• Chantelle Vischer

OT Talk - ATTENTION! A milestone stone of milestones

Yeah! Today's post was written by Sajida Mitha an incredible OT (aren't we all though wink-wink) specialising in the field of early intervention. She is fun and oh so inspiring. We're blessed to be able to share in some of her insights today. Enjoy!

We all know that attention is an essential skill for learning. This isn’t just important when starting a play group or when your child is old enough to sit at a desk and focus on table top activities. Attention develops from birth and fostering good attention is super important right from the start.

As an Occupational Therapist with a special interest in early childhood intervention, I see a good number of 0-3 year olds for developmental screenings as a ‘check-up’ on their achievement of milestones. Parents are often surprised when we talk about their baby’s attention and some have even told me that this is something they would only start thinking about once their little one hits the three-year-old mark. So let's take a deeper look...

What influences a baby’s attention?

Attention is dependent on two major factors - the environment and social interactions. Research has found that when parents are emotionally supportive during play through their facial expressions and praising their child, this fosters greater interest in tasks and a refocus of attention to tasks.

As your baby’s gross motor skills develop, their interest in moving around and exploring their surroundings also grows. A stimulation-rich environment does not necessarily mean one that is full of toys, but rather a safe, non-restrictive environment with fewer toys is ideal for encouraging free play.

When and how does attention develop?

Eye movements and visual attention become more intentional at around three months. Between three to six months, a baby is still limited in their ability to explore their world. Visual attention therefore plays a huge role in helping them learn about their world. Their increasing interest in people and objects around them motivates them to learn and develop new skills.

From about six months, attention systems become more functional and a baby starts to develop the ability to focus their attention. And at around nine months old, joint attention starts to emerge. This means sharing an interest in an activity or object with another person. For example, if a musical toy makes them laugh, they will laugh and then look at you for your reaction. By 12 months, most babies will point to an object of interest to communicate a want or need. This continues to develop up to around 18 months of age. Joint attention is an important prerequisite for developing social and communication skills. At the end of the first year, a baby should be able to focus their attention on an interesting activity even in the presence of distractions. In this way their ability to sustain attention also develops.

How can I work on my baby’s attention span?

0-6 months

  • Use face play to encourage your baby to pay attention to your facial expressions.

  • Give and take interaction such as tickling, and games such as peek-a-boo are great ways to encourage attention.

6-12 months

  • Cover a toy and allow your baby to look for it or drop a ball into a container/tin that makes a sound and encourage your baby to look for it.

  • Point at pictures, objects and people. Make sure to always look in the direction that you are pointing.

  • Try to be consistent in responding to your baby when they point at something or make eye contact to involve you in their play.

  • Do ‘with’ and not ‘to’. Try not to distract your baby during daily activities such as nappy changing, bath time and feeding. Allow them to be part of the activity rather than distracting them with a toy and ‘getting it done’. This way, from a young age your baby will start showing interest in participating in their daily activities.

  • One year and beyond!

  • Limit toys in your play area. It is a good idea to put a few play items out and swap them out for other toys every few days or after a week.

  • Give your baby choices of what he/she would like to play with. Hold out two options and ask them to choose. Remember choosing can be the one that they look at, point to or make a verbal response to. They will more likely be interested in what they choose, than what you choose for them.

  • Encourage play with simple, low-tech toys. Babies explore objects naturally. Try to avoid instant gratification objects such as musical toys with one function.

  • Don’t feel the need to keep them busy. Babies are usually quite content to play by themselves and explore their environment. Keeping them constantly stimulated will only leave you exhausted and will create a need for them to want to be entertained.

  • Avoid screen time, especially in the first three years. In an ever-changing world, screen time has become the go-to babysitter. Yes, it does distract your baby pretty quickly, but it’s just as quickly affecting your baby’s ability to regulate their emotions and engage in quiet play.

  • Have a safe space. A designated play area, where there are no ‘rules’ or safety concerns will allow your baby to play freely. Make sure there are no hazards that would force you to intervene. Your baby shouldn’t have to be disrupted by a parent rescuing them from a potential danger or telling them ‘no’.

  • Don’t just butt in. We don’t always think before interrupting babies. Remember that they may be ‘busy’ too, and may need you to wait until they look up at you before you pick them up or distract them in another way. It may be that they are interested in continuing with an activity and you are already encouraging them with something else. Every time we interrupt them, we are discouraging attention to what they are busy with.

  • Encourage task completion. Encourage your little one to finish one activity before moving on to another. Packing away a toy before moving on to something else is also a form of task completion.

Like all skills, attention requires practice. Just as we work on gross motor, fine motor and perceptual skills, let us not forget to help our babies learn to focus from early on. The next time you sneak up on your toddler and find them playing quietly, I hope that you are just as excited as with any other milestone they reach, because paying attention is a big one!


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