Do you have tips for gently teaching babies about household dangers?

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Macchiato Baby I am a happy momma of an infant who is just under a year. My child is at the point where he is gaining self mobility, and as many infants do, curiosity. As the curiosity develops, certain unsafe practices such as touching outlets, getting into cords, and hitting anyone who tries to stop the child are also developing. I have been trying the redirection method, but I’ve been having very minimal success with it.

I am now in the process of making our home a safe place to explore for my child by bringing in outlet covers and making sure cords are away and out of reach, but I was wondering if there were any suggestions on ways of “disciplining” or teaching an infant some sense of right or wrong, without suppressing the curious nature and if possible without getting into the physical aspects (hand smacking ect.)? — Cindy

Comments on Do you have tips for gently teaching babies about household dangers?

  1. At that age we worked to create a “yes environment” so that there was very little that the baby could get into that would be a problem. When he did approach dangerous, or plain ol’ not allowed, things we would physically move him away and say “that’s a no, let’s find a yes” and put him in front of or give him something that he found more interesting. It seemed to work fairly well for us and gradually he mostly lost interest in the “nos” (which in our house are things like outlets, which are covered but still a no).

  2. We’re working on the same thing, and it seems like it’s all about repetition, repetition, repetition. We use redirection too, but we also stop my son, gently but firmly remove his hand from the dangerous object, and tell him that it’s dangerous. We feel like we’re making some progress because now he’ll look at us before he touches a dangerous object – as if to ask “is this still dangerous?” And we always give him lots of positive reinforcement when he makes the choice not to touch. Be consistent and patient and you’ll start seeing (some) results soon. In the meantime, childproof the crap out of everything.

    • This is exactly what we are doing. My twins just started cruising and exploring. When they go for an wire (they are so obsessed with wires) we tell them ” no, this is dangerous” and give them a second to move away. If they do we cheer and clap our hands. If they don’t move along we redirect them towards a play box or something fun. We’re still early in the process so lets keep our fingers crossed it works.

      • This is a great way to do it: lots of praise for the proper reaction. Just be aware though, that when you say “that’s dangerous”, children this age don’t really understand the concept of danger. They’re learning not to touch something simply because you’re pairing NOT touching it with positive reinforcement, but the concept of “danger” is too complex for babies to get. I have this same conversation with parents when they take my infant swim classes: your child learns to be safe around the water because you set up boundaries, not because they understand that the water is “dangerous”. Trust me, I’ve seen toddlers wander too deep, start to drown, get rescued, and then wander right back out into the deep water again five minutes later. I just wanted to clarify since I see many parents try to use the “danger” factor as a boundary, with minimal success for toddlers.

        • This! I realized when my then 19mo was climbing around on the couch shouting “Dangerous, dangerous!” with glee that I had not yet gotten through the meaning of the word. Now, at 2, she fully gets it. Even then, some kids are not daunted by the possibility of injury. I feel like I’ve had to let her have a few minor scares to really get it.

        • Well sure, but if you don’t ever START teaching them the vocabulary and proper response, then they will never learn the concept. Part of learning the concept of “dangerous” is learning the word, learning that it means “do not touch/do,” then how to identify those situations and then the concept of “consequences.” That last one is perhaps something we should continue trying to teach adults, as it’s such a complicated concept apparently.

  3. One thing I have noticed is that my child’s interest in things she shouldn’t have correlates to how tired and hungry she is. So I do try to feed her, calm her down, and remove her from the area first. After that,
    redirection…you don’t get instant success and maybe that is why you think it’s not working…but after a while they do get it. And yes they will probably hit or throw a tantrum, but when they are young, there isn’t much you can do. As someone said “lets find a yes” or I am also using “not for” as in “This is not for babies” or “this is not for you bubby, lets find something else to do”

  4. I always used the same phrase when my kids went for things they shouldn’t. I would simply say “No, Thats not yours.” Then redirect to a toy or some thing “This is Piper’s bear. You can have this!” This phrase works well, because it covers things that aren’t dangerous… they just can’t have ie the figurines on grandmas table. Using a consistent phrase for everything when they are very young makes it easier for them. They only have to learn one phrase.
    With cords that you can’t completely remove (under computer desk??) we wrapped them in a towel and zip-tied the towel on. Out of sight, out of mind.
    I remember frequently teaching about HOT items by pretending to get burnt. They notice that it hurt you, and it helps them understand WHY you say “No, Hot! Owwie.”

