I recently received an email from Lily, who is encouraging her 6 month old baby to play independently and had questions about his frustration with toys. She kindly allowed me to share it with you (not the frustration or the toys…just the email):
“I loved your post about giving babies independent play time. I have a 6 month old little boy who is super easy and wonderful. When I read about giving him time to figure things out for himself and to just be alone and build his attention, I tried it. I’ve been putting him down and letting him just be while I sit nearby and read a book or just watch him in awe. He can sustain “tummy time” (a side note: I hadn’t read your blog before we started “tummy time”, but I’ve discovered that he much prefers to be on his stomach but can’t get there yet so I put him down that way, definitely a question for another time) for a LONG time, like 30-45 minutes.
Sometimes I put him down alone (no toys) and sometimes I offer some “toys” (we don’t have many toys so sometimes kitchen items, burp cloths etc become “toys”).I’ve found that toys frustrate him. He can’t get them in his mouth the way he wants to or manipulate them how he thinks they should go etc. He starts crying and throwing a fit. When he doesn’t have toys he is much calmer, and definitely looking around and thinking. I doubt that he’s doing much thinking once he’s frustrated with a toy.
So, my question is this, is the frustration good for him? At this point I don’t think he can work through it, either because he doesn’t have the physical skills necessary or because he doesn’t have the persistence to keep at it without breaking down. If the frustration isn’t good for him, when do I start offering toys? I love my boy and hate to see him upset, but I also feel a little guilty when his playtime consists of him and the floor (and sometimes the dog, who he loves).”
Thanks for your kind words and your great questions. I asked for some input from my RIE colleague Roseann Murphy, because I was a little uncertain about what to recommend. Here are our collective thoughts…
First of all, it is fantastic that you are trusting your boy to have uninterrupted playtime, and that he is obviously enjoying it. 30-45 minutes is a feat! He’s developing his ability to play autonomously, learning through all of his senses, and stretching his imaginative powers. These are not things to be messed with.
If he’s content without toys, you can trust that his experience is enough. For all we know, he might be studying the gravitational pull of floating dust particles, composing jazz fusion from bird tweets and garbage trucks, or making mental plot notes for a future New York Times bestseller. Or as Roseann said, “What a lucky boy to have the opportunity to lie on the floor next to his favorite dog without a great deal of stimulation… just a chance to look around, observe and take in the environment.”
Still, it would be nice if he could also begin to explore toys occasionally without them winding him up (and the simple ‘toys’ that you are using sound perfect!). His frustration might stem from the limited range of motion he has on his tummy. He can’t manipulate objects as easily or as well in that position.
I know that ‘tummy time’ is still recommended by some doctors. Many of us think it’s the best placement for young babies (I know I did originally), and there are even whole websites about it. But pediatrician Emmi Pikler and her protégé infant specialist Madga Gerber believed that young infants should be placed on their backs. In that position they are free to turn their heads from side to side and look all around, stretch their limbs, closely examine their hands and feet to try to figure out how those miraculous body parts work (as my babies seemed to do constantly in the beginning), develop neck, back, and tummy muscles naturally, comfortably and without strain. Their rib cages are free, so they can breathe more easily and deeply. They can choose to work on rolling to their tummies when ready.
Now, I can certainly understand why you might be unwilling to try placing your son on his back when he is used to, prefers, and plays well in the tummy position. But I think it would be worth experimenting. He will probably be able to roll to his tummy independently anyway soon, but in the meantime, you’ll be giving him the option of grasping and exploring objects with greater hand and arm mobility.
You don’t mention how your son reacts to being placed on his back, or if you’ve even attempted it, but if he protests, try talking him through the experience. Tell him beforehand what you will do and that you know this is a little different for him, but you want him to try it for just a few minutes.
The most important thing is to project confidence. Our babies are quick to pick up any uncertainty, and it can rattle them. ‘If my lovely mom (the boss lady) is hesitant or tense, there must be something wrong!’
If you proceed with confidence and honesty, this would be a time to allow for a little frustration. Grunting and complaining is tolerable, productive frustration. “Crying and throwing a fit”, as you observed, is too much frustration for your little guy to handle. If that happens, ask him if he wants to be picked up to take a break. Similarly, if he gets frustrated reaching towards a toy, or while manipulating one, acknowledge his effort and try talking him through it first. “You’re really working hard. That toy is just out of reach. Almost there…” If his frustration escalates, ask if he needs to be picked up. Better to pick him up and give him a break than to hand him the toy, or otherwise “fix” his struggle for him.
Lily, you have wonderful parenting instincts. Whatever you decide to do, keep up the good work!
And if you still have guilt about your boy playing without toys, here’s a video of six month old Joey, a participant in RIE Parent-Infant Guidance Classes, enjoying some tummy time at home. Is there something else (or more) Joey should be doing? She looks busy enough to me.
All the best,
Photo (above) and video of Joey by Sarah and Nathan. (Thank you.)