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

123 Comments

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

  1. Great information, thank you! What is your opinion on background music (for say, a 1 yr old) while they play independently? Classical, children’s music, nature sounds, etc.

    1. Hi Kari!

      Thanks! Music is wonderful for children, especially if it’s music you enjoy, too, but babies don’t need it . I wrote a post awhile back: In Tune (Ditching Baby Music Class) about babies and music education.

      I’ve found that when I was trying to get through a car ride or the late afternoon doldrums and wanted to entertain a baby or toddler, music or stories on CD were a much more ‘brain active’ choice than TV and videos. With stories on CD the child is able to engage in active listening and create mental images. They are much less scary for children than movies are, and they don’t desensitize.

  2. What a fantastic post!

    Flow is actually great for more than developing attention span.

    According Mihaly Csicszentmihalyi (the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) “People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives.”

    His research indicates that flow is a far greater predictor of happiness, self-confidence, and well-being than money or status.

    Flow has a very interesting duality:
    On the one hand, there is an experience of becoming entirely absorbed in an
    activity – to the point of losing yourself in it. On the other hand
    you tend to come out of the flow experience with a stronger sense of
    who you are. That is… provided that you aren’t jarred out of it!

    When people experience flow consistently during a particular activity, there is also a natural spiral of ever-increasing challenge and skill level. This develops skills much faster than during traditional training and education. (See “Talent is Overrated” for a fabulous discussion about the role of deliberate practice in skill acquisition.)

    The RIE tenets of not interrupting, allowing infants and toddlers the opportunity to solve their own puzzles and challenges, as well as providing ample opportunity to explore independently are (in my opinion) key to experiencing flow consistently.

    Works for adults, too… though some adults need some help realizing that they can actually solve their own problems!

    1. Hi Olivia!

      Wow, thanks for contributing this! This is brilliant. I’ve been wanting to read Csicszentmihalyi’s book for ages. I’m going to link it here for anyone besides me who wants to learn more about flow: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (This is more information, not the place to order the book.)

      One thing I recognize (and others recognize) in the children I have known that were raised with the RIE principles is a very strong sense of self. Interesting that it might be due to the opportunity to experience plenty of flow.

  3. Hi Janet,

    I enjoyed your article. My question is from a different perspective. I don’t have kids, but I watch my nephew 3-5 days a week. He’s 4 and has the attention span of a gnat. When I’m doing things, I get really focused. So, his inattention drives me crazy, mainly because I don’t understand it.

    What can I do to help him improve his attention span since it’s nearly non-existent already? I’ve already cut back the amount of TV he watches while I’m with him and don’t let him eat candy. Since he’s not mine, though, I can’t control what his parents allow.

    Thanks!
    Maggie

    1. Hi Maggie!

      I have a question for you first. What does he like to do? I realize that you probably aren’t able to spend the whole time you are with him at his disposal, but are you able to give him an hour (or a half hour) when he gets to choose what you do together?

      I would make a deal with him. He gets to choose what you do together for awhile, then you have to do your work and he chooses something to do alone. Make it clear to him that anything he wants to do is okay with you when you are giving him ‘his’ time, as long as it is safe and possible. Tell him it can be the silliest thing in the world, even just sitting there together staring, anything. Don’t answer the phone or do anything else during his time. Don’t have any agenda or expectation. Let him lead. Maybe you’ll just end up being the audience to something he wants to do. Pay attention.

      If he bothers you while you are busy later, don’t get annoyed or take it personally. Just calmly, but firmly say, “I know you want my attention, but I’m busy now. We will have our time together later.” Let him badger you, scream, howl, whatever, but stay firm.

      Giving 100% attention to a child for a limited period of time (Magda Gerber called this “wants nothing quality time”) provides the refueling a child needs to spend time independently. This is true for infants, too. You probably can’t extend his ability to focus and concentrate with the amount of time you have together, but you can make the time you share pleasant, fulfilling and memorable.

      Another thought, don’t multi-task when you are together. Be a model of focus. Eat facing each other, not in front of TV or while you are doing other things. Do one thing at a time. When you are giving him ‘his’ time, really be with him.

      Please keep me posted!
      Janet

      1. Wow! Thanks for the reply, Janet. I didn’t see it back when you posted it. I just happened to come across it when I got a Google search result for my old Website. Haha!

        While I’m no longer watching my nephew, I do appreciate your advice. And, I’m now realizing my question came out wrong. When I was with him, it was all about him. I meant that when I’m not with him and I’m working on my things, I’m a very focused person. So, when I am with him and we’re doing things, like crafts, I didn’t understand his lack of focus or ability to just sit down and do the craft. He’d work on it for a couple minutes then bounce around the room and go from toy to tv to toy to the next thing and maybe back to the craft, etc.

        1. avatar Patty Agacki says:

          He is (was)four…curiosity and physical activity is not neccessarily a lack of focus…we each develope at our own pace

  4. I am following you on twitter and happened to click on this post. You have such an engaging style and the website is so useful. I have a 4 month old and a five year old and I have picked up some valuable tips. Many thanks.

    Riya Agnihotri

    1. Hi Riya,

      Thanks so much! I am glad you have found some useful information here. Thanks for your support on Twitter, too!

  5. Hi Janet,

    Thanks so much for all the valuable information on your website. I’m very glad I know this blog because I learn a lot from it.