    • I love this strategy…one phrase for everything!

      I’ll have to try the HOT method. Both my mother and my father have woodstoves (although with the early Spring that’s not a concern right now).

      I’ve explained HOT by letting her feel my warmish but not burning hot mug. That seemed to work pretty well for her to not grab my mug of tea in the morning. Thanks for the ideas!

      • We do this, too. Like, this is sharp (let him touch the non-biting cactus or show him how we cut veggies), and this is hot (with the warm mug) and this is electricity, it can burn you (he actually seemed to get this on his own). Repetition with words helps, too, while showing. “This is sharp, it can cut you”

  5. Redirection takes a long time and a commitment to redirect EVERY time. My first baby stopped pulling all the (adult) books off the shelves about a week after I was completely ready to give up (but didn’t).

    Agree with a yes environment. And we also say things like, “Chairs are not for standing; they are for sitting,” instead of “Don’t stand on the chair!” The former both turns the “no” into a function of the OBJECT, not the child (“milk is not for spilling,” “tables are not for climbing”), which seems to work better and results in less contrariness; and it gives the child information about what IS appropriate behavior. We always use a cheerful voice as if we’re just giving them helpful information. (Unless it’s super-dangerous.)

    • Also agreed about saving the serious voice. You don’t want them to be tuning you out when something really serious is about to happen, because they’re thinking it’s just another “no”

  6. I remember watching my sister-in-law teach my niece about all of this. She was doing sign language with her, and just conveyed that anything hot/sharp/dangerous was “ouchies” using sign. It worked well enough that sometimes my niece would warn me that my coffee cup was “ouchies” (i.e. hot) when I tried to pick it up.

  7. We’ve done three things:

    *always tried to use a “yes” environment as others have mentioned — less “don’t do that!” and more “this is how this is used.” It doesn’t meant it always happens, and my son has heard “don’t” and “no no no!” out of our mouths plenty of times, but we try. 🙂

    *redirection! redirection. redirection.

    and when they hit the point where redirection no longer works:

    *my husband has totally sat our son (he’s 3, started this around 2 1/2) down at the computer and showed him photos of what happens to people and kids who were electrocuted from outlets or something like that. It’s not for everyone, but for our son it was TOTALLY worked. I was worried he’d have bad dreams, but this is a last-ditch effort tactic that my husband has used repeatedly to awesome results.

    • Also, even when something is really dangerous we still try to show our son the purpose and use of it — related to the “yes” environment. We very rarely put something away without explaining it. Homeboy has a LOT of questions (he has since he started speaking) now, but even before he was speaking we would sit with him and talk over what he was looking at, how it can be used, and why it’s important to use it correctly and safely.

  8. Our goal is to, at the very least, make our kids into functioning adults so we use the word “No”. It’s something they are going to hear as they grow up and it is a very important word.

    • I don’t think anyone is saying DON’T use no — for our family, putting an emphasis on encouraging curiosity, exploration, and learning and saying “no” immediately don’t always go hand in hand. I personally feel like the more you know about something the better, including household dangers. I think there are many ways to raise functioning adults, and many ways to say “no.” It’s all about finding something you’re comfortable with. 🙂

      • “I personally feel like the more you know about something the better,”

        I was just telling the story of how my dad kept us from touching (or falling into) our old woodburning stove. I grew up in an old farm house that was excusively heated by a large woodburning stove. It was located in the middle of the house so we had to walk by it to go between the kitchen and the living room. When I was 4 or so my dad walked me over to the stove opened the hatch and let me watch as he loaded it with wood. He explained how it worked and let me watch the flames. He also let me stand close enough that I felt the heat. It was his hope that by understanding the woodstove I’d learn to respect it.

