The Importance of Independent Play

Moms and dads often feel guilty if they aren’t occupying their baby’s attention day and night. Because a baby’s small and not yet self-sufficient, there is a tendency to feel that our little ones must be entertained all the time. Although it may seem counterintuitive, giving your baby some “breathing room” can actually be good for both parent and child.

As long as your baby is in an area that’s self-contained, protected, and baby-proofed (as well as within your sight), encouraging independent play can plant the first seeds of self-reliance and creativity. It creates a positive association with being alone and helps to develop self-entertainment skills as well as confidence. This can play an important role in your child’s early social development as they grow into their toddler and school age years.

A lot of the time, our little ones give us the cues themselves. The next time you’re with your baby watch for signs that he or she is ready for some alone time. Is she turning away or starting to cry? Does he seem disinterested in your attempts to get his attention or acting restless? These can be tale-tell signs that baby is ready for some downtime.

The next time your baby is engaged in his or her favorite activity/toy, play for a few minutes then begin to step back and observe your child’s behavior. Wait a minute or two until your child seems comfortable then turn to your own task. You could even try just reading your own book while sitting beside your child to help them learn that you can be close while not directly engaged. There may be some fussing at first, but most likely he or she will settle down and become completely absorbed with the activity/toy. It’s worth remembering that your child’s ability to self-entertain will be related to their age and temperament; if you can work up to a minute or two, it might be progress for both of you.

Another idea for helping both baby and parent wean from the endless entertaining when baby is awake is to use a carrier. With a sling or wrap, you can get baby just behind your elbow or on your back, and then you can do your work. This way, baby can be close to you, which is very important to their sense of comfort and safety, and you and baby can figure out how to do the other necessary work of your day.

As parents, weaning ourselves from being the driving force of play and entertainment will help to foster our children’s ability to play independently. Learning how to incorporate play and work with a baby is a challenge in those first few years. Whether our babies are learning how to occupy themselves or just seeing all the other work that goes on around them, we are enabling a richer life for them than by teaching them they must be entertained.