“What a sweet girl. She plays so nicely on her own! My son’s just not like that. If I don’t keep him entertained he gets bored.”

What I say is “Ya, she’s a keeper.” But what I’m screaming in my head is She didn’t just come out of the womb like this! Do you know how much work has gone into being this independent and self-directed? For both of us?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every child should be able to sit and play quietly for hours. In fact, this has got nothing to do with sitting or being quiet. But entertainment is a vicious circle for parents and children and one that we easily fall into without even noticing.

photo credit: babyrazzi.com

What it looks like: Baby expects to be entertained during wakeful periods. She may be content with mechanical toys and videos or may demand personal interaction. If she is not entertained she responds by fussing, whining or crying.

Mistaken for: Being bored and needing entertainment.

What baby is learning: It might be more helpful to talk about what baby is not learning when she’s being entertained (hint: the passive verb is a dead giveaway):

She’s not learning to explore her environment.

She’s not learning perseverance.

She’s not learning to be comfortable with her own company.

She’s not learning self-confidence.

Although baby does benefit somewhat from entertainment, these benefits pale in comparison to what she could be learning if she were not being entertained. The skills she misses out on by being entertained are in fact the very skills necessary for learning itself. In other words, by not entertaining baby we allow her to learn how to learn.

I should be clear however, that not entertaining baby is actually an active role for adults. Just as baby needs adults to support her as she develops healthy sleeping patterns, she also needs adults to help her as she develops healthy learning patterns. When baby fusses, whines or cries we do not automatically assume that she doesn’t need sleep. Instead we recognise that learning how to sleep can be tricky and we support her appropriately. In the same way she needs our support as she learns how to learn.

How to support: As with everything, it’s easiest to start right from the beginning. Anytime baby is awake and not participating in caretaking routines (such as feeding and changing) is an opportunity for her to explore her surroundings. In the beginning this won’t look much like play – she may slowly move her limbs and eyes around or simply sustain an unfocused gaze – but make no mistake, she’s taking a lot in. From there it will progress quite naturally as long as she is guaranteed regular times of independent play. This doesn’t mean she won’t need support, but this support will mostly look like redirection and encouragement during transitional times (learning a new skill, illness, changes in location, etc.).

But even if baby is a chronic entertainment addict, it’s never too late to change. I won’t lie, the transition will be challenging for everyone, but it will be so worth it. Learning how to learn will affect every aspect of her life and personality – what a privilege to be involved in such a process! If you’d like to know more about weaning your baby off entertainment please read Janet Lansbury’s excellent posts: How to Stop Entertaining Your Baby and Stop Entertaining Your Toddler.