      • I’m studying to be a teacher, and one of the things I learned in child psychology is that sometimes if you simply state “Don’t do that”, kids will tune out the negative part of it and just hear “Do that.” That’s why positive statements are important – instead of “Don’t touch the stove” say “the stove is hot and will hurt you” and they will retain the information better. 🙂

    • No is absolutely a word kids need to understand, but like any teaching tool, if it’s overused (NO running into the streeet! NO touching the vase! NO taking off your socks! NO throwing your food!) it can lose its impact.

      In terms of results, there’s a BIG difference between not taking off your socks and not running into the street — using the same word (NO!) to talk about not doing either one can weaken the impact of the word when its truly needed.

      • I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but this reminds me so much of training my puppy! I’m not a mom yet, but I know that when I say “no” too often to the puppy, he just ignores me, so it makes sense that a child would be the same.

        Obviously I know babies and dogs are different, but I think there are some basic ideas that translate. Or at least I hope so!

        • I was thinking the SAME thing! I don’t have kids (yet), but I grew up around a lot of animals, studied psychology, and have a lot of experience with other peoples’ kids (mostly special-needs kids, which means that toddler-type discipline tends to still apply to big kids). And you’re totally on the money–people are still animals, even though we’re really smart animals. The basics of conditioning are the same for us as for critters, and even more so when you’re talking about a human with limited language capacity and poor impulse control.

          Like a few other people here, I grew up with a woodstove, and never got burned as a little one. I can recall my parents using “HOT!” as the sort of ‘cue phrase’ to keep me and my brother away from the stove. The tone of voice is important (again, same is true for critters as for kidlets!)–they would make it a “scary” tone of voice, something that triggers an adrenaline response in the kid. Startlement. Then the physical fear-like feeling is associated with being too close to the stove, and the caution becomes conditioned.

          I studied psychology with some focus on child development, and one thing you learn is that fear is not something we are born with–very small babies do not fear falling, snakes, etc. Fear is, in large part, learned. You can learn it by hurting yourself (dangerous), or you can be taught/conditioned to have that fear of the dangerous thing.

          • I wish this would work with my cat. We’ve tried all kinds of things but she never seems to learn anything more than “being near the fire is warm” and concludes that being IN the fire would be even warmer. Luckily the guard is almost always up, but it doesn’t stop her trying to climb in whenever you add more wood or something.

  9. At that age I just recommend a LOT of babyproofing (love the phrase “yes environment” above) and redirection. You may not think redirection is “working” but it’s working as long as baby is staying safe… you can’t expect much impulse control from baby for several more months! It’s a learning process more than a training process.

    For the sake of my own sanity, though, I just made the house as baby-friendly as possible. There was very little that my son could get into that wasn’t okay for him to get into. Areas that were not so safe we gated off.

  10. “Brief and Repeat” for the pre-verbal. Keep your words brief: “GENTLE. DANGER.” and repeat over and over. A low/firm voice, none of that sing-songy funtime voice. Kids need to know their parent’s serious voice, for their own safety. It’s not being mean. Save the “NO!”s for truly dangerous situations and it will keep their attention.

  11. well redirecting does work it just takes quite a while for the child to know that you are always going to be there and to learn that its always no for a certain object…that said there are things that I have had to accept that my child will just not stay away from, the dog food bowl is one of those she makes a mad dash for it every time she is within reach and the dog food goes in the mouth faster than the speed of light…I once joked to my husband that I was gonna put broccoli in the dog dish! But I def think that diligence is the only thing you can do with a child that young and eventually your hard work of redirecting will work just keep at it.

    • It’s the dog’s water bowl for us. My 15 month old son is great about not touching things that he shouldn’t, but the water bowl is just too much temptation. We keep it on the kitchen counter and put it on the floor when the dog is thirsty…as soon as my son hears it hit the floor he comes running.

  12. The idea of creating a “yes environment” really appeals to me. I’m also working hard to get away from using “no” unless it’s an emergency.
    My daughter has been mobile since she was five months old, and at just under a year (next week, holy cow!!), she’s starting to test her boundaries. She has a routine when we come downstairs in the morning: she runs up to a covered outlet and touches the cover whispering “danger! danger!” then she runs to locked cupboards and the stairs in turn and does the same thing.
    Repetition does the trick, along with varying degrees of babyproofing (depending on how determined your child is – my nephew used to pull the outlet covers off!) and redirecting. We’re going to her grandmother’s house next weekend, and I know that it isn’t babyproofed – I’m interested to see how well we’ll do.

