When my daughter, Stephanie, was a few months old, she loved playing with her feet. She'd wave them in the air, her eyes following their movements. She'd kick the toys hanging from her baby gym and giggle as they moved.
"Look at your toes!" I would exclaim. "One, two, three, four, five toes. Are you kicking?" Then I'd bring out a rattle and shake it in front of her face. When she'd ignore me, I would try harder to interact—thinking that it was my job as a mom—until she'd turn away and cry. As someone who craves alone time, I can't believe it took me so long to figure out that my baby needed time to herself too.
Not only do babies enjoy time alone, it's important for their development. "Solitary play enhances a baby's self-esteem and fosters independence later on in childhood," says Julie Grassfield, a child-life specialist at Children's Medical Center, in Dallas. Solo time can also help prevent the "I'm bored" and "I can't do it" syndromes as a child grows. "If a parent never provides opportunities for her baby to do things on his own, he can become frustrated and passive as a toddler," she says.
Of course, it's important to respond when your baby needs attention and to spend lots of time playing with her, but too much interaction can overstimulate her—and even prevent her from learning new skills. "Babies learn through play," explains Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician and coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Baby's First Year. "If you're doing everything for her, there's not much learning going on."
There are many ways you can encourage your baby's independence. If your baby isn't mobile yet, put him on a blanket on the floor—in a childproofed area—and give him an unbreakable mirror or an interesting rattle to play with, or place him on a play mat with an overhead toy bar. As he gets older, scatter several toys just out of reach to encourage rolling over and crawling. Once your baby can get around by himself, playing alone becomes easier because he can move to the blocks or chase after a ball when he becomes bored with what's in front of him.
A crib is another great place for a baby to spend some time by herself, so avoid the urge to rush in at her first peep after naptime or in the morning. You may be surprised by how many things she finds to entertain herself with. After all, staring at the ceiling fan might not be your idea of fun, but your baby probably finds it fascinating. If your child only uses the crib at night, try attaching a toy bar to a bouncy seat to keep her occupied for brief periods during the day.
Keep in mind that these first sessions will be rather short. Dr. Brown suggests starting with five minutes (when your baby isn't hungry, tired, or in need of a diaper change) and gradually increasing the time. Your child will let you know how much downtime he needs, so follow his signals.
Safety should be your first priority when your baby is entertaining herself, so never leave her unsupervised. In addition, separation anxiety might kick in when she's between 6 and 9 months old, causing her to burst into tears when you leave her side.
But your baby can play independently while you're still in the room. "When my daughter was 5 months old, I put her on the floor while I worked on the computer and in her high chair with toys while I prepared meals," says Jennifer Merrill, of Martinsburg, West Virginia. "I also sat on the floor next to her and read a book while she played."
Giving your child some alone time is a win-win situation, says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. "Later in life, there's not always something to do or someone to play with," she says. "If you give your baby a chance to use his own resources, he will find ways to amuse himself." Ami Weaver, a mom from Cadillac, Michigan, agrees. "It's never too early for babies to learn to entertain themselves," she says. "Alone time encouraged my son's creativity since he had to use his imagination to keep himself busy. Plus, it gave me a few minutes to focus on myself, and that was priceless."