    It happened a couple of months ago that I buyd ‘Little Reader’ and ‘Little Math’ of the Brillkids website. I wanted to start math and reading with my son. Later on I got on your website and I read that it’s not good to do that. The programs were very expensive and I wouldnt like to not using them at all. What is your advice?

    1. Hi Rose,

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad the site appeals to your instincts and is helping you.

      I’m not familiar with what the early learning programs you mention contain, but if they are videos, reading materials, and flashcards, they might be enjoyable for your son to use in his own way when he is older, like 4 or 5. I still wouldn’t use them with an agenda to ‘teach’, but just have them available him to peruse on his own during some ‘down’ time.

      I can promise you that you will never regret trusting your boy to spend his first years learning through self-initiated play!

  6. Thanks for your quick answer Janet!

    Hmm. Wait until he’s 4 or 5 years? For the math thing the whole idea of doing it now is because baby’s until 2.5 years are able to perceive true quantity and that makes it much easier for them to learn math.. and when i look at myself how terrible I am at math i dont want to him to miss this oppurtunity..

    I like the idea of taking the middle path; to learn him what will benefit him if he learns it at an early age and for the rest to leave him alone on the floor to examin the things he’s interested in himself.

    Do you have any tips I should bare in mind to not effect his attention span negativally?

    (i hope you understand me well, my english is not very good)

    Thanks,
    Rose

    1. As an early childhood educator and a specialist in curriculum d development I’ve found that children’s abilities are not necessarily directly connected to the early age at which educational activities are started. I’ve found that children naturally learn many of these concepts through discovery. While I love to choose toys that I think will foster my son’s development I’ve found that simple is often best. Trying to teach a child certain concepts at a very young age can become frustrating for the parent and child. My suggestion would be to relax, have fun, and allow your child plenty of “child led” playtime. That is how they learn best, especially at such a young age!

  7. Thanks Janet, i’m looking forward to it!

    1. Hi Susan!

      I’m so glad you checked in here and shared your blog…what a wonderful resource! I’m a little disappointed that you meant “become” because I was going to join your “groupie”. Instead, I’ll be one of your groupies!

      Thanks again, I’m looking forward to reading all of your articles.

  8. Great post…this confirms a lot of things for me that I already do with my 10-month-old. However, I have always wondered how much attention is “too much” attention. I have a curious, active but quiet little guy…with no TV on at home when he’s awake, the silence tends to get a little unsettling. My family “accuses” me of trying to entertain him too much and always talking to him…really it’s because I find silence uncomfortable, so I feel obligated to fill it. How much should I be talking to my baby, and how much should I just let him do his own thing? In fact, I talk to him so much that he’s starting to not pay attention to me now…

    1. Kimberly, I congratulate you for keeping the TV off while your boy is awake, and I realize that too much quiet can be disconcerting to some people (although I could never get enough quiet time!) I also appreciate the way you understand that your need for sound is yours, not your baby’s.:-)

      The best way to know when a baby needs our attention and to avoid interrupting him is to wait for him to look at us. If he seems focused on something, try to let him be. But when he stops and looks at you, quietly acknowledge whatever he is doing, i.e., “I see you turning that ball around and around.”

      If we give a gentle and minimal response, he is more likely to resume playing, exploring, etc. It’s hard, but so healthy to trust that what a baby does on his own is “enough”. Someday, you will probably look back in longing for these quiet times just “being” together.

      And if you’re really craving some sound, how about soft music?

  9. Thanks, Janet, for your timely response. I will definitely try some music. I guess part of my problem, too, is worrying that if I leave him to his own devices too much, he won’t learn how to interact with others or seek communicative opportunities. He is already very quiet, although very curious and wants to explore and touch everything. I guess you have have to pick and choose times to be interactive and times to just let them be, huh? I am a first-time mom. Thanks for indulging my questions. 🙂

    1. Kimberly, I love your questions! And what I’ve learned is that when you interact with a baby 100 % during feedings, baths and diaper changes…talking him through each step, asking for his cooperation and assistance…you can definitely trust him to let you know when he needs further interaction, because he will initiate it. Playing quietly…exploration and curiousity are terrific traits and abilities that we can encourage by staying out of the way.

  10. I am new to this website but love the posts I have read. I have a 19-month old daughter and have encouraged her to explore her world as much as possible. She is a terrific, inquisitive, friendly, creative little girl. *However*, up until now I have almost always explored alongside her – helping her when she gets frustrated, showing her new things to do with toys, narrating her excitement at discovering something new.

    So: how do you (as a parent) avoid getting bored if you are neither playing with her nor interpreting things for her (nor playing on your own cellphone/reading your own magazine/etc.)? I just can’t see myself sitting next to her for hours at a time *watching*…!

    (Full disclosure: I work out of the home, full-time, and am used to constantly being busy. And I am also used to never feeling that I have enough hours in a day. Which, of course, may contribute to my fear of “boredom” if I am “just watching.” But still — I would appreciate any hints/mental reframing you can offer!)

    Thanks in advance, and I’m thrilled to have found this blog –

    1. Thanks so much for reading the blog.

      First of all, I think the excitement you feel when you share time with your daughter is wonderful for both of you. You obviously enjoy each other’s company…a gift.

