When Will My Baby Understand “No”?

Discipline is a controversial topic in parenting circles. Any good parent wants the best for their baby, and parents also need to find the right balance between encouraging their child’s growth and correcting misbehavior. One of the hardest challenges early on is that babies and toddlers develop the ability to push boundaries before they’re really developmentally ready for some common discipline techniques. How soon can your baby understand the meaning behind the word, “no”?

Newborn to 6 Months

The common saying, “You can’t spoil a baby” holds true in the early months. New babies are just beginning to learn the world. They’re so dependent that they really don’t have the ability yet to understand or push limits. No amount of cuddles and attention is going to spoil them.

What you can do is get in the habit yourself of delivering a kind but firm “no.” If your baby chomps down while breastfeeding, say “No,” carefully break the latch, and reposition your baby to relatch. Just because your baby’s too young for discipline doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to adjust for your comfort.

6 Months to 12 Months

Sometime between 6 and 12 months, most babies start to understand “no.” That doesn’t mean they’re ready to respond the way you want, which can be frustrating. Help babies pick up the meaning faster with these strategies:

  1. Look and sound serious. Keep a stern expression. Say “no” in a lower, flatter tone than usual. When your baby stops the behavior, smile, raise your eyebrows, and pitch your voice to a higher, livelier tone so they hear and see you’re happy.
  2. Redirect. Babies don’t have the memory or mental control yet to remember what’s off-limits or resist temptations. Removing them physically from the situation is a way to demonstrate “No, we don’t do this.”
  3. Use positive language. That doesn’t mean you need to praise your kid when you’re annoyed. It means telling your baby what to do, instead of what not to do. “No” implies that you should do something another way, but babies may not know the alternative behavior you want yet. When playing with the family pet, for example, “gentle” or “soft touch” are more helpful instructions than “no.”
  4. Don’t laugh. Between us, a lot of little kid misbehavior is hilarious! But any smiles or laughs from you are a giant neon sign saying “Do that again!!!” Keep it together until they’re in bed, and then laugh as much as you like.

12 Months to 18 Months

After your baby’s first birthday, language development and cognitive growth moves more toward early toddlerhood. Gradually, your baby starts not only to understand “no,” but to be more capable of stopping what they’re doing, at least for a while.

You’ll still spend most of the time redirecting and using positive language to help your little one understand why some things are off limits. Use baby gates, cabinet locks, and high shelves to keep breakables out of reach. Say “Hot” for the stove and faucet. Say “hold hands” as you approach the street. Help your baby understand what the rules are, so it will make sense to him to hear “no” when he breaks a rule.

If your baby is repeatedly misbehaving on something serious or unsafe, such as biting you, this is an okay age to introduce the idea of a time out. Designate a quiet spot with no toys. One minute per year of age is a popular rule of thumb for time-out length. Use your judgment. Thirty seconds might be enough for your kid, or you might find your baby responds best to two minutes of “time in” sitting with you, instead of sitting alone. Whatever works for your baby, always end a time out with a hug and a kiss.

While many people grew up in homes with spanking, the most current research is clear that spanking is ineffective and even harmful as discipline. Even if some people “grew up fine,” that doesn’t make spanking a healthy practice to use with your kids. If your child isn’t responding to time outs, stay consistent and talk to your pediatrician for tips on discipline, but don’t resort to hitting a child.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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