Baby, Interrupted – 7 Ways To Build Your Child’s Focus And Attention Span

You’re off and writing. You’ve cracked the blank page and the keyboard’s clicking. Time melts away, as does the chirping bird, the sound of distant traffic, the tick of the clock, and the discomfort of the broken wicker desk chair you’ve been meaning to replace for months. Suddenly the doorbell jars you. It’s a neighbor friend. She snaps you out of ‘flow’, and back into reality. You love her dearly, but your concentration is broken nonetheless… Babies experience these interruptions all the time.

We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing.  At the same time, we want our children to be learners and achievers. We want them to be able to listen patiently in the classroom and have the tenacity to solve difficult problems and pursue their dreams. We want ‘paying attention’ to come naturally, learning skills to come joyfully and easily. The first years of life are formative for developing focus and concentration.

Here are 7 ways to foster a long attention span:

1)      Minimal entertainment and stimulation. Babies are creatures of habit and can become accustomed to expect entertainment rather than doing what comes naturally — occupying themselves with their surroundings. Constant stimulation leads to an exhausted parent and an easily bored, over-stimulated child. Infant expert Magda Gerber taught that babies do not naturally become bored.  Parents do. Babies are entranced by the way their bodies can move, and the sights, sounds, smells, nooks and crannies of life that we adults take for granted. They need uninterrupted time to experience those things and assimilate them.  

2)      No TV or videos for the first two years. TV and videos are the most drastic way to undermine your child’s developing attention span because they engage and overwhelm a child’s attention rather than encouraging the child to actively flex his focus muscle. Imagine the powerful pull of the TV screen in a restaurant. You can be sitting with the most fascinating people in the world, and still you find your eyes drawn to the damn TV.  (For an in-depth study on the TV issue, I highly recommend Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – And What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.)

3)      A safe, cozy “YES” place. In order to remain occupied for extended periods of time, a baby must have a safe place. This can begin with a bassinet or crib, and grow with the baby to be a playpen, and finally a cordoned-off or gated play area. A too large area where there are unsafe objects available to a child is not the relaxed environment the baby needs for extensive concentration. Babies cannot play for long periods of time when they are distracted by the tension of parents worried about safety and the interruption of “NOs”.

4)      Simple, open-ended toys and objects. Unless distracted, babies are inclined to examine every inch of a simple object, like the pattern on a cloth napkin, and then experiment, i.e. wave it, mouth it, place it over their faces, and scrunch it into a ball. They are apt to tire of, or become over-stimulated by objects that they either cannot comprehend (like rattles and other mysterious noisemakers) or toys that they passively watch, listen to, and have a single function: like musical mobiles or wind-up toys. Those toys grab the child’s attention rather than strengthening his ability to actively focus and investigate, similar to the way TV and videos do. 

5)      Observe. And don’t interrupt. Observing the way our babies choose to spend their time makes us realize that they are not just lying there, but actually doing something. That something might be gazing towards a window, at the ceiling fan, or grasping at dust particles in the sunlight. Every time we interrupt our baby’s musings we discourage his concentration. When we observe we can see when there is a break in the action, i.e. the baby averts his gaze from the wiffle ball he was prodding with his fingers and turns to look at us. We can then ask to pick him up for a diaper change without diverting his attention and interfering with his train of thought.

6)      Baby gets to choose. Simple fact: children are more interested in the things they choose than the things we choose for them. Therefore, allowing a baby to choose what to do in his play environment rather than directing him to our choice of activity (a learning game, puzzle or flash card) will better engage his interest, focus and heightened concentration.  Children who are given plenty of opportunities to focus for extended periods of time on activities they choose are better able to pay attention in situations later (like school) where activities are adult-prescribed.

7)      Don’t encourage distraction. It is common practice to distract a baby with a toy on the changing table to “get the job done.” But this trains babies to NOT pay attention. Diaper changes, baths, and feedings are not dull, unpleasant chores for babies.   Babies are interested in all aspects of their lives. They want to be included in each step of a task that involves them and be invited to participate as much as they are able. When we teach a baby that he should not pay attention to activities he’s an integral part of, how do we then expect him to develop a healthy attention span? 