      I think you will find it more interesting than you realize to take a tiny step back and be more responsive sometimes. I know this is more challenging for parents who are used to being “doers” (and my full disclosure is that my personality lends itself to watching, but I work with a lot of mothers who are “doers” and find it more challenging than I do to stay out of the way. And, still I find it challenging). The less you do, the more your daughter will do. You will likely be surprised by her ingenuity, creativity, tenacity and problem solving abilities.

      I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW MANY TIMES I stifled a very strong urge to show a baby how a toy works, add something to make her play “better”, or point something out to her that she might have missed, and I was so glad that I DIDN’T, because what the child did was always so much more interesting!

      Example: An young toddler in one of my classes was using one of those puzzles with the little handles. She took the pieces out and…of course we all were thinking she should fit them back in…maybe she needed us to show her how. But instead of putting them back in, she balanced them, one on top of the other…4 of them! I had never seen that before and never would have thought it possible!

      Please know that I am not suggesting that you watch your daughter play for hours! The beauty of allowing her more independence when she plays is that you do NOT have to entertain her. You can sit near her, or in the next room with your book, magazine, cellphone, making dinner, etc., and enjoy time being near each other, both of you busy, or just relaxing. If she is used to you being involved with her when she plays, it will take a bit of adjustment. I have a post in response to a mother dealing with that issue: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/

      Infant expert Magda Gerber always said, “The magic word is WAIT” When you want to help her figure out her toys, or solve any problem for her…try to WAIT and give her the opportunity to do it for herself.

      Please let me know how it goes, and any questions are always welcome.:-)

  11. Wow, I am so impressed with this video blog. I try to impress on moms that kids do not need ALL the toys they are given. It is clearly over-stimulation. I want them to look at their motivation for all the stuff.

    Bravo.

    1. Sally, thanks! Yes, babies are extremely sensitive, easily overstimulated, and often underestimated!

  12. Hi Janet,

    I came across your blog today and have been reading many of your articles. They are fantastic!

    I was just writing today about my challenges with free play (http://www.activemama.com/2010/11/04/encouraging-free-play/). My son, since the get go, was very fussy. Colic. He would cry if left on his back for more than a minute or two. He was a poor sleeper at the time, but definitely was not ready for a nap as soon as he woke up! As a result, we were always changing activities to keep him ‘entertained’ until his next nap.

    He is, on the bright side, very social. If he’s out of the house, he’ll smile and engage with all the people around him. As an infant, just taking him to somewhere with other people was enough to keep him happy. Though we had lots of free-play toys at home, and I try to let him ‘be’, he still escalates his displeasure after about an hour at home and always bops from one activity to the next – exploring the house, different toys, etc. Is his play area too big? Most of his toys are in bins, so not much is ‘out’ to distract him (I think).

    Also, how do you balance teaching them the words for things while also letting them free play with those things? For example, were Aiden to hold up a block, I would tell him “that’s a block” sometimes… is that distracting him?

    Thanks!!

    1. Hi Arieanna,

      Thanks for your kind compliments! I read your post to get a little more background…you have wonderful instincts! I wasn’t able to find info about the age of your son as I’d hoped to, but I have a few thoughts…

      Colic is a problem I dealt with, too, with my third child, but it was mostly an issue at night. In the early weeks and months babies may not be able to spend long periods of time on their backs…that’s okay! Just keep trying for short periods and remember not to interrupt when the baby is engaged on his own. Magda Gerber taught parents that we exacerbate colic by adding more stimulation. I found it best to just hold my son, comfort him and allow him to cry sometimes, rather than entertain or distract him.

      Playing uninterrupted for an hour is a long time! However, if he’s flitting around, the play environment might be too overwhelming. Toys in bins are fine — it’s nice for him to know where certain toys are, but having run of the entire house is probably too much space… even for a two year old. Too much choice can be distracting.

      The key to knowing when to respond to Aiden without distracting him is exactly what you describe — waiting for him to look at you. When he looks at you, respond with a full sentence, i.e., “You’re showing me that red block.” That is the best, most natural way to teach to language, meaningfully and in context.

      What you’re doing sounds good!

  13. Thanks Janet! Aiden just turned a year old. For the most part, he does play well on his own, but he gets very tired of a single environment.

    When I mention an hour, I mean an environment. He will play on his own for 20 minute bursts sometimes, but less as he gets tired. But an hour is pretty much all he’ll tolerate of a single space – be that our house, a playgroup or a playdate. I move him from place to place during the day.

    For example, our day consists of wake, home play, nap, cafe for a snack (he hates staying home the instant he wakes from this nap), playgroup, home for lunch/play/nap, out again to do errands, play until 1.5 hours before bed when we again return home. It can be, as you see, hard to fill up our day. Days when we try to keep him at home longer simply involve lots of whining and crying on his part. Always have. I don’t know any other baby quite like this – and we know a LOT of other babies thanks to his social nature!

    1. Hmmmm! I love that you are so accomodating to your boy, but don’t forget that it’s your day, too. Don’t be afraid of the whining and crying. He may be overtired, or he may just need to whine and cry. Accept it. Don’t try to distract him or ‘please’ him when it is inconvenient for you. That’s not good for anybody because it can create resentments. Aiden doesn’t need to love every aspect of his day and his social skills won’t disappear if he doesn’t get what he wants. Just my thoughts…please take them or leave them!

