Setting Boundaries with Babies and Toddlers

angry-toddlerSetting boundaries provides much-needed structure for your developing child. Knowing when to create, change or expand those boundaries is the key to parental success.


The crawling stage (about six to ten months) is an age of natural exploration for babies. They want to grab, feel and taste everything around them — including things you may feel are off limits. Laying down rules is often ineffective at this stage, and punishments are inappropriate. However, this does not mean Baby can do whatever she wants.

A simple way to introduce boundaries is by guiding your child with select words such as “yes touch” and “no touch” to help her differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate actions. Since babies have short attention spans, redirection is a useful tool at this age, and it heads off tantrums more than your intervening does. For example, you see your child crawling toward the dog’s food bowl. Picking her up will likely result in a screaming protest and cause her to really want to explore the food bowl. Instead, try calling her name and enticing her with some other item of interest.

Your older baby (about one year old) can understand the meaning behind the word “no.” If he is engaging in unwanted behavior (throwing toys at your head or pulling the dog’s tail), respond with a firm “no” and move him away from the situation. Redirect his attention to a new activity or toy. The key here is to be firm and consistent with your actions. Every time he engages in the unwanted behavior, you must follow through with the same actions until, eventually, he gets the message. Do not become angry with your child or make your response bigger than it needs to be; a big reaction may cause him to repeat the behavior again and again.

While saying “no” is important, children thrive in a “yes” environment. Your job is to babyproof your home, creating an environment that’s safe for him to explore. As your child’s level of understanding develops, you can follow up a “no” with positive redirection: “Throwing toys at me is not safe, but we can throw balloons in the air instead.”

Setting Limits

Temper tantrums are common around this time. They are a developmentally normal behavior for a child who is unable to express her frustration with words. Tantrums are best ignored — even though it can be difficult to just walk around a child who is on the floor pounding the rug and screaming! Once the tantrum passes, comfort your baby by hugging soothing her in some way. Talk to her about her feelings. This way she feels heard but she also gets the message that you respond to her needs when she is calm, not when she’s having a tantrum.

Some parents tend toward permissiveness because they are afraid to say “no” or deny their child anything. Setting boundaries teaches a child that frustration is a normal part of life, and that child learns the necessary skill of how to handle frustration.

Setting limits is especially important around safety issues. Toddlers actually want someone to set limits for them in this big world that can seem scary and overwhelming. It is also their job to test those limits to see how much they can trust you to respond consistently and appropriately. “We always hold hands when crossing the street because it’s safer” is an example of an appropriate boundary you can create and repeat to your toddler alongside the action. He will begin to internalize these boundaries.

Consider what areas of limit setting are most important to you. Toddlers also need space to grow and challenge themselves. So while, holding hands across the street may be a strict boundary, you may decide to be flexible in other areas. For example, he wants to pour his own milk; you usually say “no” to avoid the inevitable spill, since the task is too large for him. However, one day you decide to let him try it. Even if he spills, the process is key to his developing independence and self-confidence.

Your boundaries will change as your child grows, but you will always be creating a positive structure for her to learn and thrive in.

Image: Shannon/Flickr


Donna DeForbes is a writer, designer and the force behind, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is the author of the e-book, “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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