The ability to spend extended periods of time delving deeply, seeking greater understanding of an object or situation, can be developed and strengthened like a muscle. A home environment conducive to focus and attention can have a positive impact on – and maybe even prevent — some attention deficit disorders.

Focus is power. A long attention span is essential for creative, athletic and academic achievement. Attentive listeners make the best friends, spouses and parents. 

So next time you check on your baby, tiptoe in and peek before saying, “Hello.” Babies relish their “flow” time, too.

The video below (also posted in Infant Play – Great Minds At Work) demonstrates the positive effect that uninterrupted infant play can have on a child’s focus and attention span at age 2.

I share more about this respectful, trusting approach in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I just turned 70 and for the first nine years of my life, our family would listen to the radio. In the summer months, I listened to my grandmother’s soap operas (Backstafe Wife, Pepper Young’s Family) and late in the afternoon and Saturday mornings (Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Smilin’ Ed’s Gang, Let’s Pretend and Archie Andrews). I could picture the characters in my mind and the sound effects made it seem real. It stimulated by imagination.

    1. 2 years of no screen is no where near enough. In the last 25 years of assessing 2nd graders the eye tracking issues have exploded! Too much screen! I didn’t have a tv until my first born was 10 years old. After that it was in my bedroom and only used for very special occasions….slumber parties, wisdom tooth extraction.

      1. What about computer games, phones did you ever give them to your child? How did your child occupy himself by age 10 and did it affect him making friends.

        I just curious as I totally agree with you .. children at all ages shouldn’t be watching that much TV. It’s very addictive.

        1. My children did crafts and played outside, friends loved our house as it was a rich place to be.

      2. Robin, & not enough crossing the midline physical movement support.

  2. Hi Janet — I read all of your blog posts and love your perspective! This one is wonderful, as usual, and I have a question for you. I don’t have the time to read through all of the comments, so you may have answered this already! Or something similar…

    I am a classroom educarer/teacher. Currently I am a solo teacher with 5 children ages 16 months to 24 months. Capacity in our small room is 2 teachers and 10 children, which we will probably reach in the spring when another teacher is added and 2 – 5 more children.

    I have several children who wander consistently and don’t get involved in any particular thing. Do you have any recommendations for that? As a solo teacher, I am also responsible for all of the functional work in the classroom and must admit I get flustered and frustrated when this happens so often especially during the times when I must do the functional work and my hands are tied up.

    Our center is based on a loose Reggio approach, so we are encouraged to have many natural materials available and allow the children to lead the way.

    Thanks for any advice you have!


    1. Thanks, Cindy. I would let the children wander or putter and not attempt to focus them on a particular activity. I believe that if you trust the children and remain calm and accepting, they will eventually be able to settle in.

      Your basic approach sounds wonderful!

    2. I ja a two year old and I noticed he doesn’t engage with new toys for more than 5-10 minutes he have little hard time playing by himself and stay engaged while I am cooking or doing something. Can you please share how to help him do better? Thank you.

  3. This is fabulous, as I’ve often noticed adults interrupting children as if what they’re doing doesn’t matter in the least. It’s totally disrespectful and has gotten them rebuked by my daughter, which those people, of course, took as rude and her not wanting to be with them, when really she wanted to continue what she was in the middle of.

    I would say that this advice applies to children of all ages, and not just babies.

    I do disagree with caging up kids, however. Making the whole living area (and perhaps gating off an unsafe room or stairs) safe would be a far better option.

  4. Just a question…

    I understand the focus and attention this child has.

    One question I have is in a social setting, is this child able to deal with interruptions?

    Has he accepted that not all time is quiet and focus driven?

    My concern is that increasing a child’s focus can be a detrimental thing when they are hit with media and other attention grabbing antics?

