While playing with your baby is a joyful experience, it can also be a tedious one. Turns out, it's easy for your mind to wander while your child plays, which makes it all too tempting to pull out your phone. We've all done it. But science has found a reason to leave your phone where it is and focus on your child.
A 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology shows that how long parents pay attention directly affects an infant's own attention span. In the study, researchers used high-tech eye tracking to record info from 36 parents and their one-year-old babies. They tested the length of the babies' attention span on an object when the parents were also looking at it, and when they weren't.
"If parents join their child's attention on a toy object, children are more likely to show longer attention on the target object compared with cases in which parents don't show any attention or interest," says study author Chen Yu, Ph.D., of Indiana University, Bloomington. Even more importantly, the longer the parents jointly showed attention, the longer babies continued to look at the toy even after the parents had turned away.
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This means that parents have a direct influence on the babies' developing attention span—an important new finding.
"As children develop, they get better and better at showing longer attention to ongoing tasks," Yu says. "This cognitive skill is traditionally viewed as an intrinsic property of individuals. Our study shows that it can be changed by real-time behaviors from parents." So an infant's attention span isn't developed in isolation—it's affected by social factors.
"This is like in a conversation, if the listener shows his or her interest—paying attention and asking questions—the speaker is more like to be more engaged, and will talk more," Yu says. "If the listener shows no interest, the speaker may switch to another topic, as it is hard to keep talking about a topic without any support from the audience!"
When a parent pays attention, too, it helps guide the infant to stay focused—otherwise, it's up to the baby to decide. "If an infant initiates his or her interest on an object, it is totally up to the infant to determine when to stop and switch to the next target," Yu says. "But if his or her parent joins in, it is more like that the infant will show longer attention and interest on the target."
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The length of an infant's attention span is important because it has an impact on later brain development. A longer attention span helps children self-regulate and stay on task, while early deficits in attention are markers for later diagnoses of attention disorders.
"This is like you have a long sleep without being interrupted versus getting several short naps," Yu says. "Even with the same amount of time, quality is much better with longer sustained attention."
The skill of paying attention will also be important later on in school. "Young children always [have] some difficulty to show sustained attention on objects, and they are likely to frequently switch their attention on different objects and different tasks," Yu says. As they grow, they get better at focusing. "Sustained attention is linked to deeper information processing, and studies have shown sustained attention at younger ages is predictive of later cognitive development, for example problem solving."
So it's up to parents to find a way to pay longer attention themselves to their children, and not get distracted by their phones.
"There is a huge difference between interacting with your children and being in the same room with your children without active interaction," Yu says. "We found a dramatic effect in our studies in a six-minute interaction—if such an effect holds in the real world, there are going to be huge differences between [children of] parents who follow and join their child's attention versus those who don't pay attention."
When you're with your child, try setting aside time to focus solely on her. Put your phone in another room, or turn the sound off (not even on vibrate) so you don't get distracted by the ping of texts or emails.
You can set aside specific points to check in (such as during nap time), so you're not totally cut off. And if you find your own attention waning, come up with a list of games to play to keep you, as well as your kiddo, interested.
"One way of effective parenting is to be sensitive to your child's attention, let the child lead, and join your child to be engaged with tasks and activities they are interested in," Yu says. "We've shown the real-time effects of whether parents join their child to show their interest and attention to objects, or focus on their smart phones instead."