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Help! My Baby Seems Bored

Do you ever get the feeling that your infant or toddler is bored?  Maybe they seem to have endless toys or can venture into any area of the house and you wonder how they could possibly seem bored with so many options.  Or maybe they have the flashiest toys that were advertised as “educational” and “great for brain development” and after 30 seconds they push them away or start crying.  

The truth is, very young children rarely get bored and it’s often: 

  1. A misunderstanding of reasonable expectations

  2. Too many options/ a chaotic play space OR Not enough variety

  3. Toys that are busy

  4. The child seeking full, undivided attention OR

  5. A combination of all of the above

It can feel frustrating, exhausting, confusing and like the day is never going to end when we perceive babies are bored. Addressing the pitfalls of play and finding the root cause of what seems like boredom can be freeing for both parent and child and can lead to deep engaging exploration. 

A Misunderstanding of Reasonable Expectations

Infants and toddlers DO have the capability of playing independently for a time IF we set them up for success FIRST.  This means their basic needs for food, rest, safety, love, attention and a play environment that is inviting and has appropriate materials are all met before expecting them to be content playing.  

Babies can happily play independently with a trusted caregiver close by for short amounts of time, but should not be expected to last long spans without seeking adult interaction.  Each child is unique and some may surprise you with extra long attention spans as they play, while others have shorter capacities.  Meet your child where he/she is at. 

Sometimes we assume that just because there are toys available, babies should be able to engage in play right away, and for some children at certain times this can be true, but there are many times when children need an “invitation to play” to spark their interest and inspire them to explore.  This can look like setting up a few toys in a new and attractive way that showcases them to the child, such as on a low table or on a rug.  It takes a few extra minutes of time to do, but might be the ticket to helping your child play for longer stretches. 

Too Many Options/ A Chaotic Play Space or Not Enough Variety

Too many toys can be overwhelming for young children and instead of feeling excited about so many toys to play with, they often find it to be too much and either play with the toys inappropriately (destroying, throwing, dumping…) or just shut down and don’t know where to start.  Many toy sets such as Duplos or blocks come in large quantities, but don’t be afraid to store half of them away and only have a small amount available to your child at a time.  This will lessen the chance of them dumping them all over the floor and then immediately walking away.  

If you find that you have lots of toy options for your child, try putting some away in storage and rotating toys every few weeks to give your child something fresh to inspire new play, without feeling the overwhelm of too many at one time. Some families get into the trap of trying to impose a schedule on toy rotation, but a better option is to follow your child’s lead.  Watch and see when your child might be signaling that he/she is ready for new materials and only switch out a few toys at a time so there are always a few familiar options available. 

Although it may seem like children are “messy” in their play, they really do prefer organization and knowing where to find their playthings.  Just like you find reassurance in knowing that the plates and cups are in the same cupboard in your kitchen everytime you look for them, children like knowing the toy trucks can be found in a separate basket from the dolls.  This takes effort on the adult’s part but is definitely worth it in helping create a calmer play space.  Children are less likely to play if they don’t know where to find their toys or if it takes too long to dig through a large toy box.  Small baskets and open toy shelves at the child’s eye level work great for organizing toys and gives children ownership over their things.  

Unlimited access with little or no boundaries in the home or yard can also be a cause for limited play.  It may seem strange to adults to think that children who have access to all areas of the home can have a hard time engaging in play, but it’s true for many babies and toddlers.  When there are no concrete boundaries closing off certain areas in the house children can feel overwhelmed with so much space and choice that they choose to follow the parent around rather than focus on play.  Children like the security that clear boundaries bring. 

Just like too many toys can feel overwhelming, not enough variety can limit children’s play as well.  Offering a handful of choices of different types of play materials gives children options.  It’s a balance.  If you feel like your child doesn’t have enough, offer a little more and see what happens. 

Toys that are Busy

As attractive as fancy light-up toys are for the buyer, they don’t offer much in the way of creativity for the child.  Flashy “do everything” toys may seem popular at the first introduction but they rarely hold a child’s attention for long.  Sooner or later babies discover that the toys that “do it all” leave little for the child to do other than press a few buttons and be entertained.  

Children are designed to explore, experiment, create, discover, and imagine.  This is how they learn about their world and how things work.  Their toys should support these interests and motives.  When considering what toys to buy, or set out for your child, think about all the different possibilities the playthings have for your child to use their imagination.  The less the toy does on its own the better.  We can’t expect young children to play for any length of time if we don’t give them the proper tools to do so.  This begins with babies as young as 3 months old.  As Magda Gerber once said, “Simple toys make active babies” and that’s exactly what we want.  Adults don’t become creative overnight, it starts in infancy.   

The Child is Seeking Full, Undivided Attention

Everyone wants someone who will give them full, undivided attention.  Who values spending quality time with them.  Babies are no different.  If they aren’t getting some amount of true quality time with their caregivers each day then they will continue to seek it out until they do, which inhibits their ability to play.  Try giving your child 15 minutes of complete attention before expecting them to play independently for a time.  This means no phones, no tv, no folding laundry, just relaxed time showing them they are valued and important.  Doing this BEFORE you need to do chores or other necessary/ desired tasks can set your child up for a more successful playtime.  Let your child know your plan and accept their potential disappointment when it’s time to do the next thing.  Remind them when you will be able to spend quality time together next. 

Assuming your little one is bored can cause many parents to try and fill their days with lots of outings in order to keep the baby or toddler entertained.  Although some outings can be great, too many can be too much for young children who benefit greatly from a predictable familiar routine with plenty of time for exploration.  

With a little careful observation and experimentation it is possible to find a nice balance where your child feels comfortable enough to engage deeply in play. 

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