will let him to try out his skills without your having to say no so much.
I can’t get a handle on my 20-month-old’s moods. He wakes up happy, then five minutes later he’s furious at me for not letting him pour his own Cheerios. And I never know if he wants my hugs or will shrug away from me if I try! Is this normal?
Very much so. Toddlers are a lot like teenagers, which means they can be very moody. Your child’s temperament is also a big factor. Some kids are easy-going and flexible, and their moods are more stable. On the other end of the spectrum are kids whose emotions and reactions are much more intense. They are either ecstatic or enraged, and their moods can swing up or down. They also tend to have a hard time making transitions, such as from playtime to naptime, or switching from one activity to another. These children are usually highly sensitive and absorb everything going on around them. Taking in so much means they can get overwhelmed easily and feel out of control, which leads to their intense responses. Most kids fall somewhere in the middle of the intensity continuum; your child may lean toward the intense end. Keep in mind that intense children also tend to be very passionate, creative, and delightful children. So hang in there!
How can you help your child manage his moods?
- Be as consistent as possible in your own moods and responses to him. When he is having a hard time, he needs you to be his rock. If you have a big reaction (shouting, waving your arms) to his outbursts, his emotions are likely to get bigger too, making it harder to help him calm down. Label his feelings. “You’re angry that Daddy won’t give you another cookie.” Noting how your child is feeling doesn’t mean that you’re giving in to what he wants, but if your child feels understood, it will help him settle down.
- Offer advance notice about when an activity is about to end. “When this book is finished, we’re going home” or “When the timer rings, it’s time for your bath.”
- Tell your son what will happen next: “Now we are going home to see Mommy and the kitty!”
- Help him feel more in control by offering him as many choices as possible. “Do you want the blue or red cup for your milk?” or “Can Mommy give you a hug?” (Don’t take the answer “no” personally; he may just not want to be touched right then.)
- Anticipate blow-ups. Gently remove your child from potentially explosive situations. Try redirecting him by getting him engaged in a different activity. Or distract him with another toy.
When he doesn’t get his way, my 18-month-old will scream at the top of his lungs. This is incredibly embarrassing when we are out in public and just irritating when we are at home. What’s the best way to get him to calm down?
One of the biggest challenges of parenting is separating ourselves from our children’s behavior. Unfortunately, when we have a strong emotional reaction to our child’s behavior, we tend to react in ways that make the behavior escalate.
Step 1 – The rule of thumb is: When your child is losing it, do everything you can to stay calm. While this is no small task, it is key to a successful outcome.
Step 2 – Recognize his feelings. (This is quite different from saying the behavior is okay.) Recognizing his feelings means acknowledging what your child is feeling without judgment: “You are really frustrated!” Feelings themselves are not right or wrong. It is how feelings get expressed that can be problematic (i.e., hitting when angry vs. using words.)
Until their feelings are acknowledged, most children will continue to act out to show you just how mad they are. Also, helping children identify their feelings and teaching them the words to describe their feelings is critical for promoting self-control and coping skills.
Step 3 – Set the limit matter-of-factly, with as little emotion as possible: “You may not hit your baby brother.” When possible, you can offer an alternative, more acceptable behavior instead: “If you are really angry, you can hit the couch cushions or play your drum as loud as you want.”
How do you implement this approach? Implementing this strategy would look something like this. Your son starts screaming when it’s time to leave the playground. You say, with compassion: “I know, you are soooo mad that we have to leave the playground! You really want to keep playing.” As he continues to scream, you very calmly continue taking steps to depart while remaining cool.
If he refuses to get in the stroller or car seat, pick him up and place him in, ideally without anger or emotion. There is no reasoning with a child when they are out of control. The more matter-of-fact you can be (even as you use all your strength to click him in!), the better.
Completely ignore his screaming so that he gets no attention for it. Instead, keep talking to him in a calm voice about how mad you can see he is; that it is hard to stop doing something he likes so much; that you’ll come back again soon, etc. While he may not understand all your words, talking in a compassionate, soothing voice can be calming to him; and, just as important, it is a way to soothe yourself during this stressful time.
Finally, don’t fear these episodes. See them as opportunities to help your child develop the ability to cope with frustration. Your response to him can make a big difference in how he learns to manage his strong feelings in acceptable ways.
My daughter (22 months) and I go to a playgroup once a week. Things were fine when the babies were little, but now they are walking around, exploring…and grabbing and pushing and hitting! Last week my daughter grabbed a car out of her friend’s hands. Her friend started to cry, and when I made my daughter give the car back, she started to cry. It was a mess. When do you start making little kids share? And how?
The incident you described is very typical. In fact, it’s what we expect at this age. Learning to share is a process—one that can start now, but that takes a long time to master.
Young toddlers are very smart, determined beings who know what they want and are determined to get it. Unfortunately, what they don’t yet have are the words to express their strong feelings, so they communicate through action.
Children this age are also self-centered, meaning they cannot yet “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” or to imagine what others might be feeling. This is why it is hard for them to share. They only know what they feel, not what others feel. They are not thinking, “I really want that car but grabbing it will make Sherri feel bad.” They are more likely thinking, “I want that car and I want it now!”
A final complicating factor is that most 22-month-olds don’t yet have the impulse control to stop themselves from doing something they want to do, even if they have been corrected countless times. For all of these reasons, most children do not learn to share until they are much closer to age 3.
How can you help your toddler learn to share? You certainly don’t have to wait, and shouldn’t wait, until your child is older to start helping her learn to share. Use everyday moments to work on this skill. When you are playing, help her take turns. She adds a block, then you add one. At clean-up time, take turns putting the toys back on the shelf. At bedtime, take turns flipping the pages of her story. Through these interactions, your daughter will experience turn-taking as part of a positive, loving relationship which sets the stage for sharing in other relationships.