Development FAQ: 0-6 months – Behaviour

How can I get my 5 month old to be as willing to play alone as her twin sister?

I have 5 month old twin girls. They were born 2 months prematurely.

While one daughter is quite easy and self entertaining, the other is very active and wants to be carried around all the time. I know that they are different babies with different characters but I am worried about my daughter as she starts crying the moment or after 10 minutes she is put on the play mat or the cot to play. I have tried sitting beside her and play with her with the toys but doesn’t quite work.
How can I make her learn to play on her own for longer periods? Is it ok to leave her cry for a while so that she can break the habit?

I need advice on that issue desperately; it’s getting harder and harder with her.

Accepting that your twins have separate characters is important. But this does not mean you cannot help your daughter be a little more independent and willing to play alone for short periods. It may take her time to do this but with sympathetic and gentle handling things will improve. Although you may have to accept that there will always be one who seems to need more attention than her sister.

Look at her stage of development and see what she is able to do. If her hand-to- eye skills are good and she can manipulate well with her fingers make sure the toys you are providing for her are helping her refine these skills. You may need to go through the toy box and take out the toys which are too young for your girls’ age. You may have to make two baskets, one for each of them, depending on their abilities.

Toys which may interest her now are more complex rattles which she can manipulate in her hands, toys which make a noise ; there are many varieties on this theme with squeakers, bells, “scrumple sounds” and other rewards for pushing, pulling and twisting. A mirror hung on the side of a cot or playpen, or the kind which are wedge shaped and so can be placed in front to of a baby can be fascinating to this age. Simple board books, soft books, soft and hard blocks will all be interesting to your daughter. An activity centre which again may be hung at eye level will offer several different activities needing varying levels of skill.

Once you feel you are providing the right sorts of toys, getting her attention onto them for a space of time is the next step. It is realistic to hope that a baby of this age should be able to manage 15-20mins of playing alone before needing some adult attention. Your other daughter is well able to do this but you will need to build up the time of playing alone for the twin who thinks being carried around is the best occupation.

Set her on her play mat and put one or two toys within her grasp if she reaches for them. If she spends her time lying on her back, put toys to the left or right of her head to encourage her to move from side to side. She may enjoy being propped up surrounded by cushions, as at this angle she can see more of what is going about her. Place a toy or two with in her reach but to one side so she uses her whole trunk to twist and reach it. Stay within her sight and chat to her from time to time about what she is playing with: “Oh I see you have the red brick, can you pick up the blue one too?”, “What a lovely noise you make with that rattle”. Let her see that you are watching her at times but not always actively engaging with her. At this age she will start to become aware that you can disappear from view. This maybe more upsetting to her than her sister. Either take her with you if you move to another room for a period of time, or call through to reassure her if you pop out for a minute or two.

When she begins to get cranky use your voice to “jolly“ her on a little, but increase the time before you pick her up. She may begin to cry but keep the bright voice and tell her “I will pick you up but I need to finish doing this – where is your book?” Distracting her and encouraging her with your voice will help her to play for longer periods. Leaving her for a few minutes before picking her up will not harm her. It is better not to rush in and pick her up as soon as she starts to cry.
Be aware that over stimulation can cause a baby to be unable to play alone. Only have two toys out at a time for each baby. But a baby of this age does have a short attention span. Whilst keeping an eye on her and telling her what you are doing, don’t always rush in to show her how things work or rescue her. If she gets cranky after 10mins and learns to wait another 3-4mins then sit beside her and find a new object to show her. Talk to her for 3-4mins and then leave her again. Rotating toys and her view about every 20mins again will keep her more occupied. Her sister may be happy to stay in one position for longer but accept that your daughter is active and inquisitive so move her from mat to sitting, to time on her tummy in front of a mirror. Interact with her for a short time at each change of scene and then leave her. In this way you are accepting her need for change and your need to have 15-20 mins when she plays independently.
You may want to look at having a baby bouncer for your daughters, if you have not done so already. Used for a short spell of 15-20mins a bouncer can provide an active baby with a different view of the room and the feeling of movement. Read the fitting and safety instructions carefully and don’t use it for prolonged periods.

As well as encouraging your daughter to play alone, make sure you have several times in the day when you give them both your undivided attention whilst looking at a book or singing rhymes together. Spend a short time each day with both of them on the floor practicing rolling and spending time on their tummies.