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child discipline and baby pulling hair

Discipline vs. Correction vs. the Mighty Redirection

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve been reading your advice column since long before I had a baby to apply your wise words to, and during those ‘is this really a good idea’ moments of 3rd trimester anxiety about all the changes about to come into my world, your funny and super smart words convinced me that yes, I probably should go through with getting that baby out of my enormous stomach and into my arms.

I am the type to do a lot of reading and research about every single thing, big or small, but the question of discipline is something I just can’t get a handle on. To give you some background: I am 26, and while a few of my friends are just starting to trickle down the aisle, I am by far the first in my social sphere to have a baby, so can’t look to people in the real world for advice, because it would probably be “have another glass of wine” (maybe they’re on to something?!). My little honeymoon baby (surprise!!) is now 7 months old, and has mostly been a total pleasure. He’s slept through the night with one (one!) exception from 8 weeks on, he smiles and laughs at anyone and anything, he’s taken to new things–solid foods, sippy cups, a nanny–with no issues at all.

He’s incredibly active and physical, though, and now that he’s getting bigger and stronger, his need to constantly grab/pull/poke/scratch is becoming a bit of a problem. His hair and skin pulling and prodding is actually starting to hurt a bit, and I can tell our dog agrees. Is it too early to start “teaching” him that this kind of thing is not OK? When is the right time to start disciplining your child? I know he’s not doing it maliciously at all, but… still. I don’t want to wait so long to at the very least lay the groundwork for good behavior that I miss some kind of window and find myself with a screaming, kicking, spoiled brat on my hands that nobody wants to play with–especially since I feel like I’ve been dealt such an incredibly lucky hand with my generally incredibly sweet and easy-going boy.


Okay, before we begin, let’s nail down some terminology here: At seven months old, your baby is not anywhere close to ready for the concept of “discipline” to be introduced. But I think you know that: Discipline involves (or at least implies) a punishment or consequence for a specific behavior and requires your child to KNOW that specific behavior is wrong. What you’re looking to do here is introduce gentle, appropriate CORRECTION when possible, and lots of good old fashioned REDIRECTION.

Infant Behavior and Correction/Redirection

There is no “window” here that you’re missing, because what your child is doing? With the grabbing/poking/pulling/yanking all the livelong day? NORMAL. Completely, 100% normal and expected and developmentally appropriate. Not to say that it’s NOT a giant pain in the ass because yes, it hurts to get your hair pulled and animals certainly can’t be told that hey, that small yanky child currently gnawing on your tail is simply exploring the world of sensory/tactile experiences and dabbling with a little cause and effect, so don’t get mad at him, okay?

But that’s exactly what your son is doing. He’s just starting to get a sense of control over a full set of arms and legs and feet and fingers (that for MONTHS now have twitched and kicked and grabbed mostly on reflex/instinct) and he’s starting to realize that he can have a physical effect on the world around him, and that some of this sensory input is really freaking interesting. Blocks get knocked over. Balls get thrown. Mama makes a funny noise when I bite her. Etc.!

When he starts grabbing you or pulling your hair and it hurts, disengage his little fingers and give him something else to play with. Same with biting — give him a toy or a teething biscuit to gnaw on. (I used to wear a silicone teething necklace at this age for this very purpose. Check out Chewbeads or Smart Mom.) You can say “no thank you” or start the “hands are not for hitting/teeth are not for biting” refrain now, though be prepared that you’re probably still going to be saying it 10 months from now, once he enters toddlerhood and continues testing these very same limits, this time with a curious sense of purpose. Intervene IMMEDIATELY when a dog or cat is involved, however, and start modeling the correct way to touch an animal. Take his hand and have him do it as well. “Gentle. This is gentle. Show Mama gentle. Good boy!” If you can’t trust him around the dog yet, set up baby gates and barriers to keep them separate during playtime.

