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Published on September 02, 2016

Put down your phone and help your toddler focusPut down your phone and help your toddler focus

Want to spend a little quality time with a toddler? Put away your smartphone first.

A recent study showed that parents who get distracted during playtime by phones or other technology may cause their children to have shorter attention spans.

Pediatrician Marie Kayton, MD, of Cape Cod Pediatrics in Forestdale thinks the research findings make sense intuitively.

“Watching children develop over the years, I’ve seen that those who have more engagement with their family and friends, and whose parents encourage them to focus and learn and explore, will have better attention spans that than those who don’t have those experiences in their home,” she said.

In the study, psychologists at Indiana University placed head-mounted cameras on caregivers and infants to track eye movements during a play session.

“Caregivers who seem distracted or whose eyes wander a lot while their children play appear to negatively impact infants’ burgeoning attention spans during a key stage of development,” Chen Yu, a professor in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who led the study, said in a news release. “Our study shows one individual’s attention significantly influences another’s.”

When infants and caregivers paid attention to the same toy, the child’s attention remained on the object longer.

“The caregivers who were most successful at sustaining the children’s attention were those who waited until they saw the children express interest in a toy and then jumped in to expand that interest by naming the object and encouraging play,” according to the press release on the Indiana University web site.

When such focus happens over the course of months of play, the impact on mental development is significant, Yu said. “The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones,” he said.

“A longer attention span helps with learning all skills,” said Dr. Kayton. “If children can have that time as infants where they learn to sit and focus and explore and take the time to learn how does that toy work, how can I interact and make it move and do other things with it, then they can have that focus and ability to learn to read and to take time to understand their math and learn all their different subjects as they get to school later. It’s important that we have the time to be able to sit and understand how to relate to others.”

While it’s not possible for parents to give their infants constant, undistracted attention, Dr. Kayton says it’s important to make that part of the daily routine.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics routinely encourages no screen time under the age of 2, which in this day and age is pretty unrealistic,” she said. “Limit it to the times when it’s needed the most or as a small reward. Then really emphasize sitting down and looking at books with young children at an early age, from the time that they can sit in your lap, just looking at books. You don’t have to read the book. Just looking at the pictures, talking about colors, what the different characters in the book are doing, will help children with their language development. This helps their reading skills and their school development later in life.”

The IU study, titled “The Social Origins of Sustained Attention in One-Year-Old Human Infants,” was published in the journal Current Biology and was supported by the National Institutes of Health.