Starting to Set Limits
March 1, 2011 · Posted in Discipline, Infant Development, Parenting, Toddlerhood · Permalink

Responsive parenting is an ever-teetering balance between offering comfort and figuring out limits. Though limit setting is not the emphasis of parenting in the first year, it’s share of the pie increases over time. When your baby innocently pulls her father’s chest hairs or swipes at your face with sharp fingernails, or bites you while nursing, the very change in the tone of your voice when you say “Ouch!” conveys a message of displeasure. Then when you add “Gentle, gentle!” or “No, no!” this introduces the concept of limits. Here is some insight into setting limits that will help make the process smoother.

The belief that “no” is a bad word is one of the legacies of overly permissive parenting. Important behaviors including restraint, self-control, and caution are learned by hearing the word “no.” Children will learn to say “no,” and need to be able to say it, regardless of whether they hear it from their parents. In the latter half of the first year the word, “no,” followed by a brief explanation such as “hot!” or “ouch!” or “you have to be gentle” teaches your child about the world of objects and relationships. Language is just developing at this time but the word “no” is best used when coupled with an action to reinforce the lesson. So if your baby bites your nipple, or pulls the cat’s tail, say “no” and gently remove her from the situation, take her off the breast, or move her away from the cat. Then after you’ve said a clear “no” and moved the baby, give a more gentle explanation, like “no pulling, that hurts lulu’s tail,” or “no biting mommy, that hurts!” Over time your baby internalizes these everyday lessons.

All children go through difficult periods as they grow. All children will appear “spoiled” at some point. Stages when a child has difficulty waiting and sharing, when she is especially clingy, whiny, and demanding are all typical of normal child development. However, chronically demanding, objectionable, whiny behavior usually indicates either that a child has received far less attention than she needs or that she has never been stretched in her ability to wait, to use her own resources, or to soothe herself. For parents who felt restricted, misunderstood, and unfairly reprimanded as a child, it is common to offset their baby’s frustration and anger with understanding and permissiveness. Discipline and authority often become synonymous with the words punitive and mean. The key is to see that setting limits is important.

You can be a close, loving, devoted parent and a figure of authority at the same time. When used judiciously, saying “No” will not crush your child’s spirit. In fact, limits are critical for her sense of security and self-worth. Limits do not simply shut a door. They stretch a child, teach her about the world, and let her know she is protected. Limits also help a child to learn about self-control, respect and empathy for others. They are a necessary and important part of parenting.
When the time comes, many parents are deeply ambivalent about setting limits, especially with older children. More psychologically minded than their own parents, the current generation wants to be sensitive to their babies’ needs and feelings and nurturing to their children’s egos, but loving and limit setting are not mutually exclusive.


It can be frightening and upsetting to have your baby get angry or cry out because of something you impose or withhold. In fact, one of the most difficult challenges a parent faces is tolerating a child’s discomfort—be it illness, fatigue, pain, frustration, disappointment, or anger. It will not always be possible, or even advisable, to take away those feelings. It will be important, though, for you to let your child express them. Your baby’s consistent experience of your attempt to understand her needs is critically important to her sense of self and of relationships.

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