    2. Arienna

      My 9 month old is similar. She seems to get bored or even dislike being at home. The second I step outside the door she’s relaxed,looks around etc. We only go to Baby Groups twice a week and meet other mums and babes in a cafe on a Monday so the rest of the time it’s just us and I tend to just walk around the park/town. 🙂

      Nev

  14. Hi Janet,

    My daughter is 5 years old and she clings on to me for everything. She doesn’t want to do any activity without me on her side and she treats me like a play date/friend. I find it very difficult to keep her busy all day and sometimes for 10-15 minutes she does a pretend play on her own. I also feel that she does not listen/pay attention because i am teaching her to read and she cannot repeat the words on her own after i tell her once or twice. Do i need to worry about my daughter’s future? What can i do to keep her busy without she needing me all the time. What can i do to get her to pay attention and build focus.

    1. Hi PC,

      This situation often happens with a first child — we feel it is our duty to keep our child busy and by doing so create a dependency. The good news it that children are adaptable. You can wean your daughter off of her dependency on you for entertainment if you make a concerted effort, use all the confidence you can muster, and allow her a little discomfort as she adjusts to the changes you make. Here’s a post about encouraging independent play in an older toddler that applies to your situation: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/08/solo-engagement-fostering-your-toddlers-independent-play/

      One of the wonders of independent play is that it teaches a child to pay attention. Young children focus far longer on activities they create and choose themselves, and the practice they gain helps them to pay attention to adult directed activities as they get older.

      Reading is usually learned easily by a typical chilld when we wait for readiness. My guess is that your daughter is either not developmentally ready to read or she is just feeling the need to resist your agenda for her. It may be a little of both. Either way, I suggest skipping the teaching for the time being, especially if you want her to learn to play more independently. She might need to feel more of your trust in her to choose her own activities while you make this transition.

  15. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for your response. My daughter doesn’t like to do any activity on her own. She doesn’t seem to be interested in any activity at all whether its playing with her toys or drawing or doing a puzzle or reading. She just sits idle for most of the time unless i sit with her to do an activity and thats why i end up choosing activitities for her. Is it normal for a 5 year old child to behave like this. Even if i try setting up something for her to do on her own, she never does it for more than 2 minutes and i feel frustrated. I am looking for tips/strategies which i can put to use with her so that she can show interest in things and choose her activities. Do you have any suggestions?
    Thanks
    PC

    1. Hi PC! This is sounding like it might be a pattern of resistance. I have the feeling that as soon as you can be completely content with your daughter’s idleness (time in which she may be imagining, daydreaming and very mentally productive, actually), she’ll become more interested in initiating activities. Does she go to any kind of school? If so, then I would definitely trust that she needs lots of downtime at home — time when she does ‘nothing’. Either way, trusting her is the key. Let her play time be hers to do as much or as little as she wishes. Let whatever she does be enough… I think it will make a difference when she feels absolutely no pressure from you and doesn’t feel like you are worried. If you decide to try this, please let me know how it works out. Thank you!

  16. Hi! Just came across your website today and I’m loving it! I’ve already referred 5 other people. My husband and I are expecting our first baby early this summer so it’s nice to be learning this stuff now as opposed to later.

    Looking forward to more fantastic articles and videos!

  17. This is great and it makes me feel better about often sitting in silence while she is playing and I’m reading/surfing. 🙂

    Nev

  18. Hi Janet, I cam across one of your blog posts posted on facebook via parent2parentu. I loved the article and the way you write. I’ve just read a couple more and I want to spend all day reading every blog you’ve ever written! I’m a new Mum with a 7 week old and with so much to learn and wanting to do the best for my baby, I’ve found lots of contradictory information. I started to read Gina Ford contented baby book during the last weeks of pregnancy and I’ll be honest it shook me up. The book ended up in the bin. Thank you for sharing such vital information for parents and writing in such a way that makes me want to carefully read every word you’ve written and take on board your views. I’m so much wiser having read this article and the others, (especially the breastfeeding one and bonding, there are times when I’m doing something else, looking at my phone, reading, now I know the importance of bonding by NOT doing other stuff, I’ll definitely be focusing all my attention on my baba). Thank you again, I really look forward to your posts dropping into my inbox. BTW a blog hasn’t grabbed me as much as yours has EVER! x

  19. avatar Marie, Jack's mom says:

    Fabulous blog. I found you through a link on facebook last night and am just absorbing all this great information which naturally gels with a lot of my own instincts (which I used to ignore) and what I’ve learned from Dr. James MacDonald in his method of helping late-talking children (www.jamesdmacdonald.org for more info on Communicating Partners).

    My son is chronologically 6 but developmentally all scattered from 2 up.

    I’m wondering about interruption….I feel as though I’m constantly interrupting him to give him medicines (only twice a day unless he’s sick but these are oral meds and nasal sprays that cannot all be administered at once), take him to the bathroom for pottying, get him dressed etc etc….

    After finding your blog last night, my husband and I talked it over and agreed that we will be more focused and single minded when doing these “must” tasks with Jack so they will be times of connection and learning…..I don’t even know what I’m asking….I guess is it okay to interrupt for these “must”. Did I just answer my own question?

    Do I need to restrict Jack to a smaller play area? Our house is Jack-proof so that he can go all over and be safe.

