elevating child care

The Myth of Baby Boredom

Kiley holds up her head and peers around at the other infants. Her eyes stop and fixate on Chase, who is moving across the floor in an army crawl. Elbows bent and using alternating forearms, Chase propels himself forward towards a small, red wiffle ball on the floor near Kiley. Although Kiley had also shown interest in the ball, her attention flagged when she realized that it was beyond her reach. Chase reaches the ball, puts his fingers into the holes, and gives it a thorough examination.

A few minutes later Kiley cries with displeasure. Kiley’s mother, who sits a foot away, picks up Kiley and places her in a sitting position on the floor. This intervention distracts Kiley only momentarily. While she looks about the room from this different vantage-point, Kiley is much less mobile than she was before, and she is unable to reach, stretch or move out of this position without falling. She looks rigid, uncomfortable, trapped. But Kiley’s mother, Susan, seems relieved that her action put a halt to her infant’s crying. “I think she was bored,” Susan declares. But, a minute later, Kiley cries again.

The story of Kiley’s boredom during one of my infant classes at Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) highlights the common myth of new parents who think that babies bore easily, and that it is a parent’s job to rescue a child from boredom. But, as infant expert Magda Gerber knew, the opposite is the reality: babies do not get bored unless parents have conditioned them to require external stimulation and entertainment.

Infants and toddlers, when allowed to explore without adult interference or interruption, are endlessly curious about details of life we have long ago stopped noticing: the corner of the wall molding, dust particles in the sunlight, ceiling fans, and bumps in the Berber carpet all fascinate. These may not sound like adventure to us, but for an infant they are a buffet of different patterns, colors, sizes, and textures that make up a diverse world. An infant’s self-initiated exploration of his world provides in-depth learning and promotes a long attention span.

Infants are eager to absorb every element of their environment, but parents err when they take advantage of this sensitivity by exposing the baby to learning tools like ‘educational videos.’ The young child cannot make sense of the moving pictures and sounds on a television screen. And while he attempts to filter the overwhelming stimulation that even the most basic show emits, he eventually learns to desensitize, which sets him up for diminished learning abilities later in life. His inclination to actively seek to understand his environment is discouraged.

Teaching and entertaining a baby, especially with videos, is the quickest route to a passive, dependent, and easily bored child.

If instead, we trust a child to strengthen his learning abilities through natural, self-directed exploration, we will observe our baby engrossed in activity for longer periods of time than we might think possible. We have the added pleasure of seeing the world anew through our child’s eyes; even the most mundane trivia gets a fresh glance. In a recent class, a toddler discovered a magnificent indentation in the wall that I had never even noticed!

If we give the infant the opportunity to seek out safe discoveries that interest him, rather than showing him the things we think will interest him (usually things that, in fact, interest us), then the world will be his oyster. Boredom is not a natural part of an infant’s repertoire.

Babies and children, while immune to boredom, definitely can become tired. Indeed, we would soon grow tired if we spent several minutes imitating the movements of Kiley or Chase. In addition, because an infant is sensitive and absorbent, and lacks the adult ability to “tune out,” he is easily overstimulated. When an overwrought child’s cry is mistaken for boredom, a parent may then compound the problem by creating yet further stimulation. What is really needed is a rest. The result is predictable: an even more overstimulated and exhausted baby.

The simple fact that an infant grows more rapidly in the first year of life than he does at any other time makes it plausible that an infant tires easily, and a child’s cries are most commonly related to fatigue.

“I think what is typically called boredom is tiredness,” Magda Gerber once wrote in her book, Your Self-Confident Baby. “I don’t believe that babies become ‘bored’ in an adequate environment. Rather it is our projection: we think they are bored.”

Young children also cry sometimes when they are struggling with a new skill or movement. If they are not excessively tired, they can manage a little of this frustration. Susan could have leaned her face close to Kiley’s and said with encouragement, “I hear you crying. Are you trying to move out of that position? You’re having a hard time.” And then if the crying did not stop, Susan might have continued, “You sound tired. Would you like me to pick you up?” Kiley might then make a move, give a look, or even reach her hand out towards her mother in response. “Okay. I’m going to pick you up.” Susan could then give Kiley a break, allowing her to rest in her arms for awhile. And if the crying still lingered, then it might have been time to bring Kiley home for a nap.

If we accept the premise that children, beginning in infancy, do not experience boredom unless they become accustomed to passivity, constant stimulation and entertainment, how do we explain an older child’s vocalization of boredom? How should we respond when a child says, “I’m bored, what can I do?” As the parent of three children, I have the joy of experiencing this occasional scenario. It’s usually just encouragement that is needed, and I offer a gentle nudge: “Hmmm, let’s look around. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Harder to bear is the telltale “I’M BORED!” in an ear-splitting and demanding whine. In my experience, this hyperbolic expression of boredom only occurs when children are seriously tired, which is perfectly sensible. No one wants to initiate activity and find something new to do when they’re exhausted. Of course, my kids, today, are never thrilled when I answer, “Lie down and rest!”

