Can infants learn self-control? It probably doesn’t feel like it sometimes, especially if you have a baby who goes from calm and peaceful to screaming the instant you set them down. While it’s true that you can’t expect your infant to manage their emotions independently or stay away from off-limits items naturally, they can begin building the skills they need to develop self-control from birth. But how? Try the following strategies to support your child in building self-control.

• Help your infant discover ways to soothe themselves. While you can’t “spoil” your child by holding them too much, there is a benefit to learning what works to keep them calm when you have to step away – to prepare food, take care of routine chores, or even just use the bathroom. Paying close attention to what works is key. Does your child suck on their fingers or a pacifier? Have a favorite lovey? Prefer to be moving? Rely on the sound of your voice to know you are near? Ensuring your child has what they need to feel safe and secure goes a long way toward building the skills to stay calm.

• Stay calm and in control of yourself. A screaming infant is tough to handle, especially when you feel like you’ve tried everything. But babies can’t stay calmer than their caregiver, so getting upset, tensing up, or raising your voice will only fuel the fire. If you’re feeling frustrated or out of control, find a safe place to put your infant down (like the crib) and step away for a moment or two to calm yourself. Deep, cleansing breaths can work wonders!

• Be an attentive caregiver. Some parents worry that they’ll spoil their child if they respond to their cries every time. But crying is communication, and all your child learns if you ignore it repeatedly is that they can’t rely on you. Feeling insecure and uncertain can make building self-control skills harder! Comfort your child when they need it and assure them you’ll be there to help until they have the skills to calm independently.

• Redirect and offer alternatives. Instead of simply hearing “no” all the time, young children need to be told – and shown – what to do instead. Helping them get their needs met in another way teaches them that they can find better alternatives. For instance, if your 10-month-old hits you to get your attention, show them how to tap you gently, instead. Or if your child screams when hungry, teach some simple signs like “eat” or “milk” to help them communicate. Remember, you’ll need to do this consistently and repeatedly before they have the skills to use the strategies on their own, so having patience is important. Remind yourself that they aren’t behaving that way to drive you crazy (despite how it might feel after the twentieth time you stop them from climbing to the top of the couch), but because they are communicating.

• Create good routines. The world is vast and confusing, and a regular rhythm to the day can go a long way toward helping infants feel safe (not feeling safe makes self-control impossible because of the biological response to fear and stress). Routines help children make sense of the world, and knowing what comes next can build a sense of security that allows room for self-control.

• Pay attention to triggers and notice the signs of dysregulation. Knowing your child’s temperament and the way they react in various situations allows you to both avoid certain situations and prepare your child ahead of time. For instance, if your infant always loses it in a crowd of strangers, start with outings that include fewer people and build your way to the larger events, or make sure you have comfort items easily accessible. Or, if you know that your older infant has a tantrum every time you have to leave the park, start talking about it ten minutes before you have to go, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. Being aware of the cues your child gives (such as rubbing their eyes when tired or making sucking motions when hungry) allows you to meet those needs quickly. Seeing that you are attentive and responsive will give your child a sense of security and control.

Find additional information about building self-control and self-regulation at the following websites:

Elizabeth Richards has been an early childhood professional for nearly 30 years. She is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and early childhood trainer. She has led parent workshops and developed courses for ECE professionals, particularly around managing challenging behaviors, art, and play. She has two teenage sons.