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How to Tell When a Baby is Bored and What to Do About It

Babies have mechanisms built in to prevent them from wasting time on things that don’t have sufficient amounts of learning value.

Being a parent to a baby can sometimes result in stretches of deep and lasting boredom. Babies can literally spend an hour looking at their own fingers or batting at a stuffed giraffe suspended above a playmat. And they often make tedious dinner companions. But just because they can be boring doesn’t mean that they are above actually getting bored. They aren’t. But babies 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 Dr. Celeste Kidd. “You could think of that as boredom.”

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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. Their boredom then is 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.

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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 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. But in cases of extreme, prolonged neglect these signs may also simply disappear. But that’s unlikely to happen during a long road trip, for instance.

MORE: Babies Can Learn the Value of Persistence by Watching Grownups Stick With a Challenge

Happily, 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 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.”

That’s why a set of regular car keys are particularly fascinating. They’ve seen a parent search for them, carry them, and use them, but a baby can’t quite piece together what they’re actually for, which makes exploring them highly stimulating. But the same effect could be achieved by handing the baby a travel mug that a parent regularly uses and that the kid has never been able to hold and play with. New toys, then, are totally unnecessary.

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.