children playing
Playing with your child's toys increases their interest and attention for it Istock

Parents' role in building their child's ability to sustain attention may be more important than previously thought, scientists say. When they interact with an object, parents increase the interest and attention of the baby for this object.

The study, published in Current Biology, investigates what parents can do to help young children pay more attention to their surroundings and focus on one object for a sustained period. The scientists found that adults who spent time playing with one of their infant's toys also encouraged the child to play with it, and to continue to do so even after the parents have stopped paying attention.

"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," explains lead author Chen Yu, of Indiana University.


The study's findings are based on an experiment involving 36 parents and their 1-year-old sons or daughters. Using head-mounted eye tracking record, the scientists measured gazing data from both the adult and the child. They discovered that when a child's parent looked at a toy, the infant's response was to direct their own attention to the toy for a longer period, even after the parent had turned their gaze away.

baby playing attention
Parents play a crucial role in developing their baby's ability to concentrate. The study measures the time babies interacted with the object after their parents turned their attention away Steven Elmlinger

However, the researchers also noted that this effect of parental attention is dose-dependent; the longer a parent spends time with a child, looking and playing with the toy, the longer the child is able to pay attention to it on its own.

Unlike previous studies - which looked mainly at how isolated individuals built their attention - this shows that social interactions can have a part to play in building our ability to focus. This knowledge can help us succeed in academic contexts.

"We show that social context and interaction play a role," Yu explains. "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."

Though the study design and findings are new, the message they convey is not. It tells parents that playing and interacting with infants and children really do matter."Showing interest in what your child is interested in playing with can support and train children to sustain their attention, which may have dramatic long-term effects in their cognitive development," Yu concludes.