Like most parents, I feel I'm forever being told about the importance of stimulating a baby's developing mind. Toy stores are crammed with playthings that profess to "build your baby's brain." Flyers in my neighborhood advertise Mommy-and-me classes in music and sign language. News headlines constantly announce the latest study linking cognitive development to something I end up feeling guilty about not doing enough of with Sam -- whether it's reading, listening to classical music, or giving him a massage. But allowing babies the time and space to do nothing -- or a quiet activity of their choosing -- is crucial to their development.
"It's very important for children to discover things on their own and not be bombarded with information," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization devoted to early-childhood development. "In fact, infants can get overwhelmed and not absorb anything unless they have time to chill out."
It may seem as if being an infant is all play and no work, but figuring out the world is a full-time job. "Babies are always studying their surroundings and learn a lot by watching what's going on around them," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. That's why many get cranky in the evening -- after a day of making sense of new things, they're worn out.
Like adults, infants can work hard at something for a limited amount of time before they have to recharge their batteries. But babies, especially, need a chance to soak in and digest their experiences. Almost everything is new to them, and their nervous systems are still immature -- a combination that can lead quickly to overload.
"When my daughter, Isabel, is too stimulated, she squeezes her little fists, tightens up her legs and body, and looks up at me with an expression on her face that says, 'What's going on? Help me out,'" says Jennifer Baum of New York City. At 9 months, Madelyn Kierce of Acton, Massachusetts, would let her parents know she wanted time alone by crawling into her room to flip through books and talk to herself. "I quickly learned not to interrupt; if I said anything to her, it would break her concentration and upset her," says her mom, Amy.
There are side benefits to providing your baby with downtime throughout the day: If he's not constantly interacting with you, he has a chance to work on becoming more independent. "All children have to know how to meet their own need for discovery," says Gopnik. "When your attention is fixed on something else -- cleaning, the computer -- that liberates him to explore." He'll learn to gather information without having it spoon-fed to him, and down the road, he'll be able to stretch his imagination. "That's why parents shouldn't feel guilty if they're not always talking to or playing with their child," she says.
Quiet Time That Counts
Just about anything that allows a baby to slow down and reflect -- at her own pace -- can qualify as downtime:
When she's interacting with someone else or watching a baby video, that doesn't count as downtime. And although infants, especially those under 6 months, need a lot of time in your arms, this is true even when the activity is soothing to her -- being massaged, bathed, or rocked, for instance -- because someone or something else is demanding or directing her attention.
"When my kids were little, they liked to play quietly on a mat next to me while I worked," says Gopnik. "Every once in a while, they'd look over at me -- it was their way of feeling secure without actually being held, and it was a great way to take a break from contact with me." For Sam, an outing in his stroller makes a perfect getaway. Once he's strapped in, my normally attention-loving boy tends to rebuff advances from strangers or even friends and prefers to lie back, look around, and take it all in.
Ideally, downtime should happen naturally -- for 5, 10, 15 minutes -- several times throughout the day. When your child's happily hanging out in his bouncy seat, for instance, let him be. You needn't feel you have to engage him in a game of peekaboo or slip a toy in front of him.
There'll be times when he'll let you know that he needs some peace and quiet. Newborns will often avert their gaze, arch their back, or cry. (Sam still turns his head and twists his body away when he doesn't want attention.) Other babies become hyperactive instead. "Sometimes, when my one-year-old, Lily, misses a nap, she gets really wound up," says Amy Bhote of Glencoe, Illinois. "But that's when she needs quiet time the most or else she'll just go and go until she collapses in tears."
The key is to learn your child's signals. "I know it's time for downtime when Max starts to suck his thumb," says Anne Honzel of Evanston, Illinois, of her 11-month-old. "It doesn't necessarily mean he's sleepy; he may simply want to go in his crib and veg out." Isabel Baum often flops onto the floor or puts her head down when she's frustrated by something, such as not being able to fit a piece into a puzzle. "It's her way of giving herself a break and regrouping," says her mom.
One way to help head off overload: Make sure your baby's environment isn't too cluttered. When there are a lot of toys lying around, he may become too stimulated and unable to focus on anything. A baby's need to unwind also varies depending on the time of day. Something your child may have been fine with in the morning -- going to the grocery store, say -- could cause a meltdown in the afternoon. "When that happens, it's an infant's way of saying, 'I'm done; I can't cope anymore,'" says Lerner.
When you give your baby quiet time in response to his cues that he's had enough, you'll make him feel that he has some control over his surroundings -- a nice boost to his self-confidence. But in the end, teaching kids how to enjoy the benefits of doing nothing may remind parents of the most important lesson of all: to slow down and savor this time with our babies.
Katherine Lee is a former editor at PARENTING.