Whether you position Mozart-blasting headphones on your pregnant belly to foster baby’s development or you opt to wait until they’re born before you start encouraging intellectual growth, all parents and caregivers want to raise bright, creative children. So when we see infants staring into space, looking bored, we may be inclined to leap into action—we shake rattles, switch their positions, turn to tummy time, dance, make faces, and power up brain-building gadgets. Why? Because it’s believed that baby boredom is bad, and a bored baby is not a mentally stimulated baby. Right?
Wrong, say experts. In fact, efforts to prevent boredom could be detrimental to young children. “Constant amusement, or not allowing our kids to be bored, is inhibiting their creativity and imagination,” cautions Joshua Straub, PhD, author of Safe House: How Emotional Safety Is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well.
A seemingly bored newborn baby is experiencing the world differently than we do, but they’re no less mentally stimulated. So don’t feel bad for giving your little one some daily downtime. And between those lulls, try these five tips for encouraging engagement—without going overboard.
Keep Things Quiet
It may not seem beneficial to allow baby to simply stare at the ceiling fan, but that’s precisely what they need: quiet, uninterrupted time to muse.
One benefit of providing some quiet time is increased attention span. “A baby can pick up an object, play with it for 10 minutes, and do everything you could possibly do with that object without any instruction from any adults if they have the time to do it,” explains Ruth Anne Hammond, an infant/toddler consultant and author of Respecting Babies: A New Look at Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach.
An uninterrupted child stretches their ability to focus by concentrating on an object or task for an extended period of time. “Every time we interrupt baby’s musings, we discourage their concentration,” reveals Janet Lansbury, an RIE Associate, parent educator, and author of Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting.
An equally important benefit to downtime is that children who have the chance to rest their minds after being stimulated develop into more creative adults. Daydreaming is when the sparks of creativity ignite. According to Hammond, if those reprieves are replaced with overstimulation, creativity can’t get a foothold, and children learn to expect external entertainment ’round the clock.
“It really starts as young babies because they develop a habit of being constantly stimulated and don’t really enjoy the benefits of that daydreaming time,” she cautions.
Turn Off the Screens
Have you noticed when you turn on a screen in a room full of children (or adults), all eyes lock on, and lips lock shut? Screens—whether it’s a TV, laptop, tablet, or phone—are highly stimulating devices. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of mental stimulation that’s good for a new baby’s developing brain.
Despite the popularity of educational programming and apps developed with the intention of improving a tot’s mental focus, the opposite often happens. The rapid image change on most shows, apps, and games sets the entertainment bar high for budding brains. For example, if a favored children’s educational program about farm life flashes through roughly seven scene changes every 20 seconds, it can set your little one up for trouble down the road, says Dr. Straub. “Send your kid to school a few years later to study farm animals, and at school, it becomes boring—the lessons are too slow.”
As they grow older, screens may help your child quickly master basic rote educational skills, like ABCs, 123s, and a dozen Spanish words, but they aren’t always the best learning tool. “What you’re sacrificing are the higher-level executive functions of your child’s developing brain—the ability to problem-solve, display behavioral control, regulate emotions, plan, negotiate, and delay gratification—all critical components for both academic and social success,” warns Dr. Straub.
For babies under 18 months old, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) emphasizes the importance of limiting screen time to only video calls with loved ones. When they are between 18 and 24 months old, the AACAP says it’s OK to add in educational programming as long as a caregiver is present and they spend spending under an hour a day looking at the screen.
If you need to keep baby occupied for a few minutes so that you can move over the laundry, take a quick shower, or just catch your breath, make sure they’re in a safe spot and try an alternative to screens such as a baby mat or play gym, a Toniebox for story time, or a high-contrast board book.
Opt for “Basic” Toys
It’s true: High-activity toys are stimulating in the moment. But new toys that don’t require batteries can also boost your wee one’s development.
Some of your babe’s playthings might seem like objects that do nothing, but your baby can actually do a lot with them, such as grab, drop, flip, roll, or throw. You can even sub in what Hammond calls “simple real-life objects” for toys. “Silicone coasters and some little cups—things like that are endlessly fascinating to them,” she says.
Playtime objects that require baby to do something to make them fun encourage experimentation, creativity, and discovery during times of unguided free play. Something as simple as learning that pushing a ball makes it roll across the floor is thrilling for a little detective.
Not sure what kinds of toys to look for? Montessori-inspired toys are often battery-free and designed for this kind of exploratory play. Some of our favorites include sensory pull string toys, the penguin musical wobbler by Hape, and the baby rainmaker toy by B. toys.
Too often, babies are misconstrued as bored or fussy when they’re merely struggling to accomplish an epic task—at least it’s epic in their baby-sized world. What does the average person do when a baby grunts or contorts to reach a ball? We move it closer, naturally. Unfortunately, when we do this, rather than discovering that they have the ability within themselves to meet a challenge, babies will learn to give up—not exactly the lesson we well-meaning helpers intended. “We want children to feel that working hard brings its own reward,” says Hammond.
When the job at hand is child-sized, leave it up to the child. By struggling toward a goal and eventually achieving it, not only do babies enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, but they also develop their struggle muscles and learn to replicate the task tomorrow. “If your first and general impulse is to do it for them or help them to do it, then they don’t develop the muscle to stay with the task,” explains Hammond.
Of course, there must be balance. “Our kids need us to support them, but they also need us to push them,” explains Dr. Straub. “No matter our child’s age, we must view each of our children on a continuum of support and challenge, knowing when and how much support to offer, yet allowing our kids to experience the challenge without being overwhelmed.”
The only way to find this balance is through trial and error, but it’s safe to scratch “reach toy” and “help crawl” off your list. Baby’s got those covered.
While it’s not necessary to ditch all high-tech toys (unless the beeping, flashing rhinoceros annoys the living daylights out of you), try to fill your baby’s world with objects that encourage exploration and activity rather than passive engagement.
Each day offers countless opportunities to focus on your little one. Every parent-sized task—diaper changes, feedings, buckling up, baths, bedtime stories—is an invitation to make eye contact with your babe, encourage cooperation and understanding, and grow together. Don’t be tempted to rush through these moments to get the job done.
“There is absolutely nothing more important than the face-to-face eye contact of a parent for an infant’s developing brain,” explains Dr. Straub. “Train the brain toward relationships, and it will be wired for relationships.”
Oftentimes, simply having you physically present is all your baby really wants or needs. “They are never bored when you’re sitting there watching them play because they have everything they could possibly want. They’ve got your presence in a peaceful setting with probably a few interesting objects around them,” says Hammond.
It’s also worth noting that you’re baby isn’t the one learning new things—you’re a student, too! When openly interacting with or quietly observing your baby, you become aware of what your baby communicates. You can decipher when they have had enough stimulation, discern a tired cry from a lonely cry, and determine which play objects baby migrates toward as they lengthen their attention span.
You’ll marvel at what little external entertainment your baby needs and how simple and natural it is to stimulate their burgeoning brain.
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