There’s a lot we don’t understand about babies. Sure, those squishy little tots are cute when they’re not screaming, but aside from providing them with their basic needs, how much are we really connecting with them? As it turns out, it’s probably more than we thought. A new study out of Princeton University was the first to look at how baby and adult brains interact and found that they do actually sync up during natural play. So what exactly is “natural play,” why is it important, and how the heck do you do it? Here’s what you need to know.
Understanding baby brains
This groundbreaking study took place at the Princeton Baby Lab, where researchers study how babies learn to understand the world. The research involved observing real-time communication between an adult and a baby and recording their brain activity via a perfectly safe cap participants wore on their heads. The same adult interacted with 21 different children between the ages of nine to 15 months. (And we hope, for her sake, had a few days off to decompress after the study.)
In the first part of the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, the adult spent five minutes interacting directly with a child — playing with toys, singing nursery rhymes, or reading “Goodnight Moon” — while the child sat on their parent’s lap. In the second part, the adult turned to the side and told a story to another adult while each child played quietly with a parent. The researchers discovered that the brain activity of the babies and adult were synchronized during the face-to-face sessions when they shared toys, stories, and eye contact. The brain synchronization stopped when the adult in the study faced other adults and not the babies. The most significant brain coupling occurred in the prefrontal cortex — a spot that was previously thought to be underdeveloped in babies — which is involved in our learning, planning, and executive functioning. (So The Boss Baby wasn’t all wrong.)
“We were also surprised to find that the infant brain was often ‘leading’ the adult brain by a few seconds, suggesting that babies do not just passively receive input but may guide adults toward the next thing they’re going to focus on: which toy to pick up, which words to say,” Casey Lew-Williams, an associate professor of psychology and a co-director of the Princeton Baby Lab said in a statement.
Another interesting finding was that the baby and adult brains appeared to form a “feedback loop” — meaning that the adult’s brain could predict when the babies would smile, while the babies’ brains anticipated when the adult would communicate with them. In other words, babies are more engaged with us than we think.
Engaging in natural play with a baby
We didn’t need this study to tell us that playtime is important for a baby’s development, but the main takeaway is that even if it doesn’t look like babies are interacting with us or communicating in any way, they actually are in their own way. Just because they can’t respond with words, it doesn’t mean they’re ignoring you or are oblivious to your efforts to connect with them. So how exactly do you engage in natural play with a baby? Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Vanessa Lapointe — a registered psychologist, parenting educator, and best-selling author of Parenting Right From the Start — to find out.
To start with, if you’re not familiar with the term “natural play,” Lapointe explains that it means allowing a child to lead from a space and place of curiosity and exploration, rather than having an adult dictate how and what they play. “The human brain actually has a very clear sense of the way that it needs to go and grow for kids to develop optimally,” she notes. So if we leave babies’ brains to their own devices, they’re going to naturally pursue what they need — in the right sequence — for their neurological systems to develop and function.
“If you allow children to grow and develop with the force of nature behind them, those things happen really optimally,” Lapointe says. “But if we as the adults start to get in the way of that, we actually shut down development thinking that we’re doing kids a favor, but we’re actually getting in the way of what they know to be really good at.”
But how, exactly, do you engage in natural play with a baby, allowing them to take the lead? According to Lapointe, before we get into the specifics, it’s important to understand what natural play doesn’t look like. She gives the example of a parent sitting down with a baby and talking at them — telling them what they are playing, and then asking questions like “did this happen next, or did that happen next?” In scenarios like this, the parents are calling the shots and directing what they think play should look like.
Instead, simply sit with a baby and notice where their eyes go, and then look at the same thing yourself. Or, wait for the baby to make some sort of vocalization and then echo back the same sound.
“These are the things that babies are going to be interested in: the physical world around [them], the beginning synchronicity of the dance between parent and child,” Lapointe explains. “It’s what indeed allows them to begin to develop things like trust and a sense of safety, but it also is like a very early precursor to some really important cognitive development. [Allow] the child to be the one that’s leading the interaction and [express that] you’re capably along for the ride.”
Lastly, Lapointe says that adults shouldn’t feel like they have to entertain babies. “This isn’t about dangling really brightly cluttered colored toys in front of your child’s face and seeing their reaction. In fact, it’s quite the opposite,” she notes. “It’s giving them some space to really take in this big, new world and figure out how does it tick? Where do I sit in the midst of all of this and how is this giant dance going to play out?”