Playing with Presence: How Mindful Play Helps Your Little One Grow | TOMY

Lamaze - Dr. Jeanette Cohen

Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, PhD specializes in early childhood development, maternal well-being, and parent-child interactions. We work closely with Jeanette and other experts to produce toys that we believe are developmentally appropriate for your child.
Thursday, July 30, 2020

Your child’s brain undergoes an impressive period of change from birth to age three (producing by some estimates more than a million neural connections each second) – however your baby is not, as previous generations of scholars believed, born a “blank slate.” In fact, she came into the world a social being ready to connect and learn.

We now know that the quality of your baby’s earliest experiences, such as his daily interactions with you as you diaper, feed, read and play, helps to shape the developing architecture of your baby’s brain. We also know that parents and caregivers can best support a child’s optimal growth and development in interactions that are attuned, predictable, and soothing. Over time, these experiences of connectedness allow your little one to “feel felt” by you, to develop an internal sense that “she gets me, my needs will be met, and I matter.”

To read a child’s cues accurately, and respond sensitively, we need to be paying attention. A special way of paying attention is called mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as ‘‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment-by-moment.’’ Mindfulness contrasts the all-too-familiar states of mind in which our attention is focused elsewhere, often ruminating on the past or the future, during which we may find ourselves running on ‘autopilot.’

Practicing mindfulness involves learning to become aware of our breath, our sensations, our thoughts and feelings, and our connections with those around us. We can learn to notice what it is like to pay attention to the present moment, while letting go of any accompanying judgments. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that practicing mindfulness supports physical and mental health, and helps us better manage pain, stress and anxiety. The concept of mindful parenting moves beyond symptoms and invites us to cultivate this present-focused attention to enhance the parent-child relationship.

You can practice being fully present during your daily routines with your little one. Notice when your mind wanders to your to-do list or your what-if list, and gently invite your attention back to the present moment. Try anchoring your attention by observing and describing, like a narrator in a play, e.g., as you lift your baby, “Up, up, up, up… and down” or as you feed your baby, ““Here comes milk!” Similarly, for toddlers, you can comment on their activities (“Wow, your painting is so yellow!”) as well as their emotional experiences (“It looks like it’s hard to wait”).

Additionally, set aside some dedicated play time. While you narrate during play, you also take on the role of choreographer. This means you are setting the stage for face-to-face interaction by removing screens and other distractions, and positioning you and your baby in a way that promotes eye contact. Get down to your child’s level and place toys of interest between the two of you so that you have a shared focus on the toy and on each other.

As tempting as it may be to take over, during this dedicated play time, try thinking of your little one as the director. Follow your child’s lead by noticing what they notice. Your baby’s attention will land on anything he thinks might teach him about the world, and you can support this natural curiosity by slowing down and allowing for both the repetition and the trial-and-error that helps children learn. By toddlerhood, you may have a passionate director who assigns roles and shares her creative vision. Try listening with your full attention. Practice replacing judgment with acceptance and compassion.  Notice how you both feel when you follow her lead, with no agenda of your own other than to be present.

This isn’t easy. There are plenty of reasons it can be hard to give your full attention to your interactions with your baby or toddler. Parenting is hard work, both physically and emotionally. You are balancing other priorities. You may be feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or depressed. Prioritizing self-care is necessary during this time. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned or you are not feeling like yourself. And when it comes to parenting, please remember that it is not in anyone’s best interest to aim for perfection. We are aiming for pretty good most of the time – it is enough to be “good enough.”