Spanking babies: Is it okay to spank an infant?

No, spanking babies is a bad idea. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors rejected it, and so should we. Spanking is an ineffective discipline strategy, and harmful to an infant’s development. Here’s what’s at risk — and what parents can do to set their babies on the right track.

lonely-looking teddy bear sitting in the shadows

You might think it’s the oldest, most traditional approach to discipline. Spare the rod, spoil the child. But when anthropologists examined the total range of human cultures — from foragers to agriculturalists to modern, industrial societies — they found evidence of the opposite (Ember and Ember 2005).

Foraging — hunting and gathering — is the most ancient and long-running subsistence strategy of our species. So if any peoples can lay claim to adopting the “oldest” life-style, it’s the foragers. And the record is crystal clear on this point:

From the Arctic of Canada, to the Kalahari desert, hunter-gatherers don’t favor the use of corporal punishment (Ember and Ember 2005; Konner 2010). And spanking babies? It’s simply not a part of their cultural playbooks.

Many industrialized countries are taking a similar stance, passing laws against spanking. And organizations like the American Psychological Association have urged that parents should never spank (Sege et al 2018).

But why? What exactly is wrong with spanking babies? Consider these points.

Point 1: Babies are physically dependent and highly vulnerable to injury. And studies reveal babies who get spanked are more likely to get injured.

It’s tragically easy for a tired, stressed parent to lose control, and it doesn’t take much to hurt an infant. Shaking, pushing, shoving — these actions can cause whiplash, brain damage, even death.

With so much at stake, the implications are clear. Adults should train themselves to reject any physical punishment or rough handling of infants. They should avoid making physical contact when they are angry or short-tempered.

And as a society, we need to understand that spanking babies isn’t just a bad decision. It’s also a risk factor.

In study tracking 5,000 babies in the United States, researchers found that babies who got spanked are more likely to sustain a physical injury in their first year of life (Crandall et al 2006). Another large study found that parents who used spanking in infancy were more likely get into trouble for abuse or neglect at a later time point (Lee 2014).

Point 2: Spanking is an ineffective and harmful way to address a baby’s undesirable behavior

Research reveals that some parents routinely spank infants under the age of 12 months (MacKenzie et al 2015; Lee et al 2014; Zolotor et al 2011). Why do they do it?

Babies targeted for spanking are more likely to have fussy or difficult temperaments, so perhaps parents use spanking as a response to crying or tantrums (MacKenzie et al 2011).

If so, it’s a counterproductive tactic. Studies indicate that babies learn to regulate their emotions through emotionally sensitive, positive interactions — not intrusive or angry physical contact. In fact, stress hormone research indicates that frequently-spanked children are more likely to become hyper-reactive in stressful situations (Bugental et al 2003).

So spanking doesn’t teach babies to settle down. Quite the reverse. If you want to help a baby develop good emotional regulation skills, the best approach is to understand the reasons for your baby’s behavior, and provide an environment that will make it easy for your baby to behave in a pleasant, socially-positive way.

For help, see this tips about helping babies overcome stress.

Point 3: Spanking damages the parent-child relationship

To thrive, babies need to develop secure attachment relationships with their parents. Such attachments set the stage for healthy emotional development, strong social skills, and intellectual achievement. And to nurture these attachments, parents need to be sensitive and responsive.

This means understanding what your baby is thinking and feeling, and having realistic expectations about your baby’s developing skills. It also means understanding and meeting your baby’s needs (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al 2003).

Spanking runs totally counter to this project.

In part, that’s because the parent is inflicting pain. As Elizabeth Gershoff notes, “it can be confusing and frightening for children to be hit by someone they love and respect, and on whom they are dependent” (Gershoff 2013).

The baby learns that the parent is liable to abandon his or her role as a supporter or protector, and the baby will likely fail to understand what the spanking was intended to accomplish. Research shows that even much older children — 5-to-11-year-olds — are sometimes baffled as to why, exactly, they were spanked or smacked (Dobbs et al 2006)

And that brings up the other part of the equation. It isn’t just the infliction of pain that matters, but also the unreasonable nature of the punishment.

Whether a baby is fussing too much, reaching for a forbidden object, running into the street, or making a mess on the floor, these are all developmentally normal behaviors. And they are behaviors that are difficult or impossible for babies to control.

Babies simply haven’t developed the executive brain functions necessary to anticipate, think things through, and reign themselves in.

So if we crack down with physical punishment — or harsh, angry words — we are essentially punishing a baby for being a baby. The punitive approach doesn’t reprogram babies to act like older, more controlled children. It teaches babies that we are clueless about their feeling and abilities, and subject to unpredictable, unwarranted acts of animosity.