  13. We are also trying the “yes” environment, and also to explain things when there is a firm “no.” Since our son turned 2.5, we have had more problems with him hitting us, especially when he is tired, but sometimes just to provoke us. He also throws things. Again, sometimes because he is tired, and sometimes as an intentional provocation.

    It has been very challenging and I doubt myself daily. We try to give him a “no” when he does these clearly aggressive and provocative things (vs trying a general yes environment) and then explain why we are saying no — that it hurts mommy, or that if he throws his food (he is far past the normal baby food throwing phase) it makes the floor dirty and the dog might eat it and get sick, etc. We also try to redirect him to things he can throw and where he can throw them. I am not sure how to redirect the hitting to appropiate things to hit. Maybe we need a special pillow.

    But, often in the back of my mind is the fear that we need to be more “firm” and that we are turning into wimpy parents. It doesn’t help that when grandparents visit, they yell a lot when he does these things and offer angry corrections without explanation, and this leads to tension between us as parents and the grandparents, and also to some degree of self-doubt in me that we are doing it all wrong, even as I am angry at them for taking a “control” approach to discipline that offers to explanation, and for usurping our authority in our own home by not even giving us a chance to address things our way. It is a major problem.

    This stuff is TOUGH. I just read an article on Facebook about the “terrible threes” and how it gets even worse in the back-talk department and total understanding of independence and desire for it, and that it is a big test for those who are trying gentle/positive discipline. I’m already dreading this phase, and in particular this phase when my parents are around, who are already convinced our child is going to be a delinquent because we aren’t in control and he doesn’t fear us enough.

    Sometimes, I think I’d love a version of the “meet up” but online — like a small group of five parenting buddies who can float “discipline” scenarios past each other and discuss approaches. I think this kind of support would be amazing.

    Anyway, I have totally derailed this from the question, which is more about babies and dangers, not really the “discipline” era yet. Sorry!

    Good luck to you!

    • As a mom in the depths of the ‘terrible threes’ let me tell you – it’s tough! My son sounds an awful lot like yours…for whatever reason, when he is angry or frustrated his first initial instinct is to throw or hit (since my husband and I don’t behave this way and we don’t watch regular television, it’s puzzling.) He was also a verrrrrry late talker so I’ve been chalking it up to him not being able to fully communicate. Anyways, the thing that seems to be the most effective for him is explaining WHY he shouldn’t throw or hit (which sounds like what you are doing already…) It’s a long journey, but hang in there! He’ll start to catch on.
      We have the same issues with grandparents/relatives – sometimes it’s terribly embarrassing. Just know, YOU are his parent and you DO know whats best. If they don’t agree, tough. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole ton you can do about how they attempt to discipline him…in particularly hairy situations, I try to take him to another room and calmly explain to him why grandma/auntie is telling him no, to be respectful of their feelings, etc. Again, not easy, but you can do it!
      And I third an online meet-up – great idea!

    • i’m not a parent, but there is a book i LOVE LOVE LOVE called “Eastern Body, Western Mind” by Anodea Judith which talks about the development of the chakras….we develop our chakras several times throughout our lives, from infancy through the teenage years, then usually again in early adulthood, and so on.

      what was of particular interest to me was the chapter on the development of the third chakra dealing with personal power and will power, which we first develop as toddlers. she talks extensively about why the way parents discipline is so important during this time….it gave me insight as to things going on in my life now (at 27!!) as a result of how i was disciplined as a young child.

      i HIGHLY recommend the book….it’s an easy to understand, interesting read. i obviously wasn’t reading it for the parenting aspect, but as soon as i read that chapter i immediately thought “hmmmm this would be a good read for parents…”

    • The threes are really tough. We consider ourselves pretty strict parents, but use NO physical discipline and always try to make clear why the children have consequences (either before or after the consequence happens, or both). I wouldn’t say that we create a “yes” environment, but more an environment of choices. As in, “I’m sorry that you don’t like what’s for dinner. You can make a choice: you can sit here and keep us company and try eating it, or you can go into your room and continue cry about it. But you may not sit here and ruin my dinner by crying loudly. You decide.” As far as babyproofing, it’s kind of the same thing “I’ve asked you to stop taking all of the DVD’s out of the cases. If you keep doing that, they’re going to get scratched. Would you like me to put them up so you can’t reach them, or would you like to stop taking them all out? You make a choice.” The difficulty is in always following through with the unpleasant choice (taking away the DVDs, putting the crying child in his room, etc). But I do think that, over time, it has helped both of our children feel that they are ultimately responsible for the choices that they make, but that they also have boundaries that we set to keep them safe, healthy, participating members of the family.

