Being Too Rough with Baby

IMG_1677Dear Miss Faith,
What can I do when my toddler is rough with the baby (usually unintentionally, but sometimes by-accident-on-purpose)? My impulse is to yell and I know that’s not good and honestly doesn’t really help!  It seems like you often suggest being light-hearted or making things into a game, but that doesn’t feel right in this case. I want her to know that it’s absolutely unacceptable  but I also don’t want to scare her or anything. Thoughts?

Dear Mama,
Yes! I’ve found that when children hurt helpless things (babies, toys, plants), the thing that’s worked best for me is to react immediately, not with anger, but with sadness and concern. Concern for the baby or the toy, that is. “Oh no!” I’ll say, and I’ll rush over to the baby. “Are you OK, little one?” I’ll look her over. If she’s not crying, I’ll say, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re OK. Your sister is just learning to touch you gently.” Only then will I turn to the perpetrator. “It’s important to touch the baby gently EVERY TIME. Let’s practice together.” Then you take her hand and physically help her stroke the baby. “Yes, that’s it. You’re learning!”

If the toddler has hurt the baby (whether accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose) and the baby is crying, I do the same “Oh, no!” routine and pick the baby up to comfort him.  Most of the time toddlers stand and watch while I comfort the baby.  Once the baby’s c rise have lessened, then I’ll turn to the perpetrator (with baby still in arms) and do the “It’s important to touch gently ALL the TIME” piece.  If the victim is an older baby and doesn’t want the older child to touch him, then I might shake my head sadly and say, “It looks like he’s not ready for your gentle touch yet.  Why don’t you find a toy that he might like, instead?”

Getting sad instead of getting mad works for kids throwing toys, too. Say a toddler throws a wooden truck. Instead of yelling at her, I’ll rush over to the truck. “Oh, no! Is this truck OK?” I’ll pick it up and look it over. “Whew! Thank goodness!” I’ll snuggle the truck for a moment, then turn to the perpetrator. “We have to treat our trucks gently. You can drive this truck!” I’ll put the truck down on the ground and drive it over to her, then get her started. If it’s clear that she doesn’t really want the truck but just wants to throw, I’ll just put the truck back and say, “You can throw soft balls! Where IS a soft ball for you to throw?”

Warmly,    ~Miss Faith


P.S. This exchange took place in our last Tele-Class, Joyful Days with Toddlers & Preschoolers.  The next Tele-Class is about to start soon!  Check it out by CLICKING HERE.




  1. What if the toddle doesn’t want to help the baby afterward? Our almost 3 year old is sometimes aggressive with our 7 month old twins, and I’ve responded as suggested. It seemed to work initially. However, sometimes, he says “no” to bringing the babies a toy or tries to pull their hair again! What do I do then? It’s clearly on purpose, and he’s giggling while doing it.

    I do believe that this is in part prompted by jealousy over less time with me, and I am doing my utmost to do more with him (I also work full time and it can be hard to divvy up my time with the kids fairly, when I am also breastfeeding, babies need naps etc). We are now doing a story a day and, sometimes, I am purposely responding to him first, rather than the twins. And it seems to be helping. However, we are still seeking a consistent response to the roughness. Thanks so much!

    • Karen, thanks for writing! I see a couple of things that could be going on here; see if any of them ring true.

      The first is that we often want kids to be nice because they WANT to be nice, but really, that is too much to ask. We can -and should- insist on Right Behavior, but we cannot control how kids feel. “Even if you feel like being rough, it’s still important to be gentle. What could you be rough with instead?” It is often through establishing the HABIT of doing the right thing (through your insisting, helping, and practicing) that a given action slowly comes to FEEL right to kids.

      However, when you told me that your son is often giggling while he does it, that alerted me to another possibility. You see, I’ve noticed that when toddlers (or preschoolers) laugh while hitting, they are often actually trying to ask for physical fun and connection. This is part of why it’s so disappointing to them when they just get reprimanded, or conversely, nothing gets through and they try it again. As a test, the next time your son tries it, say, “Oh-ho! It looks like you want to PLAY! Come here, you!” And pick him up, swing him around, throw him on the couch and smother him with kisses. If he immediately abandons the twins and comes back to you for more, then you’ve hit on something, and then it’s just a matter of teaching him how to ask for this type of fun in a way that makes you want to say “yes”. I bet that he is aggressive towards the twins when he wants this type of play because it’s the only sure-fire way to get you to drop everything and come running, right? So if you teach him a different way to ask (“Can we rough-house, please?”) then you must be AS consistent with responding to him when he asks in the way you want, as you are when he’s rough with the twins. Does this make sense? And if he forgets (or you forget to be consistent and he reminds you by being rough with the twins) you can get sad, “Oh, no! It’s important to touch them gently EVERY TIME. Are you trying to ask for some rough-housing? You can say, “Can we rough-house, please?”

      Does that seem like it might be what’s going on? Give it a try and let us know!