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20 Responses to “The Myth of Baby Boredom”

  1. avatar Best Intentions says:

    Your Magda mentor is absolutely right –baby boredom is surely in the eye of the beholder and a projection of our own adult compulsion to fill every moment with activity and stimulation. So, if we’re honest with ourselves as parents, it’s we who are bored, not the baby. But as new parents, it is inconceivable that a baby could be content — excited, even — to just lie on her back and take in the scenery. I would like to imagine that, in slowly ourselves down and imagining the the world through our infants’ eyes, perhaps there is the impossible chance we might reconnect with some of that infant wonder and excitement of creation. Worth a try, no?

  2. avatar Alexandra says:

    So excited about this philosophy – truly respecting my infant. Eliana is four months. (We are looking into and look forward to joining a RIE class soon.) Since she was very new I have been utilizing many of the RIE ideas – talking through routine activities, giving her time to be on her back, giving her space and letting her investigate and explore, observing her needs. Generally the play objects that I offer are simple – a soft fabric, a plastic ring or square, a wiffle-type ball, the tube-shaped top of a shaving-cream bottle. My question: I was given a gift by friends of my parents and my intuition is undecided if it is appropriate, specifically considering the concept of not over-stimulating, and allowing children to enjoy quiet calm and notice their environment. The toy is the Munchkin Mozart Magic cube – it has large square buttons with six instruments and it plays six different mozart songs. I like that it plays classical music, and coinsidered it possibly acceptable because Eliana can turn it on or off, and the songs are very brief. (It is described in more detail on the Toys-r-us website.) What do you think? Is it ok because she can control it, or too overstimulating, and I should put it away till 6 months or just offer on an occasional basis?
    Thanks for your thoughts, wisdome and insight.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Alexandra!

      Yes, I guarantee you will never go wrong respecting an infant. I’m so glad you are excited about the RIE approach. I would love to support you any way I can.

      Infants learn best from toys and objects that they can work at understanding, and simpler toys tend to occupy them for longer periods of time. Eliana is not likely to be able to comprehend the Munchkin Mozart Cube at this stage, and it plays for her instead of encouraging her to create her own play with it. But, I agree that Mozart is preferable to some of the other baby noisemakers! Maybe, instead of using it in Eliana’s play space, it could be a part of her bedtime ritual — a music box she gets to turn on and listen to before she goes to bed. Or, use it occasionally, as you say, make it the ‘ace in the hole’ that occupies her in the crunch — in the car, etc.

      Thanks so much for your comment and great question.

  3. avatar Karen Nemeth says:

    I love this post. It really does help if you just hang out on the floor and watch babies take on the world so you can believe in this premise. My daughter tells the story of how her son got too many toys on his first birthday – and before she had a chance to pack them into the closet, she realized he sat in the midst of his new toy collection carefully studying all the ways he could manipulate a clear plastic egg carton. As she watched and did her own thing near him, she realized he spent at least 15 minutes opening, closing, shaking, squishing, looking, biting, etc on that egg carton. He knew just what he wanted to do and he didn’t need his mom or his toy to make something happen. It didn’t take my daughter long to get those too-many-toys packed up to be doled out in small doses after seeing that.

    • avatar janet says:

      Karen, that is an awesome story. Thank you for sharing it!

  4. avatar jeanne says:

    Janet – such a lovely, thoughtful post. Your attention to babies and the theories of Magda Gerber have informed my teaching with my 4s & 5s.
    I think there are points in every one of your posts that can be applied to the preschool age: children don’t get bored easily unless they are used to others’ “entertaining” them; children need time to explore and invent on their own; children need the respect of adults/teachers to ask them how we can support them instead of solving a problem (that perhaps didn’t exist!).
    Cheers to adults stepping back and acquiring our own finer lens to appreciate the inquiry process of infants and young children.

  5. avatar Kate says:

    Hi Janet,

    I have a three week old baby, and just because I’ve been recovering from the birth she has spent a lot of time lying on her back on my bed. In the last few days I’ve noticed that she’s been practising turning onto her side, and like you said sometimes cries with frustration as she tries to do it. At first I thought it as hunger but now I’m learning to wait a while before feeding her in case it’s not. What is a good length of time for a baby of this age to be on their back? I feel like I should be constantly holding her to give her love and attention, but she does seem to like lying on her back, practising moving her arms and legs and making a lot of noises while doing it! Before giving birth I had read about swaddling babies so they feel safe as if still in the womb, but my daughter seems to love using her limbs.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Kate! The wonderful thing is that you can trust your baby to let you know what she needs. If she is peaceful on her back, you can let her stay there as long as you like. There’s no right or wrong amount of time. If she cries, respond immediately by asking her what she needs and then trying to figure out the answer. When you are holding, feeding, diapering her, doing anything together, be 100 % with her.