      And I wouldn’t worry so much about the conflict with the grandparents, unless they’re doing a lot of childcare. Children totally get that different people have different expectations and behaviors, and they are largely unfazed by that kind of inconsistency.

    • I’m not a Mum yet but I spend a lot of time with my god-daughter who is 2 in July. She is going through the phase of testing boundaries and hitting when she doesn’t get her way.

      I am quite sick and even her small hits can hurt me quite a bit but she has learnt to the word “Gentle”. When she get in this mood we say “Gentle, Lexi. You will hurt Aunty Kylie” or whoever it is. May other comments here have talked about using one phrase to keep children away from all kind of dangers and I think it works for other things too. We use “Gentle” when she is playing with a delicate toy – or she is playing on a computer on our laps.

      I hope this might help you 🙂

  14. Excellent topic! My little one is only 10 months, so she doesn’t seem to care when we tell her things are hot, etc. We just do a lot of redirecting right now, but I’ll definitely have to start implementing some of the tips in the comments!

    We also have babyproofed as much as possible, and she’s allowed in every room alone except for the living room (we need to mount a wobbly bookshelf to the wall) and the bathroom (she tries to climb into the tub and it never goes well). She prefers the kitchen though, where she has pots and pans at her level that she can pull out and bang. We just put the cat food on a counter so she can’t reach or even see it.

  15. Concistancy.

    I live in Norway, where we don’t really babyproof our homes, maybe put a baby-fence in front of the stairs.

    What we use instead of putting soft stuff around corners and secure our outlets is concistancy. Children sees object, not situations.

    If you don’t want them to burn themselves on the stove, never let them touch it, even if it is not hot. They cannot understand that “now it’s ok to touch it because it is not on”, just let them never touch these things.

    I am actually a big fan of the word “no”, combined with an explanation. I have had so many situations where children in my care (I work in kindergarten, with kids from 1-5 years old) and have experienced situations where a child is almost doing something dangerous from afar, and a firm “no” have saved the situation until I can go to the child and explain why.

    To rederect you have to be constantly with the child, which is not always the case.

    • Before my daughter became mobile, I firmly believed (always a recipe for disaster) that childproofing was not necessary. I soon found that it was not for the baby, but for me. Could I stop her from getting to the outlets over and over and over and over again? Yes. Did I want to? No. It was worth getting some secondhand outlet covers and baby gates to be able to take 10 seconds to grab something from the kitchen without baby in arms.

  16. My son just turned a year old and we’re working on this too. Some things we have been able to teach him, he understands “hot,” and he understands “That is dad’s,” (computer equipment). He is starting to understand “Ouch.” Any time he falls down or otherwise hurts himself and it clearly hurts, we made a huge point of saying “Ouch, ouch, you fell down and that hurt, ouch!” Not in an “OH NO ALERT THE PRESSES EVERYONE PANIC” way, but in a teaching way. I also started saying “ouch” when he pulls my hair or pinches me, etc. We are at the point now where he touches an outlet or something and we say “Ouch, that will hurt you, ouch!” He at least pauses and pulls his hand away, which is usually enough time for us to get to him and move him, or explain what it is and why it will hurt. It helps if Mama or Dad touches whatever it is and pulls away quickly and says, “Ouch! That hurt me! Ouch!” Like I said, it’s not perfect, but it’s starting to work.

  17. Move all your cleaning products and medicines to a TOP cabinet (with a lock if possible). Don’t use a lock on a bottom cabinet!!

