Parenting Resource

Developing Self-Confidence From Birth to 12 Months

May 19, 2016

Children need to feel safe and secure to develop self-confidence. When you comfort your baby, respond to his cries and needs, talk and play with him, he knows that he is loved and important. Learn how else you can help your baby develop self-confidence.

Confident babies are free to explore and learn because they know that a loved one will always be there for them. When they crawl away to check something out, you will wait for them and be a safe “home base” in case they need you. And when your baby sees your delight when she makes a new discovery—like finding the ball that rolled behind the chair—it makes her want to explore more and more.

Being confident also makes it easier for babies to move into group situations such as child care and school later on. They carry that sense of security you have given them wherever they go, even when you are not together.

Nurture a sense of safety and security

You help your baby feel safe and secure when you respond to her cries and other communications—for example, picking her up when she needs comfort or getting the toy she is pointing to off the shelf—and by showing her lots of love and affection. It is this loving bond between you and your baby that makes her feel safe enough to move away from you (little by little) to explore. She has learned to trust that you will always be there for her. This trust gives her confidence.

Think about a baby who sees an interesting object across the room. He feels safe to crawl off mom’s lap to check it out if he knows that she will still be there for him if he needs help or gets scared. After he crawls away, he may look back at his mom as if to say, Are you still there? Are you watching me? Then, when he reaches the toy, he presses a button on it which makes a loud noise. This sound startles the baby who quickly scoots back to his mother for comfort and reassurance. She is there for him and gives him the support he is looking for. Then she encourages him to head out again on a new adventure.

What you can do:

  • Be a safe “home base” for your baby. When she goes off to explore, be there to give her a big hug and to offer the encouragement she needs to explore some more.

  • Respond to your baby’s signals for love and comfort. This builds her trust in you. Babies who trust their caregivers feel safe to venture out and learn from the people and world around them.

Help your baby feel good about herself and her abilities

Feeling good about themselves and feeling capable (“I can do it!”) are two very important ingredients for babies’ developing self-confidence.

The things you do to help your baby feel safe and loved also make her feel good about herself. This includes responding sensitively to her needs and showering her with love and affection. This lets your baby know she is special and valued and builds her self-confidence.

Babies learn “I can do it!” when they succeed at a task or develop a new skill. Picture the joy on a baby’s face when she pushes the correct button to get the bear to pop-up. Imagine that smile getting even bigger when Mom or Dad notices and tells her what a good job she did figuring out this problem. Babies develop a positive sense of self-esteem and self-confidence through the play and interactions they have with the adults in their lives. Their parents and loved ones reflect back to them messages like: You’re clever. You’re good at figuring things out. You’re loved. You make me laugh. I enjoy being with you. These messages shape a baby’s developing sense of self.

What you can do:

  • Show your baby how much you adore her. Give her lots of smiles, hugs and kisses.

  • Delight in your baby’s discoveries. You found Mommy! You pulled away the scarf hiding my face and here I am!

Help your baby become a good problem-solver

You can nurture your child’s self-confidence by providing him the support he needs to accomplish a task, rather than simply doing it for him. So hold back from jumping in right away when your baby is facing a problem—like trying to fit a block into the opening of a container. (You know—no pain, no gain.)

What You Can Do:

  • Provide hands-on support to help your child complete a task, like pushing the round block into the round hole or supporting him as he pulls up to a standing position.

  • Provide activity-based support by introducing activities that challenge your baby “just enough.” This means the task is hard enough to be interesting but within her ability to master it. For example, imagine that your baby has figured out how to push all the buttons on her toy to get the animal figures to pop up. Next, offer her a toy that has different devices to make the animals appear.

  • Provide emotional support by using words and facial expressions to encourage your baby as he is working on a task. You are working so hard to get the top off that box! This also means sharing in his joy when he succeeds.

Be a role model

Your reactions matter. Children learn by watching and imitating the important people in their lives—first and foremost you. When you go with your child into a new situation or to meet a new person, he watches to see your reaction. If you look calm, confident, and happy, it lets him know this is safe, good place or person and he is more likely to feel safe and confident as well.