    I appreciate what you are doing here and hope you have a minute to respond.

    1. Marie, thank you so much for you kind words and wonderful questions. Regarding interruption, yes, just be aware. Sometimes it isn’t an emergency and we can wait for the child to finish focusing on his activity. Choose your battles/interruptions. Yes, great to keep the tasks a focused time together for connection and learning. Yes, of course it’s OK to interrupt for “musts”. It’s just those “not so musts” to take another look at.

      Regarding the size of the play area, I think a large area for a boy Jack’s age is fine. But keep in mind that children of all ages enjoy a cozy area within a larger space. My son (9) still loves making forts using blankets secured between the sofa, table and chairs in our
      great room/playroom. Younger children enjoy little covered areas, or just designated spaces like an inflatable wading pool indoors (without the water) filled with cushions, stuffed animals, balls, a basket of books nearby, etc.

  20. avatar Kiki Foster says:

    Hi,

    I have twin girls and one is very attentive and understands to bend, pick up and move an object that hinders her from walking or getting to anything else that she wants at that time, when she is putting shapes in holes or doing puzzles she takes her time, thinks about it and carfully places pieces where hey should, not becoming easily frustrated- life is safer and easier so far this way.
    The other one just goes for it and just walks/runs over books, toys, etc. tripping and sliding, when she does a puzzle it takes her a matter of seconds to become frustrated, making a screaming noise, she asks for help immediently without trying and if I don’t give it to her she is likly to chuck the toy else where and walk away. To grab something not within reach she will struggle and trip over things for it. It just seems so much harder and maybe this is because it is in comparison to her sister. I love how rambuctious and clumsy she is, it can be entertaining and cute but I am worried she won’t grow out of it and struggle through life- which some people just do but if I can make it easier I would like to.
    Originally I thought my question was “How to increase my daughters attention span” but I guess it is “How do I get my daughter to pay attention?”
    I love what you write and agree with so much of it so hopfully you can offer some tips.

  21. Just found your site and this article. I absolutely love all the information. We already practice a lot of what you recommend in the article but it is great to see it all in one place. We usually give our son a toy or something else to play with while changing his diaper and after reading this I will avoid it and let him see/concentrate on what we are doing 🙂 I will definitively share this article on my Facebook page. Thanks for posting!

  22. After I have read your post, i make sure that I don’t interrupt my son when he is playing or doing something on his own. I also told my husband not to interrupt him so that he can focus or pay attention on what he is doing.Hopefully later at school he can pay attention to what he will learn.
    Thank you Janet.

  23. Hi Janet, great article. Quick question (hopefully).

    We have a 4 month old, she is fantastic. Sometimes she will cry and get upset during specific tasks, such as changing a diaper.

    My question is, what is the best way to deal with her crying as usually I have tried to distract her with smiles or faces that make her laugh, or even toys.

    Should I be going about this another way and only pull faces, etc, when she is focusing on me?

    Thanks, Patrick.

    1. Hi Patrick! The playfulness is wonderful, but don’t lose the honest interaction. If she’s crying, acknowledge that she’s upset and talk her through what you are doing. If she seems especially upset and uncomfortable, tell her that you will take a little a break and then pick her up and hold her (if it isn’t a mess moment), until she calms down. Often, slowing down and staying present in the experience, inviting your daughter to participate is the key to diaper changes being a far more pleasant, relationship building experience. This is counter-intuitive for most of us.. When our babies seem uncomfortable we want to speed up! But babies want to be included in their life…not have things done to them. Connecting with our children during tasks like diaper changes, also encourages them to be focused and attentive.

      Here’s a post all about diaper changes: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/05/how-to-love-a-diaper-change/

      1. Wonderful Janet, fantastic and that is exactly what we needed. Cheers 🙂

  24. Hello Janet,

    Thank you for your blog. I came across it quite by accident in my search for ways to stimulate/develop my 5 month old’s mind. I’ve read almost every book on infant/child development, and of them, I go back to Super Baby and Brain Rules for Baby time and time again. I’d like to get your input on DVD programs like Brillkids (little reader program) and Your Baby Can Read. Many child experts agree that T.V. and education DVDs actually hinder a baby’s progress — and I agree with them — but I am also torn as to whether I am providing enough on a day-to-day basis and fear I may not be maximizing his full potential at this critical stage.

    Thanks, Janet, and please keep up the wonderful work you are doing for so many parents!

  25. Hello Janet,
    I have a 13 month old son and i found your articles very useful and inspirational.
    Until he was about 8 months old, i have always tried to entertain my boy. I was even streessed about whether i was keeping him busy and entertaining him enough. When he was about 8 months old, we made a quite big gated play area for him. He was playing happily by himself there. However, since he’s about 11 months old, he only wants to stay there when there is me, his father or another adult play mate is there. Otherwise, he just stands up holding the barrier, crying or shouting to us. I tell him softly thatt he can play by himself etc. but he just doesn’t want to. What do you suggest? Is his age already too old for a gates play area? (ours is 6 x 8 ft.)

  26. Hi Janet,
    I have been reading your articles for several months. They have been very beneficial and helped change my perspective about baby feelings, play and independent time. Thanks!

    I have a 19 month old and she was very clingy as a baby. After reading your articles I have been letting her play on her own, giving her bowls, spoons etc to play creatively. She would play for 5-10 minutes max. It’s difficult for me to do much around the house because she wants me with her.

