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Toddler and Timeout

To Time Out Or Not

By Amalah

Amy – love your columns & blog. Hope you can get to this question soon. I have a 20 month and am wondering if time-outs are something she will ‘get’ at this age. Do you do them with your boys? The behavior in question is when I am changing her diaper she will kick me. I have tried to correct by saying “No kicking” but that produces laughter/games from her side. I have tried no reaction to it for a while – she doesn’t kick every time but when she does I can’t seem to communicate with her that she shouldn’t be doing it. (Not to mention I am 8 months pregnant and my belly is well within her kick-span at this time…)

My husband seems to think we could do them at her age now but I am not so sure I could get her to sit in a chair if she was throwing a fit. I have been reluctant to use the crib as a time-out place because I don’t want her to associate that with punishment. Any help appreciated. THANKS!


Yes, we do use time-outs in our house. We use a Super Nanny-inspired Naughty Step, and our time-outs are generally one minute for each year of age. (You’re 100% right — the crib should NEVER be used as a punishment space.) My oldest son, Noah, didn’t start “real” time-outs until well after his second birthday (I think, oh my lands, the parental memory holes are so deep already), mostly because the results were almost comical when we tried it earlier. He just stared at me like, “What? Are you kidding me? Because I’m going to stand up the second you back away. Maybe even the second before that.”

My (now middle) son, Ezra, on the other hand, understands the Naughty Step already, and we’ve been using it for a couple weeks now for temper tantrums that involve throwing toys or hitting. He’s only 22 months, but I think he “gets” the concept because he’s seen us use it with his older brother. We round up to about two minutes (ISH) for him, and have taught him to say and sign “sorry” (rub your fist in a circle on your chest) so he’s learning the whole “apologize and you can get up” part of the punishment too. Yesterday I saw him get angry at Noah and throw a toy car at him…and then as soon as he realized what he’d done he stomped over and sat voluntarily on the step. He knew! Win! Huzzah!

But there’s NO WAY the Naughty Step would have worked like that for Noah at 22 months — he wasn’t verbal enough, for one thing, and he didn’t have the benefit of seeing it in action with an older sibling. So…it might be too early for your daughter, or it might not be. It’s just different for every kid — some kids will never really respond well to time-outs, and some parents are mightily against the concept in general, so…yeah. I AM ABSOLUTELY NO HELP AT ALL.

Oh, wait! Maybe I am! My boys went through a similar phase — hell, Ezra is STILL in this phase — of hitting/kicking/whacking with toys/throwing stuff right in your face/OW OW OW. Noah was probably around 18 months — far too young for time-outs. We started reading the “Hands Are Not For Hitting” kids’ book and following the parents’ advice in the back of the book on how to gently and consistently react to the behavior (without losing OUR temper, because seriously, even an 18-month-old can HURT YOU, even if they think it’s just a game). It really, really helped a lot, and there is indeed a “Feet Are Not For Kicking” version that I would definitely suggest you try, regardless of whether you decide to institute time-outs or not.

And as further evidence that Different Things Work For Different Kids — we read Hands Are Not For Hitting practically DAILY to Ezra before giving up and plopping his butt on the Naughty Step. He liked the book, but cheerfully and consistently ignored the Entire Point. He gets mad, he lashes out with his hands — he smacks or throws things or just knocks the nearest thing over in a pint-sized huff. For him, I think the BREAK aspect of the time-out — a minute or two to calm down and take a breather — is what HE needs, and why it works for him. Your daughter might just need to see the “THIS IS NOT A GAME, THAT HURTS MOMMY AND BABY BROTHER/SISTER” message illustrated and reinforced for her rather than punishment, since she really is at an age where kids just DO STUFF without understanding why they shouldn’t. Once you’re really sure that the awareness is there and self-control is possible, a time-out can be much more effective, I think.


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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  • Karen

    August 30, 2010 at 11:22 am

    My daughter would also laugh in my face if I tried to get her to sit on a mat for a minute. I did come across a suggestion recently – when starting TO’s with a 18-24 month old, the parent or caregiver should accompany the child to the spot and sit with them, quietly, for the entire time. Eventually the parent sits for less time, or moves away from the exact spot, as the child learns the routine.

    But now I’m thinking, if modeling is really that helpful, perhaps I should give my husband timeouts? Bam!