  2. Thank you! I will try and report back. Fingers crossed.

  3. Karen Anja says

    Just to follow up. I ended up doing the following:
    1) Observe for a day. My conclusion, it looked like the roughness was 75% desire to play, 20% need to protect toys/space (ie pushing them away, pulling toys away), and 5% desire for Mom (me). So, we did the following:
    2) Sought ways for everyone to play together that did not involve jumping on their backs (he’s physical and does this with us but didn’t realize he was trying to do this with the twins too), ie farm, where everyone is a farm animal, etc.
    3) Moved ALL of the toddler’s toys into his room and instituted a rule — if toddler wants to play with his toys without the twins, he can play in his room or put them on a table out of reach. If they are left in general space, it means anyone can play with them.
    5) He wants to be left alone, he can always say — “Mommy/Daddy/grownup, please get twin”. We would respond quickly.
    6) I would spend more time with him, putting him first at times and allowing others to take the lead on the twins even if I’m home. We’d also continue reading at least one book a day.
    7) Also, planned to take babies away if he was rough. However, so far, we have not needed this.
    The first two days felt like I was trying to fill an endless pit of need — understandable given a rough pregnancy and a Mom focused on baby twins. However, after that things stabilized and are now going beautifully again. He is asking for what he needs (“I need more love, Mommy” or “Please take twin, Mommy” etc.) He’s also much happier with his toys protected in his room. I was a bit hesitant (and still don’t know if that was the right call). However, it’s working well at the moment. Thanks for helping me see the situation differently!

    • Karen, I love it! Congratulations for really looking at what your son is actually needing, and then making it a reality. Thanks for taking the time to report back!

  4. Hi Miss Faith :)),

    My son is almost 2 and a half and bites, hits, scratches, and pulls hair. He does this to adults, children, and babies. The tricky thing fir my husband and I is that he is not upset when he attacks. He hits when he’s excited. But simple proximity to another child especially provokes an out of no where scratch and grab. It had been this way for about a year now. I’ve tried different methods to get him to change the behavior but nothing had worked thus far. I’ve had him assessed for speech and development and they said he’s fine, nothing to worry about.

    It’s gotten worse lately. It makes it impossible to have playdates because the most engaging thing for him to do is to attack the kids. When he does so, he looks like he can’t help himself, like it’s very impulsive. To make things worse, I have and and a half month old who I am constantly on guard for . My son will attack her the second he sees an opportunity. Its hard to take him places where there are other kids so he can run around and expel some of that energy and so that makes things even harder.
    I’ve spoken to 2 psychologists, elementary education students, and many other professionals to try to get some answers and it’s hasn’t been very successful. This had become very difficult for me and episodic for my son and daughter. Please help.

    Thank you!

    • Ah, Amany, what a challenge for your family! If you have the time and the resources I would recommend that you book a one-on-one call with me so that we can brainstorm together on things to try. It seems to me that your son has a very strong sense of will, and he needs to develop the balancing virtue of control. Does that seem right? Or could it be a sensory-integration issue (that he’s overwhelmed by being near others)? My own daughter was overwhelmed by direct attention from others for months; she would cry if anyone aside from her parents made direct eye contact. Either way, helping your son develop the skills to regulate himself will help. Self-regulation (our ability to control our actions and emotions) is one of the most important skills of the toddler years. There are absolutely things you can do to help your son learn to regulate himself. More of a challenge with an infant daughter in tow, but still possible! Two-and-a-half is often a time of new abilities developing, and also a good time to raise expectations.

      I have a blog post I wrote long ago on Biting from Excitement that looks like it never made it over to the new website. I’ll re-post it, and hopefully that could give you some ideas as well. Hugs to you, Mama! It will get better.

  5. Hello Miss Faith!

    I was really pleased to stumble upon this blog post as we’re going through similar things in my home. I have a two-year-old daughter and an 8-week-old daughter. The adjustment for my toddler has been difficult. At the beginning, she would overtly say things like “I want my Mommy!” and cry when I was holding the new baby. She’s very interested in the baby, wanting to show her love, commenting on how tiny she is (she’s an extremely verbal two-year-old), etc. But it can flip in an instant from loving behaviour to rough behaviour. She will regularly bite, pinch, or grab the baby roughly. We initially reacted with strong negativity, giving her a time out a few times. The behaviour seemed to worsen, and she began to accompany it with smirking and seeming indifference. We realized that it was an attention-seeking behaviour, so now we try to firmly say “You are not allowed to bite.” and divert to a different activity, not giving the behaviour as much attention as before. I feel that I always need to be there when she goes close to the baby, to supervise and make sure she doesn’t do any harm, but the hovering bothers my toddler too. Additionally, I feel that there’s a wound in our relationship since the birth of baby. My husband is now off work for the summer as he’s a teacher, and she has attached herself to him like glue. It’s like she’s realized that she can’t monopolize mom because I’m nursing and doing more of the baby care, but she CAN monopolize dad. She wants to spend more time with him than me now. Sometimes when I try to spend extra time with her she doesn’t want to, because she wants to be with him instead. And whenever he picks up the baby, she immediately says “Daddy, I want a turn with you!!” and cries big tears. She doesn’t say that with me anymore. I’m trying hard to make special time just with her, but it definitely feels like a big juggle when I’m the one doing the majority of newborn care. My guess is that even though she doesn’t seem like she needs me as much right now, she really does, so I’m trying to give her lots even though she prefers dad! Anyway, I am mainly looking for tips on how to approach the biting/pinching/rough behaviour. The tips above were helpful, but anything more specific that you think might work in this situation? Thank you for your time!

    • Hi Johanna, Thanks for writing! Let me think a little on your situation and I’ll get back you. In the meantime, celebrate your daughter’s bond with her dad, and remember that she needs lots of love and guidance as you all adjust to your shifting roles in the family. I’ll write more specifics soon.

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