How To Get Your Baby Playing Independently

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Your baby CAN play alone happily! You do not need to entertain your baby every minute of the day and you even shouldn’t entertain every minute.

Baby boy and a toy hero shot

In The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems, Tracy Hogg says that playing independently is a cornerstone of emotional fitness. She also points out that a child will not naturally get bored; a parent teaches the child to depend on adults for amusement. I have definitely seen this to be true with my children.

When Brayden was a baby, I felt guilty if he was awake and I wasn’t face-to-face with him interacting. It might have been a new mom-thing or it could have been a new-mom-who-is-an-extrovert thing.

Either way, it was not the best thing. I created a child who hated to play alone–ever. I worked with him and eventually he would play on his own during independent playtime.

At age four, he played on his own each day for 1-1.5 hours without a problem. However, when it was not time for independent play, he still turned to me to seek guidance on what he could do.


Read: Independent Playtime: The Ultimate Overview


When Kaitlyn was born, I knew I was going to be different. I had realized that it was okay for her to play on her own from birth. She didn’t need someone in her face at all times. She did independent play from the beginning with no problem.

By at age two, she played on her own each day for 1-1.5 hours. She also just entertained herself at all times. She never asked me what she can do with herself. If I have given her nothing to do, she makes something to do.

When McKenna was born, I was extra careful. I wanted to do as I had done with Kaitlyn, but had a new dimension to things. After reading the Baby Whisperer books, I knew that I needed to be careful about stimulation. While I was careful to not let myself be Kaitlyn’s sole source of stimulation, I also worried that she would be bored or not have enough stimulation. With McKenna, I have realized that she doesn’t need a lot to have stimulation.


Read: How To Calm Your Overstimulated Baby


At four months, she was still content to be on the floor and watch the ceiling fan for 20 minutes. She didn’t need me to stimulate her.

It worked so well for McKenna that I followed suit with Brinley.

Brayden is my most introverted child, but because of how I had trained him to need stimulation as a baby, he required the most of my efforts to be entertained as a baby. McKenna and Brinley are both extreme extroverts and were always great at entertaining themselves. 

The Importance of Play for Babies

Playing is important for babies. As your child can play on his own, he will be able to entertain himself, explore without fear, and experiment (page 87). He will learn how to manipulate objects and learn cause and effect. He will also learn to tolerate frustration and to be patient. He will also come to know that it takes practice to get good at things.


Read: Why You Shouldn’t Overstimulate Baby During Playtime


Hogg points out that in order to help your child to learn to play on his own, you need to be careful to not hover. You can be helpful, but don’t want to become “Director of Amusements” (page 84). She gives some guidelines for the different age ranges. Take note that the abilities described here are assuming your child has been taught to play on his own from the beginning. If not, expect some variation.

How to get your baby to play alone Pinnable Image

Steps to Get Baby To Play Alone

0-6 Weeks

  • Expect no more than for your baby to eat and sleep
  • Your face is the best toy for him right now
  • You talking to him is enjoyable
  • Waketime will be at most 15 minutes after a feeding
  • He can look out a window or look at his mobile

6-12 Weeks

  • He can play on his own for up to 15 minutes
  • Avoid the toys with bright lights and vibrations
  • He will enjoy observing his surroundings
  • Continue to talk to him

3-6 Months

  • He should be able to play on his own for 15-20 minutes before getting fussy
  • Respect his need for breaks from you and family trying to illicit his smiles and giggles
  • When he pokes himself, don’t be too fast to rush to him. When you do get him, don’t act like it is the end of the world
  • He will enjoy grabbing at things

6-9 Months

  • He should be able to play on his own for 30 minutes or more
  • He will enjoy books
  • He will enjoy nursery rhymes and songs like “Wheels on the Bus”
  • Make sure too much isn’t going on around him (vacuum, TV, siblings…)
  • Include outside time
  • You might also want to start some social time around other children

9-12 Months

  • He should be able to play on his own for at least 45 minutes
  • Sand and water are fun (but you will want to supervise)
  • Big boxes and pillows are fun
  • He will enjoy pots and pans
  • “At this age, children have no concept of time, so once they’re secure it doesn’t matter whether you’re gone for five minutes or five hours” (page 87). BUT this doesn’t mean it is okay to leave your child alone for five hours during playing time šŸ™‚
  • Remember to change out the old toys and bring in new, more age-appropriate toys

Read: Great Toys to Encourage Independent Playtime


Conclusion

Independent Playtime is very possible to attain with your baby. It is one of my favorite parenting tools and the essence can be carried into even the teenage years. It is so worth all of your efforts.