      There are experts who believe babies should be constantly in carriers or held while parents go about their day because 9 months after birth babies should still be in the womb (which to me is arbitrary and not as nature obviously planned). Magda Gerber believed in nurturing with attentive touch, respect and empathetic connection… She believed that love was not only touching and holding a baby, but also respecting the otherness of the beloved, allowing the infant to make choices and initiate activity — like your baby is doing. Keep treating your baby like a unique whole person and you will see that you can trust her to tell you when she needs you and, eventually, what she needs. Sounds dreamy, Kate. Congratulations!

  6. avatar Chris says:

    So true Janet,

    If we sit back and watch, babies can tell us so much. Talking to them before we do something, asking questions and explaining as we are doing, helps babies understand us too. Just lying where our babies lie and looking up helps us to see life through their eyes. I love doing this with my youngest. Thank you for a great post.

  7. avatar Anne says:

    I have an almost 8 month old and sometimes wonder if she is bored (especially because of being inside so much during this winter). But your post and the comments make me feel better about my worries. She’s a happy baby all in all and maybe I’m just bored and can’t wait to take her outside more often!!

  8. avatar Trudy says:

    “Infants and toddlers, when allowed to explore without adult interference or interruption, are endlessly curious about details of life we have long ago stopped noticing: the corner of the wall molding, dust particles in the sunlight, ceiling fans, and bumps in the Berber carpet all fascinate.” My 11-month son does these things. So glad to hear I’m doing things ‘right’ (or at least trying)! :)

  9. avatar eva says:

    I first heard the word “bored” when I went to kindergarten. Fifty years and five kids later I still have no idea what this word means. I have never felt bored, and I don’t think any of my kids have either. If my mother ever heard a neighbor child say they were bored, she’d say, “the world is so full of a number of things, you’d think we would all be as happy as kings” With all the things there are to do and learn, how could a child be bored unless someone told them they were?

  10. avatar Persephone says:

    I have recently discovered your website and Facebook page with interest. I am the mother of two daughters, a 4 year old and an 8 month old. My younger daughter has always been great at amusing herself (often because she’s “had” to as I’ve been busy with my older daughter, Eloise). However, Eloise (4) struggles with amusing herself and playing on her own, quite possibly because as my first born I gave her endless attention, which she now demands whenever I’m around. Is it too late to break this cycle? And how do I foster this ability? Would really appreciate your thoughts!

  11. avatar Catalienne says:

    Great blog post thanks Janet!
    I am one of those parents who feel like I need to stimulate my little one constantly with activities, learning apps on the ipad, web, tv etc..
    But she is happy sitting on the floor on a mat looking at a book for half an hour chatting alone if I just let her. Sometimes it is the hardest thing, I supervise her but don’t want to be right next to her otherwise she will not do things by herself.
    The other day, we visited an art gallery and as we were leaving they had cushions in the area near the front of the gallery which had a waterwall where water flows down the glass facade of the gallery. My little one and I layed down on the pillows and stared at the water flowing down for ages, simple but relaxing, she loved it and was chatting and trying to touch the water.
    I will make an effort starting tomorrow to stop leaving the tv on in the background when we play or read or even have breaky to be comfortable.
    I will have a look at your articles re: becoming unglued etc.
    Thanks! We need to be reminded of those things sometimes thanks for sharing!
    xo

  12. avatar Victoria says:

    Thanks for a very informative and re-assuring article- it felt like a breath of fresh air to me. I have a (nearly) 10 month old daughter and always feel like I should be playing with her and entertaining her although she is usually happier when playing by herself. She will come over to me on a regular basis then go back to playing alone but I feel guilty if im not always interacting with her and feel like I may be delaying her development. This results in more stress for me as I then dont manage to do chores etc throughout the day. What is a good ratio of time spent alone/ time spent with me?

    • avatar janet says:

      Victoria, there really isn’t a formula for this, so I would trust your daughter to let you know what she needs. Sometimes she will just want to briefly check in, other times she’ll want more and let you know.

      The important balancer is paying full attention to your baby during mealtimes, bathing, diapering, and other “caregiving” activities. Periodically refueled by our attention, children can enjoy inner-directed play for long periods.

      So, rather than feel guilty, trust and enjoy!

  13. avatar Siva says:

    I agree. I can see that I was so wrong so far. My father used to call me “ass that doesnt fit” i was so restless as a child, distracted and bored easily, jumping from item to item. So i was told.

    I think i believed that and reinforced. Now 36 consider my self Master of none jack of all. So many job quits and finally own business for last 7 years.
    lots of challenges, died twice.

    After birth of “Meena” now 8 months (summer 2013)…i started looking myself in a different perspective by observing her.

    And sometimes pasting my own projections, misconceptions on her.

    Like stuffing her play area with a lot of “objects” so she wont get bored.

    I was wrong.
    This article has cautioned me. i am still not “realized” in parenting

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