But again, you’re going to be doing this exact same type of correction a LOT. Over and over again. It can feel pointless and yes, it can be extremely frustrating when you’re exhausted and changing a diaper at 3 in the morning and your baby is all, “LET’S KICK MAMA’S HAND AS HARD AS WE CAN AND MAKE THAT POOPY DIAPER FLYYYYYY.” But it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong or should be doing “more.” You can’t yell at a 7-month-old baby for not having full control of his grabbing reflex or for hurting your feeeeellllings. You can’t put a 9-month-old in time out for throwing a toy at your head. (You CAN, however, compliment her aim. Then give her a more appropriate target, like a block tower or something. Redirect!)

Toddler Behavior and Discipline

As for when to introduce honest-to-God actual discipline, that depends. It’s different for every child, but I’d say you probably can safely table the worry until at least two years old, and even then you’re going to keep the consequences small and immediate.  (No abstract concepts like multiple-day punishments/groundings, etc. And certainly nothing physical, omg.) They throw a toy at you? Toy goes up and away for a few hours, or the whole day after repeated offenses. I started putting Noah in very short time-outs after his second birthday, usually following at least one verbal warning to cease a certain behavior. Sit for one minute for every year of age on a calm-down chair/naughty step away from toys. Stay with them if necessary to keep their butts in place, but no talking. Ezra was in time-outs a little earlier than Noah, but mostly because he saw the process modeled by his brother and would go put HIMSELF in time out when he was rage-y or upset. (So sensible, that one!)

I don’t think time-outs work that well as a deterrent for undesirable behavior at those young ages, by the way, but should be employed more as a reset button for an overly-wound-up child who’s acting up and out. Now that timeouts involve four/five or seven/eight minutes for my kids, it’s more of an actual “punishment.” (Though rarely employed; we’re more of a star chart family now where our older boys have 4/5 daily goals that are a mix of responsibilities and behavior expectations. Not getting stars equals missing out on earning that day’s incentive — a cartoon or special food treat, usually. But a time out still works for a consequence-on-the-fly for de-escalating sibling squabbles and such. See how much you have to look forward to on the discipline front? IT NEVER ENDS.)

But you’re going to continue with the redirection into older toddlerhood, too: One instance of hitting/biting during a playdate doesn’t mean you need to be all, “THAT’S IT WE’RE GOING HOME AND YOU’RE GOING TO BED YOU AGGRESSIVE UNSOCIALIZED MONSTER!” It just means you need to pull your child away, put them in a different area of the room and give them something else to play with. If they continue to fixate on some desired object that their playmate has, keep trying to distract them and engage the other child’s mother in a sharing/taking turns lesson. In five minutes, the toy changes hands, please, thank you, all of that. (Note that no, this won’t always go well the first time or the 70th. But…toddlers. It happens. You aren’t raising a sociopath who will never ever learn to share his choo-choos.) If you do baby sign language, the “sorry” sign (fist makes a circle on your chest) is a GREAT one for older toddlers, since it’s easier than saying the word and yet still introduces the very important concept of apologizing.

Ike is now 25 months old, and I have not yet put him in time out or taken toys away or done anything that might be considered for-real “discipline.” Obviously, I tell him “no” and set plenty of limits, but he’s still clearly experimenting with those limits and cause/effect. Though now (as opposed to your son’s developmental stage) there’s a LOT more intent. He balls up his fist and hits. He throws a toy at me deliberately (though it’s still not necessarily maliciously). And yes, it’s ALWAYS me. Because I am Mama and my love and care are an established constant. Thus I am his “safe space” to test some limits to see what happens.

Am I upset or worried? Hellz nah. This is so totally normal too and he’ll outgrow it. All my kids went through a phase like this, somewhere between 18 months and 2.5 years old. He’s looking for a Big Reaction from me, so I simply don’t give him one, whenever possible. If we’re sitting on the couch and he hits or smacks or beans me with something, I immediately (and silently, other than perhaps a measured “No thank you, Ike, no hitting.”) put him down, move away and turn my head. This is the opposite of what he wants: We’re not playing anymore! We were having fun talking/tickling/being goofy and now Mama stopped! Is it because I hit? It’s because I hit. Ooooohhhhh.