 

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valplowman
valplowman

Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book,Ā The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at Babywise.life, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on theĀ AboutĀ page. Follow her onĀ Facebook,Ā Pinterest, andĀ InstagramĀ for more tips and helps.

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19 Comments

  1. Angela
    August 13, 2009 / 4:30 PM

    Great post! I love it that both of my boys (ages 3 years and 1 year) play independently. It is great for them and great for me!

  2. Kristina H.
    August 13, 2009 / 6:04 PM

    I totally agree! My first (now age 7, a boy) was entertained and played with 24/7, and he is the least able to play/work independently. My girls (ages 5 and 3 1/2) can play on their own for much longer amounts of time. I realize I did overstimulate my 3 1/2 year old, so that is an excellent point of caution. She also saw more TV at a younger age and that can be a problemb My youngest is a 22-month-old boy who does play nicely on his own, but is frequently interrupted by his older siblings!

  3. heather
    August 14, 2009 / 1:13 AM

    This might be a stupid question, but does time in the carseat count for independent play if they are awake and happy?

  4. Nic Batluck
    August 14, 2009 / 2:48 AM

    I agree and since I am raising fraternal 6 month old twins, I couldn't be in their face constantly. Now they play on their own and it's so much fun to watch. I'm glad you pointed out that it will help them explore fearlessly and learn cause and effect.

  5. Pauline
    August 15, 2009 / 5:17 AM

    I have to agree 100%! I have 4 kids (10;6;5 and 2). They all were raised on Babywise and all play independently. My 2 year old is VERY good at it. He will be in the playroom for hours playing with his Rescue Hero's.I totally believe in Babywise. Like I said, they all grew up on it and were sleeping through the night by 8 weeks; 7 weeks; 5 weeks and 2 weeks. I will be giving my friends the address to your blog. Pauline R.

  6. Jen Barrett
    August 16, 2009 / 6:13 AM

    Just a question- please explain the difference between independent play and free play. What you are describing sounds more like free play with sand, water, pots, etc. My 13 month-old could free play all day long, but when we put her in the pack n play for independent play time she lasts about 10 minutes…

  7. Lana
    August 17, 2009 / 1:53 AM

    Just curious, since you refer to the Baby Whisperer every once in awhile if you ever tried her suggested schedule for getting a baby from a 3 hour schedule to a 4 hour schedule. If you look in her book at the schedules the number of hours she lists and the nap times don't seem accurate. Am I missing something or is this a misprint in the book? I'm trying to switch my baby to a 4 hour schedule and wanted to follow her advice but don't know how since it seems wrong.

  8. grace
    August 19, 2009 / 2:52 AM

    i'm also a little confused/vexed over this independent play-time.i've been trying to get my 9mth bb to play independently but can't get pass 15min in the play pen. when i sit and play with her, she doesn't sit still and much prefers to crawl around, pull herself up by the coffee-table etc. it's been like this for last 6-8 weeks.i'm not sure where i've gone wrong or not do, or need to do. when she wakes from her nap, she is able to sit by herself and play for 15-30min before calling for us. is this considered independent play?

  9. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:28 PM

    I agree, Angela, good for everyone šŸ˜‰

  10. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:29 PM

    Kristina, I think Brayden will always be my least-able child to play on his own, also.

  11. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:31 PM

    Heather, I would say that is playing independently, but I wouldn't consistenly rely on it to serve as your independent playtime. It can be fine for sometimes if you need it, but be sure baby gets time at home playing on his own, too.

  12. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:32 PM

    Nic, that would be a benefit of twins; you wouldn't be as likely to be in their face too much.

