Parents love to play to with their baby. But as entertaining as babies are to play with, parents might wonder if the feeling is mutual. Despite all the silly faces and baby talk, do babies get bored? It turns out they can get bored. But they don’t get bored like adults or even children.
“Babies have mechanisms built in to prevent them from wasting time on things that don’t have sufficient amounts of learning value,” explains baby-researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the
University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Celeste Kidd. “You could think of that as boredom.”
Kidd notes that a baby is essentially a learning machine. Babies are constantly exploring and looking for novel experiences to gather more data about their world. So while babies can get bored, it’s not a function of laziness, but a function of efficient discovery. “What that means is if they encounter something they already know everything about then they lose interest in it and want to go find something else,” Kidd explains. The problems come when they can’t find something else.
Unlike the average bored teenager, babies are naturally motivated to find something new and interesting. And by the time they’re able to crawl, they’ll happily explore and look for new things to touch, taste, hit, and drop. But younger babies move only at the whim of their parents.
“For a baby, sometimes just watching something happen is how they’re learning and exploring,” Kidd explains. “But if you kept them in the same place you could drive them to boredom.”
That’s why many states have laws for daycares that mandate how much time babies can be confined to a crib. Not allowing them to explore is not good for their development and leads to baby boredom which will ultimately manifest in general fussiness and crying. If a kid is in the same place for too long, they might reach out their arms and make grasping motions to give an indication that they want to explore something that interests them. In cases of extreme, prolonged neglect, these signs may also simply disappear. But that’s unlikely to happen after of a one-off period of confinement and boredom, like a long road trip.
Because babies have experienced so little of the world, curing their boredom is pretty easy. It’s just a matter of giving them something that they find new and interesting. That said, there are a few guidelines for addressing baby boredom. For instance, giving a baby a totally new object that has zero context in their life will likely be overwhelming. That’s because they prefer objects that are “partially encoded,” explains Kidd. “So things like spoons, or measuring cups that stack or bowls. Things that they have some background in but they don’t understand fully.”
Kidd, a mom in her own right, has used this knowledge to develop her own baby boredom hack when traveling with her kid, which she does regularly. The trick relies on toys and just a little bit of tape. “I take a ziplock bag of cheap toys on the plane,” Kidd explains. “And when my son has gone through all the toys I just start randomly tapping them together. Now he has a new toy.”
Baby boredom solved. “It’s an applied use of my research,” Kidd laughs.