Parenting Tips: How Much Time Should You Spend Playing With Your Baby?

Dear BabyShrink, I’m having trouble figuring out when to put my two-month-old daughter down, and when to pick her up and play with her. I've heard many ways of encouraging her development, but I feel guilty when I place her in her chair to get things done. She sleeps well at night, but I often spend a lot of time holding her and rocking her to sleep in the daytime. When I put her down in her bassinet she frequently wakes up crying, so I end up holding her while she naps. A big part of my problem is that I really don't want to be like my mom, who I feel was pretty neglectful. Sometimes when I put her down, I feel like I'm being like my mom. So, my question is, how much do I need to play and interact with my baby? How much is it okay to sit and let her play by herself?

Katie J.

Dear Katie J.,

Good questions: Is it OK to let a happy, alert baby sit alone in her baby seat while you get something done? And if so, how much, before there is “neglect” and developmental damage?

Trying to Improve our Parenting with Every Generation You say you want to change the pattern in your family of origin; and you want to pay more attention to your baby than what you experienced. Let me say this: The fact that you are conscious and aware of the issue tells me you are already most of the way there. It’s hard (but critically important) to be aware of the psychological baggage we bring to our parenting. If we’re not aware, we’re likely to do one of two things: Repeat the same negative patterns as the generations before us, OR overreact in the opposite direction in an attempt to “correct” the wrongs of our parents. So if you were neglected as a baby, you might find yourself either automatically leaving the baby alone too much…or being a “helicopter parent”; hovering every second, not allowing the baby any room to be alone. Conscious awareness of our ingrained tendencies makes it possible to move past them.

Once you’re aware of your tendencies, you can react less to your own inner demons, and respond more to the unique baby in front of you. What does she seem to need, today? What are the patterns you notice in her temperament? When is she most responsive to interaction and “play”? When is she content to be left on her own for a bit while you get something done around the house? There is no magical formula that tells us how many minutes per hour or day that will be optimal for her development. She will “tell” you, through her behavior. Babies are all different. You’re best off trying to “read” yours from moment to moment.

How Do I Know What My Baby Really Needs? When you observe your baby’s behavior over time, you will notice she has unique rhythms and patterns. Sometimes, she will have better control over her body, and be nice and alert. Other times, she will be disorganized in her movements, overwhelmed, irritable, tired or hungry. These patterns follow a fairly predictable cycle throughout the day. Your baby is most receptive to interaction and “play” when she is in the quiet, observant, alert phase of her sleep/wake/activity cycle. Other times, she will prefer to sit on her own, observing her environment, trying to make sense of it all. At two months, she is working so hard to try to focus her eyes, move her head (and feet and hands) purposefully, get used to her digestion and other internal sensations, and make sense of all that information. So giving her some time alone to “take it all in” while she’s in her bouncy seat (or crib, or bassinet) is perfectly fine. READ HER CUES. A well-developing baby will thrive on both her intimate, intense “play times” with you, and also be able to tolerate some time just watching the world go by.

A Mother’s Guilt: Never in Short Supply But it’s OK if you can’t play with her at each and every opportunity... I give you permission! Perhaps you have other things to do…Oh, I don’t know, like make dinner? Do laundry? Take care of other kids? Or, even lie down on the couch and relax for a bit (what a concept)? You need to balance her needs, and the needs of the family; that includes YOU too. You need to re-fuel yourself so that you can be your best with your baby. A tired, overwhelmed Mom doesn’t read anyone’s cues very well.

You can find practical solutions to some of the challenges in your baby’s early months, too. I hear you when you say your daughter is awake and fussy more in the daytime. You want to give her attention, but you also need to balance the needs of the rest of the household and the family. My second baby wanted to be held more than the others and didn’t nap well, but he slept well at night like your baby. So while we did play together during the day, when he was fussy and tired (but not willing to sleep) I schlepped him around in a front-carrier so that he could get the physical contact he craved, but I could still get something done around the house. Find solutions that are workable not only for your baby, but for you too.

Experiment with these ideas and let us know how it goes.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Next time, I’ll tackle a related issue: How DO you “play” with a tiny baby, anyway?