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The Informed Parent

Downtime For Babies

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Apr. 07, 2008

A new baby was born into our family one month ago--a dear little boy whom I got to hold and cuddle. Now he is off to live in another country, and I am left thinking about him and how much he will change before I see him again. During this little guy’s first month he was held most of the time. We talked to him while he was awake and sang to him when lulling him to sleep.

He is no longer a newborn. Now he is an infant who lets his needs be known through his different cries. He will still be cuddled, loved and catered to in every way. This is as it should be at this stage of development. I began thinking, though, that in the near future downtime will be necessary for his optimal growth. I recalled an article I had written for The Informed Parent several years ago. I am offering it to you again, knowing that some of you are new readers. In the piece, the baby I refer to was not a newborn. She was about six months old. Long before that, however, we began working downtime into her life. Here is the original article. I still believe the ideas are important.

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The idea of downtime for babies sounds odd since, to many, it seems that is all babies have. It looks like they eat, sleep and hang out in the presence of others. On closer inspection, many babies are constantly stimulated during their waking hours. Parents, siblings, and caregivers talk to them, tickle them, read to them, retrieve dropped toys for them, and play with them,. They are the center of the universe.

Stimulation is important. Through loving attention babies begin to gain a sense of self and learn about relationships. They begin to learn about the world around them. What is equally important is downtime for baby. It is during downtime that exploration takes place, and where she begins to learn her preferences and make choices. It is where she begins to develop a sense of how things work in the physical world and how to entertain herself.

Recently I observed my grandbaby who has just achieved the skill of sitting steadily for play. I had placed several of her toys within reaching distance. She picked up one and put it in her mouth. Shortly after she dropped it and picked up another, and began manipulating its parts. Soon she turned onto her tummy, then her back. She began talking to herself and playing with her feet. She appeared content and happy.

As I watched her I recognized how differently she played than if I had been entertaining her. She organized her time. She make choices. She played actively, then restfully. Occasionally she turned to look at me. I smiled and made a verbal response but did not provide running commentary on what she was doing. This was her time and her time alone.

What did this few minutes of downtime provide for her?

  • She was learning that she could entertain herself.
  • She was learning to make choices and that decisions could be changed.
  • She was learning to manipulate her environment.
  • She was developing motor skills.
  • She was learning that being alone is fun.
  • She was learning that downtime is restorative and provides a break from stimulation provided by others.

These lessons can only be learned when parents recognize the value of downtime and provide it within necessary boundaries.

What are the required elements for successful downtime for babies?

  • Parents or caregivers within the baby’s visual range for her safety and so that she can “check in.”
  • Safe toys that the baby can manipulate. These include rattles that do not have long handles or tiny parts, soft toys, toys with large parts that the baby can move by herself, brightly colored toys.
  • Toys or objects that can safely go into the mouth and that are big enough that they can’t be swallowed or choked on.
  • A space where the baby will not topple onto a hard floor or into pieces of furniture. Place soft pillows around babies who are just beginning to sit.
  • The ability to recognize when the baby needs to move from downtime to interactive time.

Babies and young children who are constantly stimulated with outside attention learn to rely on others for satisfaction. They do not learn the skill of entertaining self or the joy that comes from having time alone.

Balance is what is aimed for in effectively organizing a baby’s time. Playing with the baby provides for learning social and interactive skills. Talking with the baby starts the process of communication and language development. Downtime allows her to explore her environment at her own pace. It gives her time to learn that she is capable of entertaining herself.

While these skills and lessons are not consciously learned, they become internalized. They provide the framework for success during toddlerhood and beyond.

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