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Parents: Here’s how to help your babies pay attention

Parents may have an unexpectedly important role to play in their young children’s ability to sustain attention, according to a study reported in Current Biology on April 28. The study shows that infants’ attention to objects is extended when their parents pay attention too.

“When parents play with objects with their children, they extend in time the duration of the infant’s attention to the object, and the infant then sustains attention after this point, on their own,” says Chen Yu of Indiana University, Bloomington.

“This effect, day in and day out in an infant’s life, may be the source of strong skills in sustained attention and concentration,” adds Linda Smith, the co-author of the paper.

Yu and Smith compare it to a child learning to ride a two-wheel bike with the help of a parent holding onto the back. At some point, the parent lets go and the child keeps on pedaling.

In the new study, the researchers used head-mounted eye tracking to record moment-by-moment gaze data from 36 parents and their 1-year-old infants. They found that when a child’s parent visually attended to a toy, the infant responded by holding their attention for a longer period, continuing even after their parent had looked away.

The researchers further found that the effect of parental attention is dose dependent. In other words, the longer the parent and infant jointly attended to the object, the longer the infant sustained attention to the object after the parent stopped paying attention.

The findings come as a surprise because attention had been viewed as a property of individual brains, the researchers explain. As such, an individual’s ability to pay attention has generally been studied in isolation.

“Here we show that social context and interaction plays a role,” Yu says. “Because sustained attention matters to school success, this influence provides a way to understand individual differences in sustained attention and to potentially influence its development.”

The new work is a reminder to parents that joint play and interaction with infants and children really matter.

“Showing interest in what your child is interested in playing can support and train children to sustain their attention, which may have dramatic long-term effects in their cognitive development,” Yu says.

Yu says they plan to continue studying the role of other aspects of these interactions in children’s attention, including touching and talking about the object. They also want to explore the long-term effects of parent interest in the development of sustained attention and self-control in children.

Current Biology, Yu and Smith: “The Social Origins of Sustained Attention in One- Year-Old Human Infants” . DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.026, April 28, 2016.