I have always wanted to be a present mother, but wanting to be present is not the same as being present. Over the last five years my children have wrestled against the pull of my work emails, our household chores and the many notifications that pop up on my social media accounts.

I have seen first hand how my children’s behaviour deteriorates when I am functioning in a continual state of distraction. My kids whine, fight and froth until I realise that what I am lacking in that moment they are lacking too … attention. 

Deciding to turn off the screens in my home and put my to-do list on ice for fifteen minutes is often all that is needed to restore happiness in the home.  Here are five small habits you can pick up to help you and your little one learn to attend to one task at a time: 

 Model focused attentionLiving in this age of distraction has done little to assist our children with the acquisition of attention skills. Attention can be visual (think reading a book) or it can be auditory (think following instructions). It can be a flicker or it can be a marathon. However, without attention, there can be no learning.  

Focused attention starts at birth. Mother and babe lock eyes, mama smiles, babe takes it all in. It’s a beautiful moment and should be just the beginning of many necessary moments of eye contact. Eye contact is the start of bonding, building trust and reading non-verbal cues. It needs to exist long before there is joint attention, that’s when mother and babe share an experience together … like singing a song, looking at a picture book or staring up at a dancing leaf. Joint attention is the first step towards developing long-term attention skills. The good news is in the toddler phase it’s as simple as taking turns playing hide and seek and pointing out cool things that you find along your way. 

A full-term newborn mimics facial expressions (go ahead and stick your tongue out and see what your babe does). The downside of this amazing ‘copycat’ ability is that as time goes on, babe will continue to imitate you. If you are able to model sustained attention and stay focused on a task then your child stands a better chance of finishing tasks too.  

Model turning off devices and having intentional eye-to-eye moments at the dinner table and at bedtime. Keep a track of how long your babe can look at pictures or listen to stories and you should notice a general upward trend. As your babe gets bigger, he should be able to listen and look for longer. 

Embrace boredomAllowing your child to use a familiar toy in a new way promotes attention, creativity and problem-solving. Toys that offer many types of play are my favourite as they let the child take the lead rather prescribing the interaction. For example a stick can be a chew toy, a hammer or a magic wand… your child chooses the track. My kids have loved playing with cardboard boxes at every age … give them time to see how they can turn a box into a cave, a chair and a castle. 

Limit the optionsTo help prevent your child from flitting between toys, limit the number of toys they can access. A child with too many options, may lack the impulse control necessary to fully explore with one toy before moving onto the next toy.  The amount and variety of screen time that babies are exposed to can also limit their ability to focus on less “exciting” play so try and limit the amount of time they spend passively staring at a screen. I have found using a “simple” baby DVD a great way of giving myself 20 minutes to get dinner going compared to putting on a kiddies channel and allowing show after show to play unchecked. Being able to watch television for a really long time is not the same as being able to play with your cars for an hour. Unfortunately sitting still watching a screen is not an accurate measure of your child’s attention skills. 

Check your expectationsAt the practice, I use a child’s age as a guide to how long to spend at each activity. A rough guide for parents is that a one year old should focus for one minute before moving to another task, a two year old two minutes and so on. If you would like your three year old to sit still and colour-in for fifteen minutes, then it may be your expectation that’s off and not your child’s ability to concentrate. Some children do exceed these guidelines and this is wonderful, but if yours doesn’t build Lego for an hour it doesn’t mean anything is off. In fact, it is actually a sign of healthy development if a child is intensely curious and seeks to explore their environment fully. 

Attention during feedingThe first few days of a child’s life are dedicated towards establishing feeding. Whether you feed via breast or bottle try to feed in a quieter space where your baby can start understanding that we need to attend while we are eating. Healthy eating allows the child to be active and explore the food. Allow lots of breaks for communication … chat about the food, how it tastes and smells and feels. The goal is to raise a kid that can sit around a table and enjoy a meal face to face. Kids that eat in front of the TV are robbed of this training. 

Roxanne Atkinson is an Occupational Therapist based in Cape Town.