How Much Independent Play Should My Baby Have? I Asked the Experts

And I don’t mean screen time

how much independent play for babies? baby stacking blocks alone
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Have you ever played with a baby for three hours? I have, and here’s what it’s like.

First, it’s adorable: Look, they’re pulling Cold Elmo (ahem, that’s Cookie Monster) out of the toybox!

Next, it’s thrilling: OMG, look at those fine motor skills they’re using to pick at Cold Elmo’s eyes!

Hours later, you look at the clock: WTF, how have only five minutes passed?

I love my daughter more than the sun, moon and stars, but even I, her mother, will admit that since approximately the eighth week of her life, I’ve been wondering how long it would be reasonable for me to plop her onto her activity mat and let her go wild while I sit back and catch a short break (while watching attentively, of course). So I reached out to a few experts in child development to find out how much independent play babies should have. Here’s what I learned.

Meet the Experts

  • Jessica Rolph is the co-founder & CEO of Lovevery, a comprehensive support system that provides stage-based learning through play for children, and research-backed guidance that empowers parents with confidence.
  • Dr. Stephen Nowicki is a childhood psychologist and the author of Raising a Socially Successful Child. He is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Emory University, where he has served as Director of Clinical Training, Head of the Psychological Center, and Head of the Counseling Center. Dr. Nowicki maintains an active clinical practice as a Diplomate in Psychology.

Here’s What Parents Get Wrong About Screen Time, According to Dr. Becky

how much independent play for babies? baby playing with blocks and a parent
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At What Age Can Babies Play Independently?

According to child psychologist Dr. Stephen Nowicki, independent play is the type of play most often engaged in from infancy to two, until verbal and nonverbal skills appear and children start to connect with others. At this age, though, it’s parents’ job to model those nonverbal skills (like facial expressions, tones of voice and postures), so it is important to take an active role in playtime.

But that’s not to say you’re required to stack blocks for hours on end. According to Jessica Rolph, co-founder and CEO of Lovevery, “With an adult close by to supervise, even a newborn can start practicing independent play habits in a baby-safe space.” (Think a play mat or play gym.)

Per Rolph, this could look like placing your baby on their back on a mat where they can fully move their limbs and gaze at high-contrast images overhead. “At this young age, independent play may not look like much,” she says. “‘Play’ is simply having the autonomy to stretch out and look around.” (So resist the urge to swaddle.)

What Are the Benefits of Independent Play? Are There Downsides?

Per Rolph, the benefits of independent play include supporting problem-solving, focus and self-regulation.

And as Nowicki explains, this type of play especially has its place when it is seen as a quiet time for infants, toddlers or preschoolers “to slow down and gather themselves physically and emotionally. When the child is provided with a comfortable place with interesting, age-appropriate items to catch their attention, [independent] play can have positive effects on both their emotional state and their thinking.”

With this in mind, Rolph explains that there are no major downsides to incorporating some independent play practices from an early age, but she does suggest a few things for parents to keep in mind: “For young children, independent play does not mean playing in isolation, but rather when a child explores on their own for a given length of time,” she says. “As a parent, you can promote independent play by letting there be time when you are an observer versus an active participant. It’s still important to be nearby so you can support by narrating and grounding the exploration when necessary. Follow your child’s lead when it comes to their tolerance for independent play. Young children still really need a lot of social interaction and adult support. Most children this age can participate without adult interaction for about three to five minutes.”

Three to five minutes?! Yup—Nowicki agrees, telling me that these occasions should be time-limited, so that children can be rewarded for taking time for solitary play by afterwards sharing with you, the parent, what they have done. “In this way,” he says, “both social interactive and solitary play can provide positive feedback to one another and provide the foundation skills necessary for later childhood when relationships become more complex and important.”

How Much Independent Playtime Can My Child Have?

“Each child’s ability to play independently depends largely on their stage of development and what they’re doing,” Rolph tells me. “If a child is engaged in an activity they love, they're likely to play independently for longer.” (True, I think my daughter would happily play with the TV remote for hours.)

“Tapping into what your child is naturally interested in within a particular developmental window can stretch out these independent play sessions,” she continues. “Babies and young toddlers can play independently for very short periods before needing support, assistance or a refueling hug from their caregiver. Having developmentally appropriate expectations around independent play can help prevent frustration—for both parent and child.”

Here’s a breakdown of how much independent play Rolph says can be age-appropriate:

  • Babies: 2 to 5 minutes
  • 1- to 2-year-olds: 4 to 20 minutes
  • 3- to 4-year-olds: 20 to 45 minutes

But, she explains, these times can vary widely depending on your kid’s personality and interests, and even from day to day. They can also change based on which adults are around, if your kid is hungry, sick, in a bad mood or just experiencing sensory overload.

how much independent play for babies? baby playing alone with a toy train

Should Parents Encourage Independent Play?

Here’s the thing: The ability to play independently is a learned skill, and it takes time for kids to develop it, Rolph explains. For some kids, it comes naturally, and for others, well, they may just be born to be clingy. (Just kidding, kind of.) Rest assured that with practice, your child can learn to play more independently as they grow.

As Nowicki tells me, “Parents need to accept their role of active participants in the interpersonal world of their child,” because, as he says, parents act as their child’s “teachers” from birth to 18 months, helping them navigate the world and relationships. And, as Nowicki explains, “[independent] play and having a baby or toddler be quiet because they are watching a screen are not the same thing.”

Here are some ideas from Rolph to help your child play independently:

For babies who are not yet crawling:

  • Put your baby in a safe, baby-proof space (she recommends the Lovevery Play Gym, which is also one of my colleague’s picks for best play mats for babies) and plan to stay nearby.
  • At first, expect no more than a few minutes of independent play at a time.
  • If they fuss or cry, go to them; you can build up their stamina over time.
  • Try making independent play practice part of your baby’s daily routine. For example: nap, milk, read a book together then independent play.

For older babies and toddlers:

  • Baby-proof an area where your child has a boundary (like a room or a space with gates) where you can watch them through a monitor, but they can’t see you. Temporarily putting a baby gate on your child’s bedroom works well if the room is safe (but, fire safety reminder: never leave the gate up at night).
  • Offer a few meaningful choices for toys. Fewer toys encourage children to go deeper with their play, and Rolph recommends using something like the Montessori method of toy rotation.
  • Give your child playthings and activities that are just right for their stage to increase the likelihood that they will stick with the toys longer.
  • Reserve a special snack or drink just for independent playtime.
  • Keep expectations realistic and start with a few minutes at a time, building up to longer stretches each day.
  • Note that certain times of day—like just before your child’s nap—may not be the best time to try this.

So to answer my original question, I’m not totally off the hook for block-stacking duty. But for parents who feel immense pressure to entertain their babies in a certain way (Hello! It’s me!), Rolph offers some reassurance: “Something that has always taken the pressure off is that I don’t think of myself as needing to provide entertainment for my baby. Instead, I’m here to help us have meaningful experiences together. The way I do that is by paying attention to what captures my baby’s attention. I know they are naturally hardwired to want to learn, so what are they hungry for?”


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...