  • Lisa M

    August 30, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I think you can use time-outs at that age, within reason. Chances are she’s not going to sit there, but at least you can build the framework. Use timeouts as a way to cool off; for example, if she’s kicking you, she has to sit in timeout until she can remember not to kick (or 2 minutes). Emphasize that there are rules (you don’t have to confuse the issue by saying my rules, etc.). Just a general “we don’t hit/kick/blah blah.” But just like having an older sibling, the more you practice timeouts, the more she’ll understand that there are consequences for not following the rules.

    One caveat, I wouldn’t push for empathy right now. They’re just really not capble of thinking in terms of other people right now, even beloved (and injured) mommies. Just keep it simple: go to timeout, because we don’t hit, because hitting is not nice. She’ll eventually get it.

    FWIW, I do make my 2.5 year old sit in his booster seat if he keeps getting up. We didn’t use to, but now that he’s older, and understands timeouts (just refuses to cooperate), we expect him to sit for the whole two minutes. We chose the booster seat because with the way he eats, we knew it wouldn’t have negative associations for him. 🙂

  • Anna

    August 30, 2010 at 11:56 am

    The fact that she’s laughing tells me she looks at the kicking as a fun game! She’s obviously not trying to be malicious.

    We went to standing up diaper changes somewhere around that age. If it was a poopy diaper, we did it in the bathtub. Obviously that’s not going to work in public, but at home that may calm the power struggle immediately.

    If stand up changing doesn’t help, I would suggest calmly stating, “We do not kick because it hurts Mommy’s body.” You can even fake an ouch, but not too overboard or it will add to the “game” aspect of the kicking.

    Like Karen said, time out can be anything you define as a parent. We always used the same routine when our girls were younger (sitting with them) and I would just repeat, “We do not kick because it hurts Mommy’s body.” Eye contact and simple sentences! 🙂

    Hilary Flower has a great book that I’ve read a great deal: Adventures in Gentle Discipline

    It’s written in a parent to parent conversational format and it has lots of examples of specific situations. If you’re a book reader, it’s a great one to resource. 🙂

  • Erin

    August 30, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    We’ve been doing time-outs with my son since he could crawl and understand “no.” If we said “no” one time, and he kept going, we’d pick him up and hold him in a chair, far from what he was getting into, and say “time out.” We weren’t rough, but it limited his freedom and he got frustrated. It took a few days, but he learned to stay away from things that could be dangerous. (Like pulling up on the TV). We’ve continued doing time outs in our lap even though he might be able to sit on his own, and I kind of like it because A) it’s not just a punishment, it’s a correction and B) I like the idea of pulling him in close when he’s acting out instead of letting him sit somewhere by himself. It works every time because he is forced to stop the behavior (lately, hitting is his favorite. I think he does it when he gets excited playing with other kids) and then we can talk about it. He doesn’t get down from our lap without saying “I Sorry” and then something like “Nice hands” or “No throw.” That’s how we know he’s calmed down. The time outs are usually a minute or less. (He’s almost two). There have been times that he’s struggled pretty hard against being held, but it only lasts a couple of seconds, then he realizes that he’s not going anywhere until we talk it out, and then he RARELY if ever goes back to repeat the offense right away.

  • Alissa

    August 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    My son is 19 months and we’ve been doing time out for a couple months.  I do it in my lap, sitting facing out, and usually I sit on the floor and face the wall so it’s not quite as interesting for him.  It’s definitely advantageous for us, because we can do time out ANYWHERE with this method, instead of trying to find a step to sit on.  He gets a warning (no whining or you will go to time out).  Then he gets an explanation before time out as to why we’re there.  Then he gets an explanation after time out as to why we were there.

    It took a while (like, 5 time outs in a row) to see some benefit.  But now I can definitely see it helping.

    I haven’t gotten to the empathy stage yet, but I think we’ll get there in the next month or so.

  • Bekki

    August 30, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    We just started doing time outs with our 22 month old twins. We’ve done it just a handful of times (all for the same thing, being rough with the dog). At this point, I don’t do it for a set amount of time. I tell them “we do not hit/kick/whatever the dog, you will be in time out until I come and get you.” I have to re-put them in the spot a couple of times. As soon as they stay put for like 15-30 seconds, then I cheerfully say “ok, time out is over. Remember we do not *blank* the dog. Please say sorry mama” and then it is over.

