What I Learned When I Stopped Giving My Baby Timeouts

Image Source: Sarah Bregel
Image Source: Sarah Bregel

When I was a first-time mother, I took my daughter to the pediatrician for her 1-year-old check-up. My baby was weighed and measured and given her shots. As the doctor moved her legs in circles and checked her eyes and ears, I noted that she was starting to express herself in less than desirable ways.

I talked to the doctor about tantrums, which I hadn’t been expecting for about another year. The Terrible Twos, right?

Man, was I wrong. My daughter was beginning to show her fiery side, even at just 12 months old — which of course is normal for many babies who are curious about the world and frustrated by their limitations, but I didn’t know it at the time. The doctor, who was more than twice my age, made a suggestion: “It’s not too early for timeout, ya know,” he told me.

Me, a young, still a bit-out-of-sorts, newish mom who didn’t quite know which way was up.

Even to me, giving timeouts to a child who was only just beginning to walk felt a bit premature. But the older, wiser doctor was adamant that the younger we started with age-appropriate discipline, the better the behavior we could expect down the road.

Taking the time to explain, rather than punish, worked much better.
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Great! I thought. Maybe we’ll skirt right around those toddler meltdowns that everyone talks about being so epically terrible if we put in the hard work now. 

I trusted him, against my better judgement.

After going home and repeatedly trying to implement the wise old doctor’s “Naughty Step” suggestion, I quickly decided I’d rather have a naughty baby than try to make timeouts stick. If she hopped down off the step once, she did it 100 times. Giving a timeout to a baby turned out to be far more trouble than the tantrum itself. It was one of those first-time parent moves that make you wonder, What in the world was I thinking? But, there’s a lot more where that came from.

Timeouts weren’t the miracle discipline method I thought they might be. When my daughter got a little bigger, I tried reinstating the timeout method, but usually, all it did was make an upset child even more upset. So instead, I turned to good old-fashioned tactics: I sat her down, looked her in the eye, and explained what the behavior was that I didn’t like. There was no banishing her to her room, or sending her to the dreaded Naughty Step.

For me, I realized quickly that she was really too young to understand exactly what she had done wrong in the first place or why I was even upset. Taking the time to explain, rather than punish, worked much better. Usually, I’d leave her alone for a few minutes afterwards so that she had quiet time to calm herself down, too, but I always made it clear that she wasn’t being punished; I just wanted her to think about what Mommy had said. Intentionally isolating her when she was already feeling fragile just didn’t work for the way I imagine it might for some children with different dispositions.

Sometimes motherhood is just about lowering your expectations and saving yourself the trouble.
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Now that she’s an intelligent six years old, if she crosses the line, occasionally, she gets sent to her room. In my opinion, she’s old enough and smart enough to know what’s appropriate and what’s not. So I don’t give her the uber-gentle sit-down and chit-chat that I was happy to give her as a toddler. Sometimes, she needs an actual punishment to learn her lesson. But it no longer feels unnatural; it feels age-appropriate and necessary.

As for my almost 2-year-old son, who is in full-on tantrum mode nearly every 12 minutes, he’s never gotten a timeout — not even once — and he probably won’t for a long time. He’d laugh in my face if I sat his butt down on the same step my daughter sprung from over and over again a few years earlier, cackling all the way.

If it’s possible, he may be even more fiery than his older sister. He wants to climb up on the counter, whack the dog in the nose, fling open the refrigerator door, and open all the yogurts before I can yell, “Don’t even think about it!”

If you ask me, toddlers are just out of control, and there’s not really anything any of us can do about it. Of course, I’m all for telling him a stern “no!” I’ll even give him a harsh talking to, while he smiles his proudest smile and says, “BOP!” and he hits me in the nose.

But this go-round, I’m going to steer clear of the Naughty Step, so I don’t give myself a heart attack. Because sometimes motherhood is just about lowering your expectations and saving yourself the trouble.

After six years and two kids, I know better than to try and give a timeout to a baby. No matter how old and wise and well-intentioned the pediatrician (who we don’t go to anymore, by the way), I just can’t justify giving a timeout to a baby who isn’t likely to be learning much of a lessen, except how much quicker he is than mommy.

But now that I have the perspective to know that sometimes toddlers are just bloody horrendous, at least I can be at peace with that.

Even if it doesn’t change for a long, long while …

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Article Posted 4 years Ago

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