Think about separations from your child. He is more likely to feel safe and adjust to being away from you if you give him a warm hug and kiss and tell him in an upbeat tone of voice that he is going to have a great day. Imagine how different he may feel if you show that you are worried and upset while saying good-bye to him. Babies are quite skilled at interpreting our facial expression, tone of voice, and even the level of tension in our body as we hold them.

Another way to model confidence is when you face a challenging situation—like having trouble putting together one of your child’s new toys. When your child sees you stay calm and not give up, it shows him how he, too, can handle challenges he faces.

What you can do:

  • Be aware of your own reactions. Act in ways that show your child how to cope in a different of situations.

  • Model confidence and persistence when you face a challenge. Your child learns from your example.

Establish routines with your baby

Knowing what to expect helps young children feel safe, confident, and in control of their world. So it is useful when their daily routines happen in the same way at the same time each day—as much as possible. For example, after bath comes story-time, then a lullaby, and then bedtime. When children understand the sequence of events, they can prepare for these changes. And when they don’t have to worry about what will happen next, they can focus on the important work of childhood playing, learning, and connecting with you.

What you can do:

  • Plan for times when your baby’s routines will be “off.” There are always going to be times when your baby’s routine doesn’t go as planned, like during trips to the grandparents’ house. Plan ahead for these times. If you can help your baby experience some sameness or consistency, it will make routines like mealtimes and bedtimes go easier. For example, you can bring a familiar bib, spoon, and bowl for eating, and a favorite stuffed animal, book, and crib sheet for bedtime.

  • Accept that there are some transitions that may be particularly tough for your baby. You can do everything right—have a loving routine set up and stick to it consistently—but your baby still protests. Bedtime is often one of these times. The night-time separation—saying good-bye to a loved one for a long period of time—can be hard for very young children. Be sure to say good-night in a positive, upbeat way (remember your child is looking to see how to feel and react). It can also help if your child has a “lovey” that is a substitute for you and is a source of soothing for your child. Hang in there, it will get easier. For all of you. (For more information about sleep in the early years, visit our Sleep section.)

  • Be flexible. Even though routines are important, don’t be a slave to them. If there is a beautiful sunset one summer evening, go ahead and take your baby out for a walk even if it’s right before bed. These out-of-the-ordinary “treats” (for you and your child) are what memories are made of.

Let your child do things over and over

Children need lots of practice doing things over and over again to master a new skill. Think of the pride a baby shows when she can finally grasp the rattle and put it into her mouth by herself. It is through practice that babies succeed. One of the ways that babies develop a sense of self-worth and self-confidence is by overcoming a challenge.

What you can do:

  • Be patient. While repetition can be boring for adults, it is fascinating and critical for babies. Babies can be quite satisfied looking at the same mobile or mouthing the same rattle for a period of time. So it’s important to remember to follow your baby’s lead and wait until she lets you know she is ready for something new. (She may drop the toy, look or move away from the object, make frustrated sounds, etc.)

  • Help your baby explore his interests in new ways. Is your baby thrilled by opening and closing kitchen drawers? Then give him other objects that provide a similar experience: show him a cardboard box with a top that comes off and on, a blanket draped over a bowl that he can lift and discover what’s underneath. As your baby uses his skills to explore in new ways, he learns more about how things work.

What You Can Do

Help your child develop self-awareness

Point out the result of her actions. You put the toys away. That makes Mommy happy. Now we have time to read another book before bed.

Help your child understand who she is as she grows

Trying new things can feel scary to you. You need time to feel comfortable. Or, You have such strong feelings! Sometimes it’s hard to keep them in control. This kind of self-awareness helps children use what they know about themselves to manage successfully in the world.

Support your child by using language

Are you looking for a big puzzle piece or a little piece? What about trying another space?

Offer direction

Such as taking a puzzle piece and turning it so that it is easier to see where it might fit.

