How To Use Time-Outs With Toddlers

Heidi Murkoff’s Way to Teach Limits

In the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Fourth Edition by Heidi Murkoff the author explains that got an opinion on this controversial topic of time-outs, but done right, time-outs can be an effective way to teach limits. Murkoff says that the key is to think of time-out not as a punishment, but as a brief (emphasis on brief!) break from a negative situation.

For example, if a three-year-old knows what he’s doing is wrong (like shoving his sister off the swing) but does it anyway, removing him from the playground for a minute or so sends the message that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. A short breather also gives him time to regain control of his impulses (at least temporarily).

Murkoff admits that time-outs aren’t right for every child and don’t work in every situation. But, here’s her guide to using them wisely:

Gauge the child’s temperament. If the tot is especially sensitive, he may feel very rejected when banished from your side, perhaps fearing you don’t like him anymore. If that’s the case, skip time-outs, which are designed to teach limits and self-calming skills, not to inflict emotional pain.

Pick the right spot. Time-outs should be served in a dull, safe place, away from things of interest (toys, TV, books) and fragile or potentially dangerous items (breakables or tables with sharp corners, which may be trouble if a tantrum ensues). Keep the culprit in sight (no closets or darkened rooms!) but away from the fun of interaction with you (or anyone else). A young toddler can be plopped in a playpen reserved only for time-outs, but if he can climb out, opt instead for an out-of-the-way chair or the bottom stair. One definite no-no: Don’t use his room (and especially not his crib) as a penalty box — those places should be associated only with positive experiences.

Be an escort. Guide the child to his time-out spot, and calmly tell him to sit. Don’t scold because lengthy lectures are lost on toddlers, particularly in the heat of the moment, but do briefly state why he’s there (“Hitting hurts people”). That will help him understand that he’s losing the privilege of your attention because of his behavior — not because you love him any less.

Follow through. If the child refuses to stay seated (and he probably will), firmly return him to his time-out spot as many times as necessary, keeping a hand on his shoulder, but not otherwise interacting. If, once the time-out has ended, he immediately commits the crime again, repeat the time-out.

Time time-outs right. Withdrawing your attention for as little as five seconds may be all it takes to let a toddler know you’re not happy with his conduct, but 30 seconds to a minute is a more likely time frame for time-outs. Time passes very slowly at this age, especially if you’re confined to the naughty chair. You might try using a kitchen timer (“When the bell rings you can get up”).

Don’t use time-out too much. Don’t let them become your only form of discipline. Dole them out only for actions you’ve previously warned your toddler are unacceptable; don’t use them for first-time offenses.

Reference: What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Fourth Edition

You can get your own copy by clicking links above or below.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Fourth Edition


  1. […] course there will be times kids need to be punished. In those instances use a punishment chart or time-outs instead of yelling or demeaning […]

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