    So far so good, and I actually think that starting earlier is better because they’re less likely to make a loooonnnnggg game of getting up. The other thing is to stay totally emotion-free throughout the whole thing, even if you’ve had to put them back on the spot like 20 times.

  • Amy

    August 30, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Like I said on the cat post the other day, I started TO with my kids at 12 months (I am mean!) – NOT for punishment, but to break the cycle of behavior – reinforcement – behavior – reinforcement – behavior – etc.

    It’s just like you said – “I think the BREAK aspect of the time-out — a minute or two to calm down and take a breather — is what HE needs, and why it works for him.”

    That works very early for most kids.

    I also would stay with my kids (from about 12 months until 15 months or so) while they learned what time out was, and where I expected them to do it. I would often sit with them on the step, quietly, counting off one minute. Then, when we were both calmer, I would say, “You can’t kick Mommy, it hurts Mommy and baby. When you kick you get a time out. Please don’t kick again.”

    I had my kids 19 months apart, so I remember the diapering kicks well. I’m happy to report that my second child did not come out bruised or injured in any way. And you bet we did time outs when the big one kicked Mommy! Whether she was hurting the baby or not, she was definitely hurting ME!

    I’m telling you, starting TO at our around the first birthday (when they start walking, generally, and can really cause trouble) makes the “terrible twos” a lot easier on everyone.

  • Leigh

    August 30, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    We started time outs at 8 months, for biting while nursing and still do it the same way. Monkey is 19 months. I put him down, away from me. Sometimes just on the floor, but often around the corner. I like the non-negotiability of just moving him and it has done a good job of breaking the behavior(s).

  • Sharon

    August 30, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    The holding (gently but firmly) in a lap or chair is what we did with our first at that age too.  Another thing that seems to be working better with our second son is the “gate” method — we have one baby gate, and when he needs a time-out (but is too young to sit still) we put him on one side of it and the adult on the other, tell him he’s in time out and can’t be with mommy for a minute, and go about our business for 1-2 minutes.  He can do whatever he wants except get to us or get our attention, and boy does he not like that! (We’re in visual range the whole time, so I don’t think he feels abandoned.) He usually stands at the gate and either yells or just watches. Then when the time-out is over, we put the gate away and go on with things.

  • Calee

    August 30, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    We made (and make) our daughter stand in the corner for timeouts. When she was very little I would hold her hands with her facing the wall and slowly count to 30. She would kick and scream but it communicated the behavior was a no go. I went with the corner approach because it works when you’re not at home whereas a step or chair doesn’t come with you.

  • Angie

    August 31, 2010 at 3:42 am

    MiM (a.k.a. Laura) who authored the blog Morphing Into Mama had a great essay about this very topic a few years ago. She wrote specifically about hitting/kicking during diaper changes and ways to respond to it without spanking. It was so good that I remembered it even though 1.) I am not a mom 2.) it was four years ago. I tried googling it but it seems MiM went password-protected. Boo.

    She advocated saying something like, “I don’t like to be kicked/hit” and briefly leaving the room to drive home the point, but there were tips on how to do it safely so the toddler wouldn’t fall off the changing table. I wish I could remember this better. Knowing what I do about behavioral science, this would be an example of negative reinforcement in the scientific sense of the word “negative,” i.e. removing something from the situation (yourself) which is the same concept behind a time-out.

    Amy, maybe you wave your all-powerful mommyblogging wand and get MiM/Laura to republish it…?

  • Megan

    August 31, 2010 at 4:53 am

    Is there a “Teeth are not for biting” book? Because my husband’s godsend freaked me out with his phase where all humans were chew toys. Would be a great gift for him.

  • Lisa M

    August 31, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I forgot one of the most basic aspects of “time-outs”…remembering to give “time-ins” as well. So every time you can make it through a diaper change with no kicking, reward her good behavior with a special story, or a even a high-5. Just some sort of acknowledgement that you noticed, and she did a good job.

    And make sure you repeat the rules before any activity that you would anticipate bad behavior; i.e. remind her before a diaper change that kicking isn’t nice, and will result in a time-out…but she can avoid the time-out by not kicking.

  • Heather

    August 31, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks so much for answering my question!!! I will check that book out. I get the same vibe from her that you did with Noah at that age, seriously – She would just get up the second after you sit her down and she is absolutely HATES being held down – so that would end up in a bigger battle that just the kicking. or, more likely, she would just try to climb the stairs (that is FUN!!!) and then that would be battle.