  13. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:34 PM

    Pauline, Thanks for the added testament!

  14. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:36 PM

    Jen, The short answer is that independent play is where mom says, when mom says, and mom chooses the toys. Free play is when mom says, but where and what can be chosen by the child. You might offer a few choices (do you want to play with X or Y?). This post is really about the ability to play independently, whether it is for independent playtime or free playtime. You can see the blog label "free play" for more on that.

  15. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:38 PM

    Lana, I haven't ever tried it. I am more for allowing it to happen as baby is obviously ready for it. If you tell me which book you are looking at and which chapter, I will look at it and see what I think.

  16. Plowmanators
    August 22, 2009 / 7:41 PM

    Grace, that isn't technically independent playtime. Part of it is baby following the direction of mom. Try using a timer. Set it for 15 minutes (since that is how long she will go). Put it where she can hear it. Go in when it goes off, even if she is still happy. She will start to equate the timer with independent play being over and not her cries (if there are any). As she gets consistenly happy with 15, add a few minutes until she is happy with that amount of time. See the blog label "independent play" for more on that.

  17. Roxanne
    January 20, 2012 / 3:49 PM

    Hi. I am having such a hard time with independent play. My baby is now6 months old and on a 4 hr schedule. She cannot be left alone on her mat, exercauser or swing for more than a few minutes. even when im around and not holding her she is screaming. she also still does not like to be held or play with other people (including grandma). any advice?

  18. Plowmanators
    February 8, 2012 / 5:40 PM

    Roxanne, see the post on starting independent playtime late. You will want to consistently do it for a certain length of time each day. Use a timer. Some might do best with 5 minutes, some moms say they needed to move it to 10-15 before the baby would start playing happily.I would have other people help take care of her to get her happy with others. You leave the house if you have to. My first daughter got that way because she was so used to me taking care of her all the time, so we started having my husband feed her one meal a day and also putting her to bed every other night. It helped a lot.

  19. Ekaterina Reier
    August 12, 2016 / 12:48 AM

    Hi!!I so-so need your help! I have read all the books I could find that have even a mention of independent play, but I CANNOT get my baby to do it peacefully for even 2 minutes. I am not joking. Let me tell you where she is developmentally and what we are doing now to give you a better idea.She is 5.5 months old, cannot sit independently yet, but she can roll both ways. Except she HATES doing it unless she is in her crib. At night she travels the entire length of her crib, sometimes turns around and goes the other way. Kind od unintentionally crawling while she is trying to find a comfy position. But she refuses to do ANY of it outside the crib. She is sleep-trained, so clearly able to self-soothe. Now, I am utterly exhausted because she will NOT stay content for even two minutes on the floor. I can be by her, lying right there, talking to her, patting her bottom, and she will still complain, and then after just a minute, she will escalate in a full cry. In fact, it is like she can't even hear me when she is on the floor. She does not care if I am there, she is just not happy. I pick her up to sooth her and she likes when I walk around with her, but she hates just sitting on my lap. After a second she starts fussing and complaining again and goes into a full-blown cry. I have NO idea what she wants. It is like there is NOTHING that makes her happy. She is healthy, no issues whatsoever, so it is definitely not something of that nature. She gets 2 2 hr naps a day plus a catnap and 12 hrs at night. She is NOT fatigued. She eats well.Now, I have been trying to establish 2 independent play sessions in a playpen. One in the am and one in the pm. So I basically put her there with 2-3 toys within reach, set the timer, and walk away. I do not let her see me till the time is up. We are at 12 min now. Now during this time USUALLY she will play quietly for about half the time. If I am lucky. If not wailing starts immediately. And it is like she has NEVER done this before. We have been at it for at least 2-3 weeks. I do not know what to do. I am utterly exhausted and discouraged because I do not know what she wants and she is always grouchy and crying. This is not the way I envisioned motherhood :(((( I am really depressed over this constant discontent….I feel like her inability to focus is affecting her mobility because she is plenty strong ebough but she would rather spend 20 min screaming her head off than attempt to do smth new

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