    THank you

    1. I have found that the opposite (about socialization) is true. Children who have been allowed to concentrate for periods of time are better listeners when others are speaking (they pay attention); notice details about the speaker (facial expression, emotional states, etc); are better at designing play (creating “parts” for everyone according to their skill level; etc) and many other prosocial behaviors. They also show respect for others, and do not mindlessly interrupt them –instead waiting for their friends to finish what they are doing and to look up at them, before speaking.

      In our society, we TRAIN children to have ADD through a constant bombardment of media, noise, and interruptions. They learn that trying to pay attention is often painful, impossible, and futile.

      1. As an adult who has ADHD, I would like to take a moment to point out that ADHD isn’t just about focus and attention span. It is primarily an executive function disorder, which means that our problems stem primarily from a problem in the frontal lobe in doing things like making and following plans, managing our behaviour in response to emotions, thinking before we speak or act, and many other related things. Attention span and focus are controlled by executive functions. Most ADHDers are able to achieve what we call “hyperfocus,” which is basically “flow” – we basically tune out the world while we are engaged in whatever we’re hyperfocused on. The unfortunate part is that we are rarely able to control hyperfocus. (If we can learn what triggers it then we can sometimes use it to our advantage, but mostly we’re at the mercy of our frontal lobes.)

        ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning that the brain literally develops differently from non-ADHD brains. It’s actually behind by about three years, but some people’s brains catch up in their twenties, which is when the brain actually reaches maturity (around age 25). I’m one of the many who didn’t have that happen.

        Another little thing about development: children generally aren’t ready, developmentally, to sit and attend to an externally-directed activity (e.g., a teacher) for longer than 15 minutes until they’re at least 7 years old. But self-directed activities? My five-month old (who does not crawl but is adept at rolling over and can scoot himself on his back across a room pretty quickly) spent an hour exploring a small fabric doll I gave him the other day. He chewed on it, he threw it a short distance away and then stretched to retrieve it (and referenced me for approval when he did it – I was very proud of myself for not nudging it closer and just watching to see if he could do it himself), and he examined it with his hands and his eyes.

        The tips in this article could be very helpful for children who are going to grow up to have ADHD, but they’re not going to keep them from developing ADHD because it’s not just about focus and attention span.

        (I would apologize but I feel that it’s important to speak up about these kinds of statements about my own condition when I see them. The stigma attached to ADHD is very real and I am tired of seeing false statements about it all over the place. My son is likely to have ADHD since it has a strong genetic component and I will do everything I can to make sure that he knows how to manage his symptoms adequately if it turns out that he does have ADHD. My goal for him is that he will grow up to be a well-adjusted member of society who defines his own success and achieves it on his own terms.)

        1. Thank you for weighing in, Janna. I really appreciate it.

        2. Scott Meech says:

          If you really had ADHD, how did you manage to learn as much as you did, and even write that, very well thought out piece? I would suggest that you do not have a problem at all.

          1. Sorry to challenge your preconceptions about what people with ADHD can achive Scott but I know a extremely intelligent and engaging university lecture with ADHD.
            He is a leader in his field, holds multiple degrees and his seminars are amazing.

            Janna your knowledge and understanding of your condition is going to give your son an amazing hea start.

            Kia Kaha

          2. I’m genuinely struggling to understand if your comment (Scott) is ironic or condescending or something else.

          3. I’m glad to see Janna’s comment here. I’ve noticed that there are so many misconceptions about ADHD thrown around, especially in the parenting world. It is a genetic condition that affects executive function.
            I can’t tell if Scott was being serious, but many people with ADHD have high IQs and are absolutely capable of creating well thought out pieces of work. I have siblings with the condition and I can assure you, it had nothing to do with how they were parented, as we were all raised the same. They are simply “wired differently”, with a unique set of skills that can be both a blessing or a curse, depending on the environment and finding the right place to channel their way of thinking.