Point out positive steps taken

Such as noticing when your child tries a piece in a different space (even if it doesn’t fit).

Recognize progress

By helping the toddler see how she has gotten closer to finishing the puzzle: Look, you just got one more piece in. Now you only have two more pieces to fit in their spaces and the puzzle will be done!

Focus on the process more than the outcome.

For example, point out how hard he worked to make his block tower taller.

Make a photo album that shows your child’s progress

For example, take photos of a small block tower he has made and then another photo of the skyscraper he eventually created.

Devise steps based on your understanding of what is challenging for your child

For example, if your child is afraid to go down the slide, you could slide down yourself to show him it’s safe, or have him slide a favorite stuffed animal or doll down first. Then offer to stand behind him as he practices climbing the slide’s steps. Then see if he’ll go down on your lap, and then perhaps alone while holding your hand. Throughout, let him know you believe in him. Also, make it clear that it is okay if he’s not ready to go down on his own yet. You are there to support him whenever he wants to try again.

Show understanding and empathy when your child is struggling with a challenge

You tried to pour your own juice. Good for you. Some juice is in the cup. Some spilled. That happens when you’re learning to pour by yourself. Let’s wipe it up with this sponge. This lets children know it’s okay not to be perfect and helps them develop important coping strategies when things don’t go as planned.

Model persistence

When you model persistence and confidence in yourself, your child will learn this too. This jar just won’t open! It is sooo frustrating! What else can Mommy try? I know, how about I run it under some hot water? I heard that can help. Then, when you are successful: Yea for Mommy! I didn’t give up. I did it! This shows your child how to persist and cope with challenging situations.

Model confidence in new situations

When you go with your child into a new situation or to meet a new person, if you look calm, confident and happy, it lets him know this is safe, good place or person and he is more likely to feel safe and confident as well.

Parent-Child Activities That Promote Self-Confidence

Let your toddler do it “By myself!”

Give your toddler the opportunity to practice “big kid” skills like choosing his own snack (from a selection of healthy options), washing his face or body in the bath (with close supervision), or brushing his teeth (of course, you get a turn, too).

Follow your child’s lead

When you take a walk with your toddler, you may want to show him the neat bug crawling along the sidewalk. But your toddler may be more fascinated with the garbage truck. When you follow your child’s lead and let him follow his interests, he feels supported, loved, and important, you build his confidence and self-esteem.

Let your child be a family helper

Give your child tasks that match his age and skills. After you slice the strawberries, ask him to put them into the oatmeal bowl. When he drops his elbow macaroni on the floor, ask him to help you pick them up. Have him help you put napkins and spoons on the table while you set down the forks and knives. Helping out makes children feel good about themselves and builds their confidence.

Frequently Asked Questions

My 1-year-old lets other kids take toys from him without protesting at all. Does this mean he is too passive or submissive? If so, what should I do about it?

It is hard to know exactly what this means for your son now and for the long run. By nature, he may be a laid-back kid and simply may not mind when other children “share” his toy. This doesn’t mean that he won’t become more assertive as he grows and matures. You will likely see him becoming at least a little more possessive as he enters the toddler years and begins to understand the idea of “mine!”

If you are concerned that his lack of assertiveness reflects a lack of confidence, look for ways to be his coach. When you see he wants something, encourage him to go for it. For example, if he is waiting patiently for a turn on the slide but is letting kids cut him, stand beside him and say, “Do you want a turn? Go ahead,” while guiding him to the stairs. When a child takes his toy, you might say, “Oh no! Jim took the train. But it was your turn to play with it. Let’s go ask for it back.” The idea is to guide him and give him the words so that eventually he can take action himself.

It’s important to find that balance between being a coach (which helps your child feel more capable and confident) and fighting your child’s battles for him, which leads to less self-confidence, not more. But with your encouragement, he will begin to gain the skills and strategies he needs to stand up for himself.

My 9-month old and I are in a mommy and me music class, but she’s scared to participate. However, by the end of class, she does start to get involved. Should we keep going?

