Imagine you’re playing peek-a-boo with your baby. At first, he is delighted: Every time you pull your hands away from your face his eyes widen, he laughs, and then he kicks his feet for you to do it again. Eventually he reacts less, and you realize he’s not paying attention to the game anymore. But does that mean peek-a-boo no longer supports learning?
Absolutely not! It just means he’s gotten tired of playing it one way. If you hide his favorite stuffed animal behind your back, pull it out, and say, “Peek-a-boo!” He’ll be fully tuned in again, absorbing all of the developmental benefits of the classic game.
The fact that little ones lose interest in familiar things is known as habituation, or the process of ignoring sensory information that we’ve gotten used to. Parents may worry that their little ones losing interest in something is a sign of attention problems, but habituation is actually an important process that helps us function into adulthood.
For example, imagine you’re on an airplane. When you first take off, the roar of the engine is loud and hard to ignore. After several minutes, though, you tune out the sound so that you’re able to talk to the person sitting next to you, read, or even sleep! Or you meet a friend in a crowded restaurant. When you first sit down, you notice the constant movement of servers walking around, but soon you begin to unconsciously filter it out so you can stay focused on your friend’s face.
Habituation is a sign that your baby’s sensory system is learning the important skill of filtering incoming information, but it also means that he’ll need help from you to keep things fresh so he can stay stimulated and learning.
Cue dishabituation – when we respond to something we’ve gotten used to as if it were new again. If you’ve been with the same partner for a while, you may realize that you don’t spend as long looking at their face (habituation). But if one day your partner gets a drastic haircut, you’ll probably find yourself spending more time looking at their face (dishabituation) – at least until you habituate to the new haircut! It’s similar for your little one: When you start singing a song he’s lost interest in with a new high-pitched voice, he starts paying attention again.
What does this mean for your everyday parenting?
Keeping your baby stimulated and learning isn’t complicated and doesn’t require buying tons of new toys! Here are three simple ways to keep your baby’s play fresh.
Switch things up. Surprise your little one by playing pat-a-cake with colorful gloves on. Read an old book with new voices for each character, or sing the words instead of saying them.
Rearrange your child’s play area. Sometimes interrupting habituation is as simple as changing where and/or how you store your child’s toys. You could put low-shelf toys on a higher shelf, move toy bins, or relocate his play table to the other side of the room.
Rotate your child’s toys. Keep some toys in a closet, and every few weeks swap them out for toys in his play area. When you reintroduce old toys, chances are he will be interested in them because he hasn’t seen them for a while, or because he can play with them in new ways thanks to new cognitive and motor skills.
Toy rotation works well with toys that can grow with your child. For example, your little one can enjoy a set of multicolor, multi-shape blocks for years if you rotate it in and out of his playthings: As an infant he will enjoy grasping the different shapes and banging the blocks together. Then, he will have fun stacking them into increasingly higher towers. When he gets into filling up containers, he can put the blocks into a basket and carry it around the house. He can use the blocks when it’s time to learn colors, shapes, and counting. The blocks can even last into his elementary school days, when he can use them to build elaborate structures.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to rotate all of your child’s toys. Keeping favorites around (like Legos or stuffed animals) creates familiarity and security.
A Note About BabySparks and Habituation
Because we developed hundreds of different activities for you to do with your little one, our daily development program helps you keep things new and exciting to begin with. But if your child isn’t tuning into an activity, it’s simple to switch things up! Try doing them outside instead of inside, or changing the materials you’re using. For example, if you usually use blocks for a learning-colors activity, switch to using crayons instead.