    We decided not to get a TV at home, even for ourselves but we have been living with extended family for a month and my daughter got used to watching TV. It got even harder for her to play on her own. Please advise.

  27. I wanted to thank you for this post. I don’t have children yet, but my husband and I will be starting a family soon. I’m trying to gather different articles so I can be a great parent and wanted to let you know that I agree with everything you’ve said here. I will be sure to pass it on to those closest to our family when the time comes too so that we’ll be uniform in raising our children. 🙂

  28. Backstory: My son is 19mos. and I have been working full time with occasional overtime since he was about four mos. old. So while I worked he was with one of three aunts or grandma. You could consider me a single mom. Even though there were things i requested of my lovely, free care providers…they werent always followed. Plus my lack of time spent with my son made it hard to set/enforce habits. In other words the poor guy had little consistancy. I choose not to let my son watch TV but everyone else says, “you cant protect him forever.” So that and MANY dietary requests get thrown out the window.

    I am now givin the opprotunity to be a stay at home mother and I feel like I am starting all over again. I feel so lost like I dont know where to begin. I was hoping you may have some tips to help me and my little-big guy get a fresh and positive start. Or have a direction to point me towards. Everything in this article is what I have strived for but was unable to follow through with.

    1. Catelin, 19 months is still very young and children are extremely adaptable…so proceed with confidence! Please check out my section on “Play” (there’s a drop down if you click on “parenting”). Here’s a post about encouraging a toddler to play more independently: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/

  29. Hi Janet,

    I am an early childhood teacher and also have my RIE 1 training, I LOVE reading your blog, especially when the wee girl I look after is sleep, keeping information new and fresh in my mind everyday helps me react to situations differently and confirms the things that I am doing too. I am so pleased to have these mines of information before my husband and I begin our family. Vital for a future of self conpetent children 🙂

    Many thanks!

  30. Hi Janet,

    My baby has started crawling within the last month, and is also beginning to attempt to pull herself up to standing. My question is about her seeming to almost always crawl over to where I am instead of engaging in independent play. When she does play independently, the tiniest sound that I make reminds her of my presence and she immediately starts towards me. She also prefers to use me as an object to try her attempts of pulling herself up to standing. While this makes me feel warm in my heart that she is always wanting to be near me and touching me, and I also know this is part of her behavioral development since she now realizes that she can go away from me- I wonder how I can encourage her to increase her independent play without needing me there with her constantly. Or perhaps this is just something that is normal and her independent play time will progressively get longer?

    1. Hi Beth! It is natural for your girl to want to engage with you. Does she have an enclosed place to play? Then you could be sitting quietly with her while she plays…being available to her, and you could also let her know that you will leave for a few minutes and come back. That is a great habit to begin…taking a little moment for yourself to do something in the kitchen, etc. The safe, enclose play space is integral to making independent play work…and now is the perfect time to establish it. This is not a jail! That is an adult perception. Young children appreciate a play where they aren’t “into everything” or encouraged to constantly follow (and annoy) the parent. The safe space is a YES place where the baby is free to focus on inner-directed play.

  31. avatar LauraCLeighton says:

    This is a great article, and I have another question: My baby (well, he’s 16mo now) has always been the type to put EVERYTHING in his mouth! Why? My niece, for example, always checked everything out, feeling, examining, etc. But my son, everything is destined for his mouth sooner or later. Not that he doesn’t also play with things. But sometimes, especially when he was littler, he wouldn’t examine things, or be interested in things. He just chewed everything.

  32. Thanks for this great post…going to post link on our preschool fb page. This concept applies equally well to pre-k kiddos. We need to stop running them from place to place, entertaining them, and let them discover what their interests are, on their own. Thanks, again!
    http://sunshinehouseCA.com

    1. Exactly! “We need to stop running them from place to place, entertaining them, and let them discover what their interests are, on their own.”

      I’ll never forget a group playdate I took my toddler to at a big, luxurious home. This group had been getting together for a while, but I went only the one time because it drove me a little crazy. Just as my daughter was getting involved in play in the playroom, we had to move to the outdoor playground, and then to the tennis court where all the wheel toys were stationed, and then to the sandbox area, etc. I’d wait and let her linger as long as possible, but then it would feel awkward for me not to join the group and move, too. I’m sure they all thought I was a weirdo! The adults must have thought the children were easily bored, but it felt like we were training the children to have a short attention span. I know this happens in preschools as well.

  33. avatar cassandra says:

    Thank you for this great info! Too many times I have seen friends and family use TV as a babysitter. I often believe this could be some of the cause of attention deficit issues we see in kids. My son is only 4 months and I will be using this info now!

  34. Thanks for this article, I realized I do some of these focus-killing things (especially the interrupting, but I’m not too bad overall). Now I’ll be more aware of my behavior. My baby is 6 months old and I struggle with how much choice to give her in terms of the number of toys in her play spaces (the crib, pack n plays, etc.), and how often to switch them up. I wonder if by throwing 8 toys in her crib I’m somehow undermining her ability to foccus in the future. Should I put just one or two at a time? The more the merrier? I also wonder what your opinion of contraptions such as jumpers, walkers, and exersaucers is? She is very physically active, and loves crawling about. I have these things to give her the chance to work out her energy and have some fun. She’s not in them much each day. But when she is, she seems to really enjoy them. However, I do notice that she tends to become a bit “manic” eventually, and usually can’t be in them for long. Are they useful or beneficial to her at all? Does the fact that she has a huge smile while bouncing mean it’s worthwhile? Or are they just an overstimulating diversion? Thanks!