And if there is still any doubt, consider what happens when formerly punitive parents change their ways: When parents have been trained to respond with sensitivity — and replace spanking with positive parenting techniques — their children have developed more secure, parent-child attachment relationships (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al 2003).

Point 4: Research indicates that spanking puts babies at higher risk for developing lasting problems.

We’ve already noted that spanking isn’t an effective behavior modification technique, not in the short term. What about the long-term? Research suggests that it’s actively harmful.

For example, in a study tracking the development of more than 2,500 children, Lisa Berlin and her colleagues found that babies who were spanked at 12 months were more likely to display aggressive behavior problems by the age of three. They also scored lower on cognitive tests (Berlin et al 2009).

And a second study reported a similar connection between spanking babies and the subsequent development of behavior problems (McKenzie et al 2015).

Are parents in these cases merely responding to pre-existing problems with their babies’ behavior? Spanking because their children were more provocative than other babies — showing unusually aggressive tendencies?

If that were the case, we’d expect to see the problems precede spankings. And that’s not what the researchers have found. In the study led by Berlin, the team tested children when they were two, and looked to see if aggressive behavior problems or low Bayley scores predicted spanking a year later. They didn’t.

Is this merely a risk associated with babies? Not at all. As I explain in this article, a large number of studies point to the same conclusion: Spanking today makes it more likely that a child will develop behavior problems tomorrow.

But what else is a parent to do? How should we respond when our babies do something we don’t like?

Research consistently shows that positive parenting techniques are more effective.

These techniques involve tuning into your baby’s thoughts and feelings, anticipating conflicts, and defusing trouble before it starts. 

They also require that you develop a realistic set of expectations about what babies can and cannot do. So learning more about baby development is helpful.

And it’s important to look after your own needs. Parents are human beings. When we make bad choices, it’s often because we’re too stressed-out.

For more information, see these articles:

References: Why spanking babies is harmful

Wondering about corporal punishment among hunter-gatherers? Information can be found in the study I cited by the Embers, but it’s in their supplementary materials, not the main body of their published paper.

The authors provide a spreadsheet listing every culture, with a score for the degree of corporal punishment observed in each. The spreadsheet doesn’t tell you which cultures are hunter-gatherers — it merely lists each group by name. So you have to know who’s who to make sense of it. The hunter-gatherers have the lowest scores, indicating that corporal punishment of any kind is “infrequent or rare,” i.e., hardly ever used.

For a more descriptive account of hunter-gatherer attitudes about young children, I recommend Melvin Konner’s book, The Evolution of Childhood (2010).

Here are the references cited in my article:

Berlin LJ, Ispa JM, Fine MA, Malone PS, Brooks-Gunn J, Brady-Smith C, Ayoub C, and Bai Y. 2009. Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income White, African American, and Mexican American toddlers. Child Dev. 80(5):1403-20.

Bugental DB, Martorell GA, and Barraza V. 2003. The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment. Horm Behav. 43(1):237-44.

Crandall M, Chiu B, Sheehan K. 2006. Injury in the first year of life: risk factors and solutions for high-risk families. J Surg Res. 133(1):7-10.

Dobbs TA, Smith AB, Taylor NJ. 2006. No, we don’t get a say, children just suffer the consequences”: Children talk about family discipline. International Journal of Children’s Rights. 14:137–156.

Ember C and Ember M. 2005. Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study. American Anthropologist 107(4): 609-619. 

Gershoff ET. 2013. Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives. 7(3):133–137.

Konner M. 2010. The evolution of childhood: Relationships, emotion, mind. Belnap Press of Harvard University.

Lee SJ, Grogan-Kaylor A, Berger LM. 2014. Parental spanking of 1-year-old children and subsequent child protective services involvement. Child Abuse Negl. 38(5):875-83.  

MacKenzie MJ, Nicklas E, Brooks-Gunn J, and Waldfogel J. 2015. Spanking and children’s externalizing behavior across the first decade of life: evidence for transactional processes. J Youth Adolesc. 44(3):658-69.

Sege RD, Siegel BS; Council on Child Abuse and Neglect; Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. 2018. Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children. Pediatrics. 142(6).

Zolotor AJ, Robinson TW, Runyan DK, Barr RG, Murphy RA. 2011. The emergence of spanking among a representative sample of children under 2 years of age in north Carolina. Front Psychiatry. 2:36.

Title image of “Spanking babies” – teddy bear in shadows by Victoria Kotlyarchuk / istock