  • Julie

    August 31, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I’ve been having a lot of problems with kicking during diaper changes lately too. (My son is 18 months old, and I’m also pregnant, so being kicked in the belly is Not Fun.) What seems to work for us is a two pronged approach. First, if he kicks when I’m changing him he gets one warning and an attempt at distraction. (“That hurts mommy. Please lay still and look at this toy/diaper cream/random piece of junk that was on the changing table.”) If he keeps kicking I then stop in the middle of the change and ignore him. Usually I turn my back on him or walk away to someplace where I can seem to be ignoring him while keeping an eye on him out of the corner of my eye. (Obviously this wouldn’t be safe with all kids – we have a large table and he’s old enough to understand he can’t get off of it, so he usually just lays there stunned for a moment then starts crying, but doesn’t try to get up.) Once I feel like my point has sunk in, usually 10 to 20 seconds, but sometimes longer if its’ a repeat offense, I’ll come back and ask if he’s ready to lay still. Usually that takes care of it and he’ll cooperate long enough to finish the change.

    The second prong of the attack is that any time I change him and he doesn’t wiggle/kick/etc, I say “Thank you for holding still. I really liked that! That was very nice!” and give him a big hug before I help him down. He’s started looking for the big hug at the end of the diaper changes now. 🙂 And the kicking seems to be tapering down, so I think he’s starting to get it.

    As for time outs, we do occasionally use them, mainly to help him calm down when he’s gone wild, but usually at this point he’s just so stunned that he spends the first 30 seconds sitting there in shock staring or crying, so by the time he’s trying to get up I’m ready to let him out.

  • Emily

    August 31, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    @Megan: There’s a whole series of the books. If you go to Amazon and look for one title you’ll probably be able to find them all.

  • Kati

    August 31, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I’ve been doing TO’s with my 17-month-old for about a month. She understands the word “No” and will react to it (usually she cries and throws a short tantrum). So, if her behavior continues I put her in this spot in our kitchen and will stand with her. While she is in TO I explain to her what she did was wrong. I’ve found that if I put her hand on my cheek she listens better and gets over her fit.

  • Liz

    September 11, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    My daughter (who is28 months) would kick me too while I was changing her diaper. I constantly said “No kicking/kicking hurts/ouch/makes Mommy cry” etc. She thought it was funny and no matter how many times I tried to correct her behavior, she kept at it. Although she did get what I was saying because she’d kick her legs and say “Hurts Mommy, ouch.” Now we’re potty training so that’s over with.

    As for time outs, we have a small step in our kitchen/living room area that I use. If she does something wrong (screeching at the top of her lungs inside, hitting, etc) I gently take her hand, lead her to the same spot on the step and tell her she has to sit down for a time out. Then I count out loud to 30/60/whatever (depends on how pissed/tired I am or how bad she was) and she has to stay on the step. At first she’d screech and try to get up and I’d lead her back to the spot and tell her she had to stay. Sometimes if she’s really upset she’ll cry. After the time out I get down to her level, look her in the eyes and tell her why she was in a time out and then we hug and kiss. I’ve been doing this for about 4 months (since #2 came along) and she gets it now.

    Yesterday I put her in a time out for hitting and when I was done counting, she said “time out again, Mommy count again.” I had to stifle my laugh.

  • Kate

    September 14, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    I don’t know if anyone is still reading this but just in case they are I had to share. I know Amy said that 18 months is too young for time-out but on the advice of my pediatrician I successfully used them with my 15 month old.

    I was having a similar problem with my son and biting. It started when he was about 14 months old and the endless repetitions of “no thank you, no biting” did nothing. I would try to hold him away from me when I could see he was getting ready to bite but he would just laugh; he clearly had decided this was a game. At our 15 month visit the paper they gave us to take home talked a lot about tantrums and about using time-outs (holding them if necessary) to stop the tantruming. I had thought that he was way too little for time-outs but figured it must be worth a shot and it worked! Every time he bit (or looked like he was going to bite) I would say “no biting” and pick him up and put him in our papasan chair (it’s the only chair he has to work to get out of). Most of the time he didn’t even try to get out right away and even when he did a stern look did the trick. After a few days of this the biting had completely stopped. He still bites when he gets mad but only things, not people (although if nothing else is available he will bite himself which is a whole other issue).