    We purposefully didn’t do a whole lot of baby-proofing. We are minimalists-in-training, so we don’t have knick-knacks and breakables to begin with. There are many brands of outlet covers, and some are super easy for babies to remove themselves. One of the very cheap kinds is super hard to take out even for adults – get that kind!! BUT, we also let our son plug in all the Christmas lights and then unplug them all before bed. Do a little research, but outlets are much safer nowadays, and unless your kid has a fork there’s not much damage they can do just by being curious and touching with fingers. We don’t have bedroom doors (our house was bank-owned and we never felt like paying to get new ones), so no worries about smashed fingers. You can get a thing to go around the stove, but he’s probably not tall enough to reach and when he is he’ll be old enough to know better. Drop your mattresses. Just basically get rid of junk and stuff you don’t need in the first place. Then there’s not much the baby can get into other than his own toys. He gets into our laptops, but ours are old hand-me-downs anyway.

  18. Our baby is pretty much free range so we re-organised the house so that anything dangerous was in high cupboards and everything was safe for her to explore. If she does try to play with something she’s not supposed to, like the bin, we tell her no, then lay her on her back on the floor, haha.

  19. I realize this is the opposite of what you’re asking, but it reminded me of a story:

    In her book, Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, author Bette Bao Lord relates that the only time her father ever spanked her to was to impress on her naughty three year old self that she had to drop her toys and run to the air raid shelter on the first, not the third air raid siren (this was during the Sino-Japanese war that preceded the Second World War).

  20. I thought we were being all great and positive with our enforcement, but then we hit the twos, so it’s a lot of yelling and diving towards free kiddos trying to make a break for traffic. He likes to “help” a lot, though, so we try to really enforce that, and get a lot more support if we ask him to “help us by putting your cup in the sink” or “help us by sitting on the couch while Daddy makes dinner”. Like someone said before, his behavior gets worse when he is tired, or hungry, or bored by adult activities like reading, so we try to balance a lot of his day out with physical activity where he can positively not get into any trouble (like an enclosed play ground or kiddo gym), as opposed to the trouble-strewn house.

  21. We’re having the same issues with our 15 month old. A friend told us to be constant… and when he goes toward something dangerous… exclaim “danger!”. Reiterate what danger is by exclaiming “danger” when something happens like he falls and gets hurt. So, he starts to understand that with danger, can come pain. Also, most babies don’t understand things like that and need constant reminding… I’ve been told that you actually have to say a phrase 3 to 5 times before baby even really hears it. They also tend to understand 3 word phrases or shorter best… so, “no, that’s danger” 3 to 5 times… and then that usually results in him freaking out and crumbling to the ground. Babies like to know that you understand them, also… so then “Oh, so sad” or “sorry you’re sad” a few times and then “danger can hurt” are simple things. Eventually he calms down and leaves it alone.
    It can be tough… you must be consistent. We are also having a hard time with hitting in the face and pulling hair and stuff. Trying the same thing there… :/

  22. I think the greatest too we have as parents is our tone of voice. Babies and toddlers judge a lot by our tone of voice. I personally liked the idea of saying do not instead of no. So when N would say, try to touch the knobs on the stove i would say “DO NOT! That is hot” in a harsh voice (not screaming!) and then completely change my tone and say something like “can you show me how you can cook in your kitchen” or “are you hungry? how about some grapes?” so its redirection while reinforcing good from bad with your voice. On a rare occasion i will spank him though if he is being especially defiant. but with this method i haven’t felt the need to spank him much.

  23. Baby-proofing the house, outlet covers, cupboard locks and baby gates works for a while, but sometimes it almost causes more intrigue about the off-limits spaces. Also, be prepared for your kiddo to outwit the manufacturers of these “baby-proofing” companies. No cupboard lock could keep out my boy, my little sister was a genius at figuring out how to get out through our double locked front door, and once they get to a certain size a baby gate is just a minor irritation.

    Just keep and eye and when he touches or pokes at something he shouldn’t, say “No that isn’t for you” and place him next to something that IS for him. You might have to do it a whole bunch of times, but parenting is all about repetition…

  24. We tried the redirection method for a few months, and then we started teaching him “no”. We only say it about unsafe things (ie. cords, fans), or things that are worth money and we don’t want him breaking (ie computers). He caught on very quickly, is just over a year now, and seems as curious as they come.

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