        3. As a Psychiatrist I can’t agree that ADHD brains are typically 3 years behind. And epigenetics matter a lot, so it’s not necessary that your child is going to develop ADHD. Also my son when 15 months old I could see he had symptoms that could lead to diagnoses of ADHD in future. He is now 6 years and I would say that though if we tested him he would still be on mild spectrum but I have a feeling in another two years he might never have that diagnoses. And that brain functioning differently, you can train your brain. Earlier one starts the better. Love

          1. Vinay Chawla says:

            Hello Mona,

            Just yesterday, I got a feedback from our doctor that my 17 months old son has high risk of ADHD .
            Being a Psychiatrist yourself and having experience of helping your own Son with similar condition, could you please suggest something to me for my Son? I just need him to lead normal life so desperately that I don’t think I’ll be able to express. I just know that you know being a mother yourself.

  5. If you get the child used to doing its own thing without interruption or instructions, it finds it hard to follow instructions later. This is my experience. Natural stimulation is a good thing. Talking and singing are good things which make the baby more intelligent.

  6. Dear Janet,
    I really love this post. I wish I had discovered your site 3 years earlier and in this way I could have educated my son differently. He doesn’t do almost anything by himself and always wants my attention. Now I understand what my mistakes in rising him were. He’s 3 and a half years old and in two weeks time he’s going to pre-school. I’m worried that he won’t be able to stay focused for too long. Also, it’s sometimes hard for me to do any chores as he constantly asks for my attention. Do you think it’s too late for me to do anything to boost his attention span.

  7. This is very interesting and useful actually but what about older children (4-8 years) whose attention span is already ruined? any tips?

    1. Thanks Asmaa. The most simple answer is to allow your children to focus on their interests as much as possible. Allow them to be self-directed, rather than adult-directed in their play and leisure time.

  8. Mine is a 04 year old baby boy,

    Single child in our home, ispite he is very intelligent and smart, but at the same from birth he is engaged in mobile and TV ,, and now he doesnt able to concentrate much and not giving replies to our questions oftenly , he talks what he wants to but, repaet our questions and doenst replies ,,, please help that how to trained and encourage him to behave like a normal child

  9. In investigating daycares for my newborn, I’m concerned with some (that I otherwise like) that play music the entire day. I think this seems like overstimulation and a distraction from the infant’s focused learning. While I often read that background TV is a distraction for a baby, constant all-day background music seems like it would have the same effect, but I rarely see comments either way. What would you say? Thanks.

    1. Hi Janet,

      I would love to know your thoughts on music throughout the day. My 21 month old plays quite well by himself but asks many times during our day to put music on. I typically oblige his request and it is quiet but I would love to know if you think it’s on the same or similar level as background tv (which I never have on). Thank you!

  10. Very true and lots of food for thought. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  11. Is it too late to apply these techniques at 7 months old?

      1. Hi Janet. My son is 14 months old. Is it too late to apply the no tv rule now? Does that include one of the parent watching tv? Please let me know. Many thanks in advance.

  12. Dear Janet,
    I recently found your website and read your book “Elevating Child Care” – so much of what you’re writing resonates with me.

    I have a question. My son is 6 months old and has enjoyed “alone time” since he was a newborn. It is reassuring to read your book to know I did something right. He is my first child but my husband’s third (they’re 8 and 10). While his older siblings adore him, they are constantly in his face, trying to push toys in his hands, making him laugh etc. My husband behaves in much the same way.
    So my question is: What should I do in situations where I feel my baby’s being interrupted? Winter break is over now and I feel the constant entertainment my baby has received will backfire on me as this is not how I interact with him.

    1. Hi Annika,

      Your baby will make this transition naturally, though there might be a complaint or two, which I would calmly listen to and acknowledge.

  13. This is great and encouraging as my Mr 2.5 does not always join in a group sing song when in a group session and I was worried but now see it’s possible he just wants to finish what he’s doing x

  14. what if the baby is already almost 1 year old and you did not apply these? 🙁

  15. Hi all! please please let me know (the hard truth) if I am too far gone with this. my daughter just turned one…. i will just admit right now i have let her watch probably far more TV than i should have and feel i have stimulated her with all of the wrong toys. it has just been so hectic and instead of allowing myself and my own attention span to hurt hers….i just so badly want to redirect her. i had this plan from the start and clearly i haven’t done a good job so far. is it too late for me to change everything (i will change it all anyway) but do you think i have done significant permanent damage? any good advice would be appreciated so much 🙂 thank you

  16. Hi Janet! Just a concern mom..I have a 2 year old son and not talking yet but I know he’s not deaf coz he’s responding to some sounds but everytime we call his name he is not paying attention

    1. Vinay Chawla says:

      Having same issue with my Son too, Rizza. Let me know if you got some good advice and made some progress with your son? Mine is about 17 months old now.