  35. Hi, this was very helpful! I have a five month old who loses interest in everything. He goes in spurts of fun and energy and then loses that and no longer wants to interact or play. I have invested in everything imaginable, bouncer, jumper, mobile, kicking piano, etc and still nothing holds his attention or keeps him happy. I basically have to rotate him from toy to toy and he is only happy for maybr 10 minutes at each activity. My friend’s baby is a month older and doesnt have this promblem. My husband and i are starting to believe that our boy is not like every baby and might just need more stimulation than just you average fisher price dandly monkey. He seems like an old soul. I’m starting to think that this is my fault now and perhaps I have overwhelmed him and perhaps with all the wrong things. His favorite activities are to play with his hands and put anything in his mouth. I’m getting ready to set up his play room and would love some feedback. as to how to help him enjoy playing more.

    1. Hi Juliana! It sounds like you are misunderstanding infant play and development. This IS typical play for a five month old: “His favorite activities are to play with his hands and put anything in his mouth.” It is not up to you to “hold” his attention. In fact, doing that has the opposite effect…because it causes over-stimulation (as you are realizing) and sensory shut down. Infancy is time of extreme sensitivity and awareness. Babies are unable to filter and monitor stimulation as adults do.

      Your job is to learn to observe. This will lead to attunement and help you to understand your child’s needs as he grows. Here’s a post all about infant play… http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/02/infant-play-great-minds-at-work-captured-on-video/

      1. Hi Janet,

        Thanks so much for your response! You are so correct. I have been spending 5 months forcing my baby to play. I always wondered what I was doing wrong. I knew that something wasn’t right. I would take him to my mom’s house and she would just sit him right next to her and let him look and talk to him and they had so much fun. She would just plop him under this hanging toys and he would wiggle and talk and have the best time. Then I would get him home and shove every toy I could imagine in his hands and face and wonder why he didnt smile or play. With that said, I have learned so much for just reading your posts.
        So I have great news, I took what you said to heart and I tried a few new things yesterday. I took away most of my baby’s toys and kept the ones that I felt he interacts with the most. I took away the boucy chair for now and a the fishy tv thingy I used to turn on for him. I layed him down on his colorful play mat on his back and just sat next to him. He played with his hands, looked around, stared at the mirror, chit chatted. When he looked at me I would say “Oh, I see you playing with your fingers.” and then he would look away and continue to just chill. It was amazing. For him, I felt that he was happy to just be, and for me I felt like I was just enjoying time with him. We eventually played his favorite game where I throw a light blanket up in the air and gently let if drape on him. He kicks and wiggles and grabs it and plays with it. Then looks at me and lets me know that it’s time to throw it again. All in all, it was such a great experience to learn that my baby is playing and experiencing what he wants to experience on his own. I am enthralled with everything you write and I will continue to read through your posts. More suggestions are so welcome!

  36. I’m just now reading this and my son is 22 months old, almost at the 2 year mark you mention. I had originally planned for him to have very few toys and to not introduce TV, but with a baby comes many toys from many people and at 1 1/2 he watched very little TV, actually only 1 movie (Finding Nemo that my sister got for him – everyone else was so excited for him to do these things) and would only pay attention for maybe 15 minutes. I was okay with that. But then my husband and I switched roles (he’s staying at home while I work) and he found that he could put him in front of the TV to get something done without a screaming child. So, I start thinking he’s the genius and I was just frustrating myself trying to do everything without “tools”. But in a very few short months, our son screams for Pooh and Nemo (mostly Pooh). I can tell him that we’re not going to watch it right now and he seems to be okay with that (i.e. he quits screaming), but I didn’t realize what we were doing to his brain and his attention span. He has never been very good at playing with his toys for any period of time. When he does, he wants us to play with him. So my husband calls it the 1-man-show and its very difficult to get things done that need to be done (i.e. cooking and dishes). I was also under the impression from others that they needed to be able to freely explore, so we never gated off an area and so of course once he got mobile he was not happy about being put in a playpen while I took a shower (more screaming). And now we have lots of screaming, teething pain, frustration, trying to get our attention, fun, for nearly every reason and my ears can’t take much more, plus he’s getting difficult to take anywhere and I don’t feel like we’re big on-the-go people. Is it too late? Can we just take away all TV? Should we just put up all his toys except for blocks and puzzels? Can we ensure he has an appropriate attention span at this point? And what would we look for? How long with what type of object/toy? Thanks!

  37. I love the ethos of this way of parenting. One thing I’m struggling with though, is the part about distraction while nappy changing. I have a very mobile 14 mo, who seems interested in anything other than having his nappy changed. We previously had a few battles until I stepped back and took a look at the situation – now I make sure I talk to him through out and ask for his participation, I also factor in loads of time so he can roam naked for a while if he wishes… But the nappy needs to go at some point. Sometimes I manage to do this while he’s standing or crawling but it isn’t ideal; so I do often distract him with a toy, so that he stays laying down. I get that distraction isn’t good but I wonder what the answer is here? Thanks for a very thought provoking piece.

