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From Baby to Big Kid

An e-newsletter that showcases how children learn and grow each month from birth to 3 years. From Baby to Big Kid translates the science of early childhood and offers strategies parents can tailor to their unique family situation and to the needs of their child.
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School Readiness

O-12 Months##


Babies have very little self-control. They naturally act on their thoughts and feelings which they have no conscious control over. They can’t reflect on or think about their behavior; and they can’t stop themselves from acting on their desires. This can be tough at times for parents, as they try to understand a fussy baby’s needs and wants, cope with a baby who has difficulty sleeping, or quiet a baby who is not easily comforted.  But with your help, babies are gradually learning about and gaining some self-control across the first year.


Click on the links below to learn about ways you can begin to build your baby’s ability for self-control:


Help your baby feel calm and comforted. 

One of the most important factors in developing self-control is the ability to soothe and calm oneself when upset.  The first step in helping babies learn to soothe themselves is for their caregivers to calm and comfort them.  Knowing there will be a loving adult there to soothe them when the world becomes overwhelming is a baby’s first experience with self-control.  Parents put a pacifier back in their baby’s mouth, give their baby a “lovey” to help her fall asleep, and try to understand her facial expressions, gestures and cries in order to meet her daily needs.  This sense of being loved and understood gives babies a foundation of safety and security that is essential for coping with feelings in a healthy way.


(This information was adapted from Groves Gillespie, L. & Seibel, N.  To read a copy of their entire article on self-regulation in early childhood, click here.) 

(Link to this article on ZTT site. )


What You Can Do:

  • Stay calm yourself.  You teach your child self-control by staying calm when she has lost control. This helps her feel safe and lets her know that you’ll always be there to support her—even during the tough times.  You are also modeling for her  how to stay calm and manage strong feelings. 

  • Give your baby some basic tools for regaining self-control.  Provide just enough help to so that your baby can solve some problems herself.  Put a lovey or pacifier within your baby’s reach, or teach an older baby a simple sign (like lifting hands to mouth) to show when she is hungry.  Help your crawling baby find her “blankie” when she is sleepy, or move a couch pillow to help her find her missing toy. 

  • Show your baby what he can do. If he’s biting your finger because he is teething, instead of just saying “no” and taking your hand away, offer him a positive alternative.  Give him a cool, wet washcloth to chew on or a soft teething toy to gnaw.  This kind of response from you helps him learn right from wrong.  It also gives him the chance to focus his energy in acceptable ways—a key ingredient in school success.

Use daily routines to make your baby feel safe and in control.
Daily routines are events (like mealtime, naptime, bath-time, and bedtime) that happen at about the same time and in the same way each day.  For example, first comes a bath, then stories, then a lullaby, and then bed.  Routines help babies begin to understand that the world is a sensible and organized place.  And they help children learn what will happen next.  This makes them feel safe and secure.  Routines can also help babies cope during difficult times—like when there has been a recent change in their world. The ability to “get back to normal” after some type of disruption is what self-control is all about.


What You Can Do:

  • Understand why your child lost control. Is there a particular time of day or specific experiences that often leads to a breakdown?  If you can identify specific stressors, it will help you guess which times or situations may be challenging for your child. You can then change the environment or your daily routine to minimize the chance of a tantrum.  For example, if you know your baby doesn’t like noisy, crowded places, you can be sure you’ve packed his lovey, and a favorite snack and small toy for these outings.  You can also schedule such trips during his best time of day (not when he’s tired or hungry).  And plan to keep your time out as short as possible. 

  • Use routines to help soothe your baby. For example, playtime is often fun, silly and active, and tends to get babies very excited.  So it can help to have a relaxing naptime routine to help babies calm down after an active, playful interaction.  You might give your baby a brief massage with a yummy-smelling lotion, and then read a gentle book and/or sing a lullaby to help your baby make the switch to dreamland. 


Tune in to your baby’s temperament.

A child’s temperament—his individual approach the world--can influence how (and how quickly) he regains self-control.  Temperament characteristics shape how easily babies and toddlers are able to manage their feelings and impulses, especially traits like:

  • Overall mood (whether a child is mostly positive or negative),

  • Intensity (how big a reaction a child has to situations and stimulation), and

  • Adaptability (how easily a child adapts to changes or challenges).

Children who have a more negative mood, who are intense reactors and/or who are not very flexible or adaptable may have a more difficult time developing self-control.  They tend to get upset more easily and will likely need more help from you to calm down.  This doesn’t mean their temperament is somehow “wrong” or “bad.”  But because their reactions are so strong, it may take more time to learn how to manage such intense feelings and responses. 


Watching your baby and getting to know her personality and temperament gives you important information about her needs, strengths, and preferences.  You will learn what is “too much” for her, and what situations she finds challenging.  You will also begin to learn what to do in order to help her regain her self-control—is it a pacifier, a lovey, being swaddled, being cradled in someone’s arms, listening to music?


What You Can Do:

  • Help your baby soothe herself. The calmer your baby feels, the more in control she will be. Experiment with different ways to soothe your baby.  Some children need lots of physical contact--firm touch and hugging--while others respond well to being engaging in an activity. Still others need time to blow off steam on their own in a safe, quiet place.

  • Read your baby’s signals.  How does your baby communicates through her cries, facial expressions, and gestures?  By watching, you will discover how your child “tells” you about her needs, wants, and feelings.  Maybe she rubs at her eyes when she is tired, or puts her fingers in her mouth when she is hungry.  When you are able to understand your baby’s communications, you can help her regain control more easily.  Also be aware of your child’s daily rhythms and basic needs. It is hard for children to cope when they are tired, hungry, sick or stressed.


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The most important thing about the activities you do with your baby is that they’re fun for both of you.  But sometimes these activities can also help babies learn new things.  Are there any games or songs that your baby loves, and that also help him build on his growing sense of self-control?  Please share them with us!  We’d love to post a few of our visitors’ ideas on this site.


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