It’s working. He’s getting it. We read Hands Are Not for Hitting an awful lot. That doesn’t mean he’s a perfect doll-baby angel child who never kicks me in the chest during diaper changes and laughs about it, but oh my God, he’s the farthest thing from a “screaming, kicking, spoiled brat that nobody wants to play with.” As long as you set SOME kind of limits on behavior and correct/redirect SOME of the time (as you don’t want to helicopter either, or scold the kid for scratching you when it’s your own fault for not trimming his nails, whuuuups), your child will be FINE. And even if your child spends his entire toddlerhood (and some of his preschool years) pushing back on those limits with all his might, he will still be completely, totally FINE.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Heather

    July 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    One thing I found helpful when my son was that age was finding ways to mimic the sensations he was learning about in a way that didn’t hurt / frustrate me or our animals.

    Pulling hair got a few lengths of yard knotted up so he had something to run his fingers through and tug.  Or maybe it was the yelping that came from the tug that was the interesting part – then a smack-it squeak toy.  It just takes a couple of tries to figure out if it is the action or reaction that is interesting right then.

    Every smack and tug is curiosity in motion.  curiosity is awesome – as long as it doesn’t bruise.  😀  Good luck.

  • Myriam

    July 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    My daughter is 2 1/2, and has recently started putting herself in time-outs when she’s upset, or sending US to time out when she catches us doing something wer are not supposed to (like throwing a toy while cleaning or something like that)! I just started using the count 1-2-3 method when she stalls or doesn’t listen. She’s pretty verbal, so we talk a lot, and I use the expression “being unhappy” like : “I’m unhappy because you are not picking up your toys/putting on your shoes, etc.” On her own, she will put on her shoes and tell me : “Now, you’re happy!”. Before that, I pretty much only used redirection and compliments on good behavio! Good luck!

  • Cheryl S.

    July 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Redirection is probably best at his age, but don’t be afraid to show him that you’re hurting. A no and move his hand away. And then give him something more appropriate to tug, pinch, pull, whatever.
    For the dog, I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I said “touch nice” and took my daughter’s hand to show her how. Millions? And if he insists on smacking the dog, separate them for now.

  • Jeannie

    July 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    I think everything Amy said is spot on. What worked for my under two’s was guidance “gentle hands!” and some overly exaggerated (probably comical) sad faces when I got hurt. (“Oh no! That hurt mama!”) 

    I have to say that the biggest success with my toddlers  was the cessation of play. I had them in my arms; they hit me; I said (very calmly and not angrily) “no hitting, please, we don’t hit each other” and put the kiddo down. Honestly it probably happened less than a hands full of times before they cut that out. A first and easy lesson in cause and effect, and no need to get mad. 

    Good luck! 

  • Kim

    July 15, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    I used the “hurts” sign a lot with my kids, but especially with my second (point your index fingers at each other and tap them.) My youngest was much more of a hitter and hair puller. “Hurts” was one of her first signs.

    At our preschool, kids are taught to “check in” with each other when transgressions happen.  “Check in with him, see if he’s ok.” At our house, that meant eye contact and physical touch – usually a stroke on the arm. Ok, sometimes that can get perfunctory, too, but the contact seems to help the connections.

  • JFC

    July 15, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    I get much a much more immediate & sincere reaction from my 28 month old daughter when I remind her that whatever she has done makes someone FEEL bad.  If I take a toy away, use time out, etc., she certainly doesn’t enjoy it, and gets that she’s being punished.  But when I tell her that it hurt when she hit, made her friend sad when she took a toy, hurts Daddy’s feelings to yell at him, makes Mommy feel upset & angry when she doesn’t listen…she’s pretty much horrified and we notice a correction in her behavior.  There’s a time & place for everything (and yes, time outs seem to be a pretty effective way of just getting her to calm down enough to HAVE the “that made me sad” conversation) but just my two cents on what I think a lot of parents forget to teach – it’s wrong because of what happens to other people when you do it, not just because I said so.

  • Autumn

    July 16, 2013 at 1:02 am

    The biggest thing is that you and your husband are on the same page discipline wise.  At this age, redirect is your best option.  The phrase “not for babies” is heard frequently around here.    This includes mr Autumn’s beer.  