      1. I was born in late 40s. My mother said she took me at age 2years to doctors as I wasn’t talking at all. They checked I wasn’t deaf and said “she will talk when she’s ready”. Soon after I started talking in complete sentences

  17. Jessica M says:

    I’m a working mom who’s about to start staying home with my two kids – girl, age 3, and boy, 18 months. What are your thoughts on how I give them space for self-directed play, when I fear I’ll need to referee a lot of their activity together. The older one can get aggressive with the younger one, and the younger one likes to snatch the older kid’s toys. Should I separate them into different rooms with safe places? That doesn’t feel quite right to me either.

    1. Ideally, I would gate off an area for your younger child, so that he is safe, and so your 3 year old can focus on her more project-oriented play (it doesn’t need to be spacious). If that isn’t possible, I would look at giving her a higher table to use so that her play isn’t needlessly interrupted. Then, if she wants to choose to play safely with her sibling, she can. In those situations, I would monitor for safetly, but allow toy-taking and other arguments, etc.

      1. Jessica M says:

        Thank you so much. Your insight has already helped tremendously, and I look forward to trying these ideas when I’m home full-time soon.

  18. We do elimination communication with our boy, 7 months. It has pretty much gone down the tubes with how much he plays, explores, about to crawl, etc.

    I contend that why would he want to sit on potty when there’s all this playing to do? Husband is pissed we’re off track. You say offer a diaper change when baby looks up–what do I with EC and going potty? Try the same? I feel like it won’t work! I’m kind of resigned to him using diapers typically till he gets his tooth in, learns to crawl, etc.

    The whole idea of EC is watching for signals and going, but if he’s deep in play….what about signaling? Can you advise?


    1. Hi Darcy – This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of EC. I guess you would need to decide your priorities.

    2. Hi Darcy. We do part-time EC, meaning we don’t aim to catch everything. I consider baby making the association to pee/poop when she is sitting on the potty enough a success – not whether she is able to keep a diaper clean for some amount of time, or any other metric. I offer the potty when she wakes, and around 15 minutes after eating. This approach doesn’t seem to conflict with uninterrupted play like watching for signals all the time might, but I am just learning too.

  19. How wonderful! What are examples of simple, open-ended toys and objects? We have a pack and play (no music) but lots of colors and “textures”. She is currently 10 weeks old.

  20. Hello, I try to let my 3yo girl concentrate on what she does, but I don’t know what to do when she has to come to a meal in the kitchen or when the time comes for a nap. Most of the time she asks more time to finish, but this could take even another half an hour. We try to tell her to have a little break to eat or to sleep and that she is going to continue afterwards, but I feel sorry for not letting her do her job, because I’m afraid that she will lose her interest. I’ve observed also her interaction with the grandparents and I believe that their constant approacj with questions and corrections when something is not done the “proper” way, is the reason why I for exemple have difficulties in staying focused on a single activity and get easily distracted by a lot of things. Thank you

  21. Great information! Thanks!

  22. Jillian Waldman says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your articles and an trying to follow your recommendations with my six month old daughter as much as I can.

    However I can’t help noticing your choice of photo for this article about skills that will be useful for future success in school. The photos you use are most often of Caucasian children, but there might be some unconscious bias at play in selecting East Asian children more often for articles about learning and academic skills. I also noticed that the last time you used a photo of a Black child, the title included the word “discipline”.

    I know this kind of bias is often accidental but it can be jarring for some of your readers.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. No, there is not bias at play in this case, except that I prioritize photos of children of color which are, unfortunately, far more difficult to find. I am limited to the images that are available for me to use. If you took an exhaustive look at my over 600 posts on this website you will see that your judgment is false.