Stick with it. What you describe is quite common. While some children naturally go-with-the-flow and jump right into new situations, others are slower to warm up. They tend to be more comfortable with one-on-one play and can feel easily overwhelmed in a group. Another factor may be sensitivity to sounds. Your daughter may love hearing music at home, but in a class, the noise and movement of the other children may at first be too much for her.

The good news is that kids are very adaptable. It sounds like, while this experience may be challenging for your daughter, she is able to cope with her fears when given some time. Staying in the class is an opportunity for your daughter to learn how to feel safe in new situations and to find pleasure in new relationships and experiences.

Here are some things you can do to help her along:

  • If possible, arrive at the music class early to give your child a chance to explore the environment without others around.

  • Play with musical instruments at home and gradually add different sounds.

  • Find ways for your daughter to spend time with children around her age so she can get used to being and getting along with others.

  • Give her other opportunities to feel comfortable in social gatherings by attending other organized activities like play groups or story time at the library.

  • When in new or group situations, follow your child’s lead. If she clings to you, help her explore from the safety of your arms or lap. If she needs a break, take a stroll around the room or go to a quiet area. If you give her the time and support she needs, she will soon feel safer to join the fun.

I have a 12-month-old. Whenever he falls down or starts to cry because he wants to be picked up, my husband won’t pick him up or comfort him because he says it will make him a “mama’s boy.” I disagree. As a result, our son prefers being with me (which seems to support my husband’s hypothesis!). Is it true that answering my son’s cries quickly or comforting him when he falls will make him “soft”?

You raise two important issues: how to respond to a toddler who is upset and establishing a way for you and your husband to effectively communicate and resolve child-rearing challenges when you have different ideas about them.

The first issue to think about is this idea of raising a child to be “soft.” I am assuming that for your husband, his concern is that comforting your son will not make him independent and able to handle challenges—that he will always look for and expect someone else to help him when is upset. Your husband is not alone in his beliefs. Many dads, and moms too, share this concern. These ideas often come from the messages parents received from their families as they were growing up. And of course, many come from a person’s ideas about gender—that for a boy to be “tough,” he shouldn’t cry or need help when upset.

I am also assuming your worry is that by not comforting him, your son may feel insecure and less trusting of you, which in the end may be what actually makes him “soft.”

What tends to happen in situations in which parents disagree is that they get polarized. Both argue their points and the more they defend their position, the more extreme a stance each needs to take in order to make their point.

A much more useful approach is for each partner to start by looking at the big picture. You both want your son to grow up healthy and strong. You both have his best interest at heart. Neither of you want to harm him. You simply have different ideas about what is going to help him reach this goal.

Next, each of you clearly articulates what you think and feel about the situation and why, while the other listens without interrupting. As you listen to each other, think about what your partner is saying that makes sense to you and validate that. In this case, you might validate not your husband’s behavior, but his underlying intention—to help make your son a competent, independent person. It would also be helpful to point out some things your husband does with your son that help him thrive. Having been heard, and also complimented, your husband is much more likely to be open to hearing your thoughts and feelings.

Children are not born with the skill of managing their own strong emotions. In fact, young children ultimately learn to comfort and soothe themselves by having the adults closest to them comfort and soothe them. When parents and caregivers help children calm down when they are sad, scared, angry, or overwhelmed, children are better able to manage their own feelings as they grow.

The response that would most benefit your son actually takes into account both your and your husband’s beliefs and values about child rearing. Here’s how it might look in “real-life.” Your son falls down as he is playing a chasing game with you. He starts to cry.

  1. You or your husband say something like, “Uh oh! You fell down.” (Use a loving, but matter-of-fact voice, not one that is overly concerned or panicky because kids pick up on their parents’ cues about how to feel or react to any given situation.)

  2. Provide some physical comfort, a hug, or a gentle stroke to the affected area of his body.

  3. Encourage him to play again, letting him know you think he can do it.

By combining your approaches, you and your husband can team up in this extreme sport we call parenting.

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