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Independent Play – Moving to Room Time

I got a lot of positive feedback from my first Independent Play post, so I thought I would continue it, and share some thoughts on how to keep it in place for your older child. Obviously, there will come a point when your toddler will no longer want to play in a playpen. I would say somewhere in the 18-24 month range, your child is going to be ready to move to doing independent play in their room. Room time can be a wonderful thing – it allows for more play options for your child, a wider space, and hopefully, some time for you as a parent to get things done while your child is happily entertained. It forces them to not only find ways to play by themselves, but to also choose between various options. I find that Brandon behaves better and is more focused throughout the day when he has his time to play alone. What a nice treat for mommy and child!

Here are my keys for moving from the playpen to room time:

  • Make it Safe – it goes without saying, but you must baby proof the entire room. We have locks on the closet doors, outlet covers, straps for the furniture, etc. Watch your child while they play in their room and notice if anything seems like it potentially could be dangerous. Always ere on the safe side.
  • Limit the Fun – when you are just starting out, having all their toys accessible to them can be totally overwhelming for a child. It can also cause for a huge mess since they will probably pull out anything they can get their hands on. Limit what they can get out (at least to start), and keep the toys in rotation so that they stay interesting. I actually have a special basket that I keep in the closet that is full of toys that Brandon only gets to play with during this time. He has his regular toys as well, but these additional “special” toys add extra appeal.
  • Give them Boundaries – after spending months in the rather confined space of a playpen, a whole room can be very intimidating. My husband thought of a great way to help with this, and actually brought out the mat insert that sits in the playpen and put it in the center of the room. Brandon spent the whole first week on that mat before he eventually ventured off (further proof that kids actually respond well to some boundaries!). We still put out a special quilt that my mom made during his room time, and he usually sits on it most of the time. Moms of rambunctious boys – you will be totally shocked how your little crazy man will sit still when he is finally given the option!
  • Be Accessible, but Hidden – a baby gate in the door frame is the perfect way to keep your child in their room, without closing the door. Try to stay out of your child’s line of sight, as I’ve found that once they see mommy or daddy they get distracted and will often want to come out to play. Just like when they were younger, a monitor (especially a video one – just because it’s fun to see what your child does when he thinks no one is looking!), is really helpful here.
  • Give it Time – once you move to room time, you really can, and arguably should, stretch the amount of time your child spends playing alone. I have personally seen the benefits a child reaps when they are forced to figure things out for themselves, and you need to provide them with enough time to do so. I would try and do at least 30 minutes. We do 30 minutes with Brandon (who is now 26 months) twice a day when he doesn’t have school (once when he does). You could also do one hour once a day. Fit it into your schedule and try and make it a consistent time each day so that your child knows what to expect. A great tip is to get a timer and set it for the amount of time, that way your child knows when it goes off that time is up, not when they just decide to whine for you to come and get them.
  • Expect Good/Bad Days – there are inevitably going to be days when your child does not want to play by themselves, even after you’ve worked them into it at the beginning (yes, there might be some tears and whining when you start out – stay strong and keep the time frame short, they will grow to love it!). I’ve come to find with my own children that they get a little more clingy when they are either teething or about to get sick. On these days, I don’t force the issue and I just skip independent play. But children are smart, and if they realize that putting on a pout will get them their way, then they will continue to do so even after that little cold is gone. At that point, it might take tough love for a day, but we get back into our routine and they are good as gold before you know it. On the flip side, there are many days when Brandon doesn’t even want to leave his room after his time is done. He will figure out a new toy (one that he would have whined to me about helping him had I been there) and want to keep playing. This is what it’s all about.
  • Clean Up – another great skill for your child to learn is the art of cleaning up the messes we make. At the end of each room time, help your child to put away their toys and leave their room tidy. Sing the song and slap high-fives when they’re done, most kids (surprisingly) seem to think this part is almost a game.

I am (rather obviously) a huge advocate for independent play. It’s good for the kids while they are doing it and allows me the time I need to accomplish things, so that I can focus solely on the kids once they are done. Please let me know if you have any comments on what has worked for you and your family, and whether your kids like to play by themselves – I always love to hear new ideas!

Setting the Mood for Sleep

Setting the appropriate mood is one of the most important things you can do to encourage your child to sleep. I think it’s helpful to remember that you can’t actually force your child to sleep, but you can make the environment as relaxing, comfortable, and conducive to sleep as possible. Like most things, consistency is the key, and maintaining a similar sleep environment and routine will allow your child to anticipate bed and nap times. Here’s what has helped my kids:

1) Keep it dark – Most people simply sleep better in the dark. I recommend getting blackout shades (these are a great, inexpensive option) or even taping up black garbage bags over the windows. If you are able to blackout a room during the day, there will be consistency between night and daytime and you won’t have to worry about early wakings due to sunlight. While some older children might need a small nightlight, young babies don’t yet know to be afraid of the dark and can actually be distracted by small lights (like on a monitor or temperature device). We use black tape to cover over any small lights in the room.

2) Play with the temperature – I know that a lot of experts argue that we need cooler temperatures to sleep well, but I think that a comfortable sleeping temperature is a personal preference and you need to experiment to see what works best for your child. Some like to be bundled up, but have the air at a cooler temp, while others might want minimal clothing in a warmer environment. Pay attention to your child and see when they tend to sleep best, and also what they were wearing. Personally, my kids sleep in full footed sleepers (or long pjs with socks) year round, but Rylan likes it set cooler than Brandon. For infants, you have to be mindful that you don’t want to overdress them since it can be a SIDS risk.

3) Love the lovey – An age appropriate lovey can be a huge comfort to a child at bedtime. If you are strict about it, and allow the lovey only to be used during sleep times, it can also be something that your child actually looks forward to come bed or nap time. This is important to remember if you don’t want your future toddler to walk around with a worn out blankie all day. Personally, I don’t have too many qualms about this, and Brandon can have his lovey if we are traveling, watching tv, or going for a long run – but that’s a whole different topic! A lovey is also a great replacement for the pacifier. I am not a fan of the pacifier. If your child is old enough to locate their pacifier in the dark and pop it in their mouths, that’s fine, but I don’t want to be the mama doing that for them all hours of the night. My kids both suck on their lovies, and have been able to find them themselves if they are dropped since they were a few months old (3 months is when I first introduced a lovey to Rylan).

4) White noise – A white noise machine is an easy way to block out any errant noise and can be very soothing to a baby. The machine should be positioned far from the crib, but turned to a level loud enough that it will actually be effective. We bring ours with us every time we travel, which is a great way to signal to your child that it’s time to sleep even if they are in a different environment.

5) Make it comfy – A comfortable but firm mattress is a good place to splurge when it comes to the nursery. Some kids can sleep on harder surfaces, like a playpen, but if we are traveling we like to line the playpen with quilts (underneath the sheet) so that it is more cushioned. Both my kids also like fuzzier sheets.

6) Have a consistent routine – This is probably the most important point. The actions you take before you bring your child into their room (which has been prepped accordingly) should be consistent so as to give them a clear signal that it is time for them to relax and sleep. Before bed you might do a bath, bottle, book, and prayers. You can then do a modified version before naps – like a book & prayers. I also like to do the pre-bed/nap routine outside of the nursery, so that when we walk into the room it is already dark and the noise machine is on. Whatever it is you do, just try and stick to it each time you put your child to sleep.

What are some of the things that you’ve done to help make your child’s environment more sleep conducive? Have you stuck with the same things or has your child’s preferences changed over time?

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