    We started using the “naughty corner” at around 20 months (she’s now 23 months) out of desperation.  Someone likes to turn the dials on the gas stove and try to do pull ups on the oven door.  So now everything gets a warning, basically “not for babies.  Do you need to go to the naughty corner?”  We are at 50% success with her thinking that it’s not worth it.  

    Our one immediate naughty corner is if she touches the baby gate to the stairs purposefully, as if trying to open.  It’s 15 steep steps to a concrete floor.  The one time she opened it she got her bottom swatted.  I’m not big on spanking unless it’s related to a huge injury risk.  She got the message that the gate is more mommies and daddies.  Which we repeat all the Freaking time.  

  • Karoo

    July 16, 2013 at 3:37 am

    It’s also really helpful to give them the finger, silently but with great emotion, when they hurt you really badly in the middle of the night. But only if its really dark in the room.

    • Myriam

      July 16, 2013 at 10:00 am


      • Kat

        July 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm

        Ha. “But only if it’s really dark”. This may have happened after a very messy, very FULL diaper got kicked to the floor at 2 am on a work night.

  • Bridget

    July 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    When it comes to the dog, I ready somewhere (Ask Moxie maybe?) that when your baby/toddler hurts the pet, to ignore the baby and to coddle/fuss over the pet. It’s worked in our house 🙂

  • Lindsay

    July 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Amy’s advice is awesome. Also, don’t be alarmed if he laughs or otherwise seems delighted if you show pain. He doesn’t get it yet, and it may take many months, but it will happen naturally as he develops.

  • Susan

    July 17, 2013 at 12:51 am

    We use Love & Logic around here with our toddler & preschooler boys, with a general level of success.  Check out “Love & Logic Magic for Early Childhood” – the concept of Uh-Oh is easy, straightforward, and it works (I confess I have actually said it to my husband a time or two). 

    I started saying “Gentle!” to my boys when they were very little, whether it was waving little hands in my face (mercifully I have short hair), being near the cat or Grandma’s little dog, or to the older one after his brother was born – I heard the 4 yo say it to one of his classmates this week, so I think it stuck!

  • Kate

    July 17, 2013 at 2:08 am

    The not reacting is crucial and very hard. When my son was about a year old he started biting constantly. Toys, furniture, me; didn’t matter what it was. I tried distraction, redirection, and after putting him down after he bit me (as Amy suggests) didn’t work I actually started a modified time out. We had a big papasan chair in our living room at the time and after he bit me I would say “no biting” while I scooped him up and put him in the chair. Then I’d go back to what I was doing and ignore him completely until he worked his way out of the chair. After a few days of this he finally got it and stopped biting me.

    And what Lindsay says about the laughing is right. He doesn’t understand that his actions hurt other people and when he does start understanding that you’re upset it may continue because laughter is a common reaction to stress; especially in kids.

  • Mary D

    July 22, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Why is everyone so afraid of saying no? It’s clear, it’s concise and even little babies learn what it means very quickly. I’ve said no to all 4 of my kids starting at the pinch/pull/bite stage and they have all caught on very quickly. They are smarter than we give them credit for but help them out by keeping it simple and direct!

  • Athena

    April 28, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    “…and requires your child to KNOW that specific behavior is wrong.”

    Yes… it does. And I don’t think it’s fair to say a kid that young can’t. It does depend on the behaviour though.

    Hitting/kicking/biting? Not being sufficiently gentle with the pets (though we do teach Toshy gentle, already to *some* improvement)? Sure. I totally agree that a 7 month old just does not get that that’s wrong. Something like grabbing the PS3 controllers or trying to play with the TV, though? Oh yes. Toshy totally knows a *number* of the things he is not allowed to play with, and has for a while (he’s 8.5 months).

    This does include both “no”, moving to another area with toys, and a pseudo-timeout. Starting first as a last-ditch “Jeezus child I’m sick of moving you over and over stay in the damned playpen for a while then”, it is used now as part that, part timeout (used only for brief periods. He hates being confined in general, so he gets the idea pretty quick). It’s still pretty pseudo though, because he still has toys in there. If anything, a few more get dumped in during timeout because now that he walks dear god do our toys migrate, so if they’re looking a little scarce I round up some of the wanderers and chuck them back in with him.