I think we can all agree the idea of independent playtime is an awesome one. It is a time set aside to let your child play on their own. What are the benefits? Your child gets a chance to learn problem solving skills on their own. They can explore their imagination while they learn to entertain themselves. They get some needed quiet time in their day. And as a parent, you have a chance to get a break from all things kid. Basically it is a win-win situation. Figuring out how to implement it successfully can have some challenges. When do you put in the day? Is there enough time? How do I get my child to agree to this activity?
Another challenge can arise when your child starts to drop the morning nap. I know over time it actually frees you up to get out and do more, but initially it can be a bit scary. How do I suddenly fill these extra hours? When can I have my time to get things done in the morning? Even more annoying- why is it taking so long to drop this nap? Are they ready or not? Is it normal to go back and forth between needing it and not? I found a great solution to all of these questions. We transitioned the morning nap in to independent playtime.
I took a round about way to find this solution to implementing independent playtime with Ben. I started it as recommended, just a few minutes at a time. Ben did well as we slowly increased the amount of time he was in play time. First five minutes, then ten. What was challenging was finding the right time in the day to fit in this playtime. As a young infant taking a lot of naps, I felt like independent playtime was cutting in to the short time I had to just be with my baby awake. It only lasted a few minutes anyway, so making a production of it seemed silly.
I preferred to take a more casual approach to playtime. All I did was let me babies play on their own for a few minutes throughout the day. I remained nearby, but tried not to overly interact with them. It was hard sometimes not to jump in and play with them all the time. What I tried to remember was that they were learning important skills, the biggest of which was how to amuse themselves for short bursts of time. It is just a practical thing for children to be able to do. Having just short bursts made my babies enjoy it more, and it took some pressure off of the early days to fit one more thing in to the schedule. Even when there are only two naps in the day there isn’t always a lot of time to do things. I didn’t like spending potential get out of the house time stuck at home due to independent playtime.
Once babies hit a year (more like 15-18 months for my babies) the second nap starts to fall away. I think this is actually one of the hardest naps to drop. For my kids it was and has been a slow process. The morning nap gets shorter, or your child takes longer to fall asleep. With my son he actually started sleeping longer in the morning and the afternoon nap suffered. It can be hard to schedule your day when you aren’t sure if your child will be napping or not in the morning, or if they will have enough of a rest time in general even without sleep. I found my babies still needed some morning down time, even if they didn’t need a full nap every day. The solution for us was to transition morning nap time to independent playtime. It was actually pretty easy, and helped end the difficulties that can go along with dropping the morning nap.
The first step is to notice that morning nap isn’t going as well as it could be. Again this could include difficulty falling asleep, short morning naps, or short afternoon naps. Whatever the symptom, the reason is probably that your child needs to start the slow march to dropping that morning nap. I don’t like to use age alone as a marker for this time, but I am home with my kids, so I’m able to make that call. If you have outside forces at play causing you to force the issue a bit, this method can still work.
When I see the signs that it is time to start adding independent playtime to the morning nap I start using the clock more for nap times. Every day can be different in terms of when your child is tired, and in terms of how much sleep he or she will actually need. I keep my babies in their crib the full length of the nap, but if they are having a hard time sleeping I offer a soft toy or two. At first I wait and see if they will fall asleep. If it seems like they are not having an easy time of it I will give them a toy to help them settle down. Often in the early stages they will fall asleep after playing for a few minutes. If they wake up early and seem like they aren’t going back to sleep I offer a toy. At this point they usually play until it is time to get up from the nap.
The toys you chose to use during this time are important. I like to start with toys that my baby doesn’t play with as much. It makes them more interesting and makes independent playtime more fun if they have something novel to play with. I also make sure these toys are absolutely as safe as possible. The point of this activity is for the child to be alone, so you don’t want to take any chances. I also try to make all the toys as soft as possible. During the first few weeks to months of this change you child might just fall asleep right on top of the toys. If they are soft they are a little more comfortable. They are also a little safer if you have a child that likes to throw them. Ben went through a period of throwing his toys out of independent play. Now, natural consequences of this meant he just didn’t have anything to play with. But his playtime was in the file room in the office at this point. All the main computer systems were in that room too. Somehow he was able to throw a toy in such a way that he hit the tiny switch on the main power strip, shutting down all our systems. More than once. Softer toys didn’t cause as much trouble when they flew across the room. As they settle in to independent play being the main activity during this time period you can start to introduce different toys.
As with the toys, I make the change from a sleep time atmosphere to a more upbeat play time slowly. I keep the white noise and the room relatively dark at first. As they spend more and more time awake I slowly lighten things up. For Ben that meant opening the door of the room and then keeping the light on. For Ali and Sammy, well, their room never really gets very dark. I don’t think any changes will be needed there. I start taking away any white noise and replace it with more uptempo sounds. I find playlists on Youtube (Veggietales, Disney, that sort of thing) to play. Just because they aren’t sleeping anymore doesn’t mean they might not be distracted by sounds from outside their room. I want them to feel comfortable and happy playing, and I don’t want them crying out because they can hear us outside their room.
The goal of all these changes is to switch the bed from a place of just sleeping to a place where your child can have some fun. I know there can be a concern that it will be confusing to have playtime and sleep time in the same space. In my experience it has not been an issue. The different lighting, sounds, and presence of toys are signal enough that playtime and sleep time are two distinct periods. Why use the crib and risk confusion? With Ben it came down to the fact that his office bed was the only place to do independent playtime. He was in a working office all day, he could not be allowed to be unsupervised, and there was only one place his pack and play could be. It was the only way we could do it. Assuming you are home with your child the crib is still the easiest place. In my opinion a smaller space is best for starting out. It is safer for young toddlers. It also forces them to sit and focus on just a few items for a solid chunk of time, an important skill. Finally it is a safe space you already have set aside for your child. That makes it pretty easy to use. And if your child falls asleep, well, they are already in their bed. If it does become a problem to use the crib, you can always set up a pack and play in a different location. (A sneaky bonus to using the crib- your child gets used to entertaining themselves while awake there. Sometimes you can get a couple extra minutes of sleep because they are happily playing in their bed.)
One thing I really like about this method of introducing independent playtime is that you don’t have to build up the time as much. Your child is already used to being in their bed for nap during this chunk of time. You don’t have to start with five minutes at a time and slowly build. There is nothing wrong with having to do that, but in an already busy day it is nice to get to skip a step. Ben jumped straight to an hour of playtime and some days does even more. Ali and Sammy are already used to being in their beds during this time of day and I think on their way to a solid independent play. This method also allows your child to grab a quick power nap to recharge as needed. The brighter lights and different sounds keep it from being too deep of a sleep that will ruin the afternoon nap.
Once the morning nap is fully dropped you can move the timing around as needed. The habit of independent playtime is already established, so it will be easy to come back to if you miss it. (Ben skips it most weekends and has no problem picking it back up during the week.)
Making the change this way provided a seamless transition out of the morning nap for us. It created a solid independent playtime routine with relative ease. And it gave us an easy way to add in independent playtime a bit later instead of trying to fit it in to an already busy time. As a bonus Ben is happy to play for a bit in his bed and room when needed, and Ali and Sammy are on their way to that point as well.
Today is a BFBN Day! Check out all the different posts on independent playtime!
Chronicles of a Babywise Mom: How to Childproof Your Space for Independent Playtime
The Journey of Parenthood: Independent Playtime: A simple How To
Let’s Be Brave: Benefits of Independent Playtime
Mama’s Organized Chaos: Preparing for Baby #2 with the Use of Independent Playtime
Twinning Babywise: Top Ten Toys for Independent Playtime