      1. This is a disappointing response. Being more open to this type of feedback can have huge benefits. I’m glad you prioritize using photographs of people of color. From here, your response reads as quite defensive. Instead, you have the option of being more open to finding unconscious bias in yourself, which is very well documented in all people. Feel free to take time to process, it’s a complicated subject. But dismissing it so easily, I fear, can prevent you from looking more deeply.

        1. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Kaelyn. I do hear you. Please know that I didn’t not dismiss the suggestion easily. It made me think. The difference is that I am aware of the 600+ posts I’ve created for this website and the commenter has maybe seen several, yet she’s suggesting a pattern. To be honest, this seems more like a case of confirmation bias on her part than bias on mine.

  23. Hi Janet,

    I love reading all your articles! I have a 1 year old who is always on the move. From the time she gets home from nursery at 12:50 to bedtime she is non stop. She may stop for a few moments to look at a book or play with something off her shelf but she doesn’t stop walking around our house for more than 1-2 mi it’s at a time. Almost our whole house is a yes space and I feel like she just makes me dizzy sometimes. Her room is also a total yes space and she will go in and out of there as well. Should I be worried? Is there something else I should be doing? We are trying to do some Montessori with her she all her toys have a purpose. I’m just worried she already has some type of attention needs or is this Normal?

  24. You shouldn’t have to ask this. A picture is worth a thousand words. All pictures are specifically picked for this. What can you expect. You will see the same thing everywhere.

  25. To interact or not? When my 4 month old baby is playing on her back, she often makes long vocalizations that seem experimental. She is usually not looking at me when she does this. I am confused if I should take this as her communicating with me and therefore I should respond, or if this is part of her play and I should just continue observing. Thoughts?

  26. Hi Janet,
    I would love to encourage more independent play with my nearly 8 month old. Unfortunately I have fostered an expectation of him being entertained before reading up on this so now he gets very grizzly when put down, even when I’m right there next to him. If I don’t pick him up and walk around or stand him up, this will progress to full on crying. I’d love some guidance on how to support him in this change.

  27. I think a balance is important. Yes babies need time to explore and view the world without interruption. However there are stages where babies are easily frustrated by their developing skills, experience seperation anxiety and may just have personalities that prefer closer proximity to their parents. All these need to be taken into consideration.

    It’s worrying to see this post elicit such anxiety in parents, who I’m sure are doing a great job already. You can see from the comment section from parents that they have “ruined their child” or “is it too late”. Another thing adding to their daily stress that they are now paying too much attention to their babies.

  28. Hi Janet, I’ve recently discovered your work and REM, my little girl is 3.5months old and I would really like to learn how to implement this amazing parenting style however I find it difficult to figure out what to do in particular instances. For example, I’m trying to give her the chance to play independently and have let her have lots of time on her back, she’s now rolling and trying to move forwards but soon becomes frustrated and then begins crying. Based on what I’ve found in your book so far I try to let her have a little bit of frustration before interfering as she is trying hard, but then when she cries I do ask if I can pick her up and do so. The thing is, how can I help her to not depend on stimulation and entertainment if she doesn’t stay for longer than a few minutes without getting upset? I’ve tried for a few weeks to extend the time she has without my interruptions and I sit near to her, so she knows I’m there but not interrupting. But it doesn’t seem to be getting longer periods. Also, how do I get her to experience and get used to different things if I’m always led fully by her? Sorry if this is a stupid question, I do take things quite literally and struggle to read between the lines with a lot of this amazing information you share.

  29. Hi Janet,

    In regards to screen time I have been wondering where does FaceTime with grandparents fit in to this? Because of the pandemic we are missing our parents/our daughters grandparents so much we are FaceTiming almost everyday for about 10 minutes. They sing her nursery rhymes mostly and she loves it but in the back of my mind I do wonder if all the extra screen time she is getting is negatively impacting her.

    Thanks in advance,


    1. Hi Caitlyn,

      Face time on its own shouldn’t be a problem. Take care!

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