Can You Spend Too Much Time Playing with Your Infant or Toddler?

Family Matters on 05.13.11
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I have two friends that were lamenting to me over the fact that their children won’t play by themselves because the kids are so accustomed to having their moms play with them all the time. They are now questioning themselves for being super attentive mothers and giving their babies (particularly first born) every waking moment like they felt was expected of them to do. When we are scheduling our children in every baby playgroup, music class, sign language class and just trying to generally make sure that they are being the best they can be, are they getting any time to learn independent play? It begs the question, is it possible for us to give our babies too much attention?

It is not in any way that my friends don’t want to play with their kids, but when you reach the point when you can’t so much as get the dishes done or use the bathroom while your child plays with their toys; you can certainly understand their point. My friends’ kids are two and three, and the three year old has a baby brother. It got me to thinking about my own kids and if they have the same issue of mommy being their favorite toy. My oldest, who is four, would definitely love for me to dedicate every waking moment to him, but he will go off on his own and get into some pretty involved make believe play too. My very curious and mischievous two year old almost always goes off and plays on her own, but I can’t take my eyes off her or there are bound to be markers across my walls.

I have to admit that I never really had that feeling like I constantly had to entertain my baby; however, I went back to work when my son was three months old and he was in a daycare with someone else scheduling his day and always had two or three other kids to play with. When I was with him, I did try to make the best of our hours together each day, but I’ve always worked part time from home so he is used to having to play on his own a bit when I need to check my email or make a phone call. I generally think that while he likes structure, he’s pretty good about entertaining himself as a result. And as my daughter has never been the one and only, she’s used to not having my undivided attention 24 hours a day because her brother is almost always in the picture too.

One of my friends pointed out that our parents wouldn’t have thought twice about leaving the baby in the stroller or playpen wide awake while they got something accomplished, but there is this mommy guilt we get nowadays as the result of the insane competitiveness that has developed among parents. Actually, I’m not sure it is even so much competitiveness as it is the underlying and maybe even unintentional keeping up with the Joneses mentality. When I was working, I wasn’t really spending so much time with other moms so I didn’t know what they were up to and didn’t feel the “need” to do the same things that they were doing, but after my daughter was born and I was staying home, I started spending more time with other moms and hearing what they were doing, what study they had read, etc. and wondering if I should be doing the same things with my baby. My friends have both been full time stay at home moms, and I can completely understand how they became completely bombarded with trying to do what’s best for their babies, whereas while I wanted the best for my baby too, I didn’t have as much information coming at me and had to pick and choose which things we could actually do because of my work schedule.

The bottom line is that babies do need to learn how to play independently as part of their development so that they can grow up into toddlers, children and adults that can act independently. So the next time you feel the slightest amount of guilt that you put your baby in the playpen or plopped them into the middle of a pile of toys so that you could just enjoy a cup of coffee, think of the good you’re doing for them.

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