  38. I’m re-reading things now for baby #2, and it seems the whole RIE slow, uninteruppted, deal works way more easily for a first baby! I’m constantly trying to keep my 2.5 year-old out of his 10 week-old brother’s face. It’s hard – Otis always wants to be giving cuddles while Elliott has floor time – any suggestions? I guess point #3 about a safe play area is important here, but our apartment is so small (47m2!) that I don’t see how we can work a play pen into our livingroom. Thanks for the advice a few months ago when Otis was yelling at others for crying. Now he says to his brother “You’re upset, aren’t you Elliott”! Well, there’s still the occasional outburst of “NOT CRYING, ELLIOTT!”, but sometimes I feel like saying that too 😉

  39. I’ve been reading your blog with interest, and some regret: I wish I’d found it when my children were babies and toddlers, as it would have helped me stand back and observe even more…

    As I’ve been reading your posts, I’ve noticed a lot of commonalities between what you advocate for infants and young toddlers, and what Montessori offers to children.

    For example, in a good Montessori preschool room, children have three uninterrupted hours of “work time” every morning. During that time, they can freely choose from the many engaging activities in the classrooms. And once they choose an activity (arranging flowers, self-teaching writing with sand paper letters, making a puzzle map), their work is absolutely protected from interruptions.

    One of the first rules children learn in Montessori is that they may never take a material from another child who is working with it (no enforced sharing!); that they must not disturb another child’s work (walk around a work rug, not across it, for instance); that they need to stand back and wait patiently to get a friend’s attention when the friend is working, rather than butting in.

    Often, even group time is voluntary: the teacher may briefly turn the light of and on, or ring a quiet bell, to signal that group time is about to start–but in many cases, children have a choice on whether they’d like to join group time, or whether they’d rather finish their activity first, or whether they’d like to put their name tag on their work, so they can complete it later, maybe even in the afternoon, after the lunch/recess break.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the similarities and differences between RIE and Montessori…

  40. Thank you for all your articles Janet! I have been reading a lot of them because I’m fascinated with positive parenting and REI. Unfortunately, I just recently found these currents and there are things that I did wrong that I’m not sure how to reverse with my youngest. She is almost two and doesn’t know what to do with herself if her sister is not around. She loves all kinds of tech toys (my fault) tv, ipad, iphone. If I would let her she would just be using one of them 24/7. I have tried to minimize the use of them, but I resource to them when I need to get something done because when my oldest is not around, she just clings to my leg and wants to be hold. I organized an area in our kitchen with a couple of shelves and a few very organized toys following the Montessori method and try to rotate the toys to see what she may be interest on, but again, she plays with them for a very limited time and her interest are always towards something that is tech oriented. I raised my oldest the same way, but her attention spam and imagination are great. She can entertain herself for hours with requesting little help from me. What do you think I can do with my little one at this point? I really want to encourage free playing, but if I’m imposing it, it’s not really free. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  41. Hi Janet, Just discovered your fantastic website. But, you forgot one thing for point 2 – TABLETS – Babies and children under 2 should not be “playing” with tablets. Great post!! Can’t wait to read more.

  42. I keep thinking I’ve found THE definitive post by you, but here’s another one that’s clear, essential, and profound. Information like this needs to be spread around. Sharing on Pinterest, Facebook, and G+!

  43. Hi Janet,
    I love reading your posts, and as a somatic movement therapist and early childhood special education teacher I tend to shout “yes!” while reading things like this.

    I wish this particular post had one caveat, however. While I agree 100 percent that infants are often overstimulated (especially in our culture of battery operated toys, infant videos, etc.), there are good kinds of stimulation, especially when it comes from a caring, responsive adult. It is a particular cultural group (perhaps white, educated, middle/upper class) that often needs the reminder to back off and give our babies space. Not all families, cultures, and parents are like this. Some parents need reminders, and instruction in how, to engage with their babies. Infants need to hear language, be spoken to, and be touched, along with having time to physically explore their surroundings. I worry that when people read about giving babies independent time that things like language and touch will be seen as less important.

  44. Hi Janet!
    Just wanted to say how much the articles posted here are opening my mind to a new way of parenting. I’m glad to have found them as we’re starting out. There is so much to learn! Every article I read has a link to something else I want to read about.
    Thank you!

    1. That’s wonderful to hear, Lindsey! I was very excited to discover the RIE way, too. It totally changed my life. Cheers!

  45. Hi Janet –
    What a great article! Have been reading your articles for a little while and love your advice. I have a 5 year year old As I am learning through my own therapy, my trauma and anxiety has added a lt to hers. I have a hard time to really sit and play with her for any long length of time, frequently find distractions to get us away from whatever we are playing. So, naturally my daughter does not have a big attention span nor does like to do or make anything with directions. She only likes to free play. She has a great imaginative mind! Now that she is 5, is it too late to help her? Oh and I do have too much toys fr her. I have a tough time deciding on and putting things in rotating binds. What can we do now to encourage better stay and following skills!Thanks!

  46. Hi, all of these make sense to me and jive with how I’ve parented my children… except I’m a little bit unsure of #7. I’ve read that babies/children need to be taught to distract themselves in order to resist temptations and achieve goals. Example: the famous Marshmallow experiment. What do you think?

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