When I had my first baby, I felt like a cruise ship activity director. I’d spend entire days desperately trying to keep my baby entertained for a blessed 10-minutes so I could wash the bottles, talk to a friend or maybe even take a shower (just think!). More often than not the new activity—the bouncy seat, the swing, the playmat—would only buy me a few minutes of peace. It was just enough time to realize my coffee was cold but not enough to make a new one. As the day wore on I’d slowly turn into the resentful activity director who just wanted to hide in the galleys.
As a music therapist and psychotherapist who has worked with parents for more than a decade, I find that there are two modes we tend to be in when we’re with our babies: The “activity director” and “checked out.” When we’re in activity-director mode, we’re engaged and animated. We’re singing the ABCs or reading a book, and we’re leading the activity. Meaning, we’re deciding what song to sing or what game to play and we’re happily engaging with our baby. When we’re in the checked-out mode, our baby is contentedly playing on their own and we’re taking a much-needed break.
But there’s a third mode we don’t often think about that has huge benefits for your baby—and for you. Once I discovered it with my baby, I felt much more connected to him and in tune with his behaviour. Not only that, it was actually relaxing for me! I felt good, he was peaceful, and it let my inner event planner off the hook.
I call it the Explorer State.
Your baby is like a scientist, constantly exploring their surroundings. They pick up a toy, turn it around in their hand, feel the texture and the weight, and put it in their mouth to examine it more deeply. Your baby intuitively knows how to explore and they’re fully in the moment with their inquiry all the time.
We often think that we need to be the professor for our babies, teaching them and showing them the world around us. But the fact is, they already know how to investigate. They only need us to be the assistant to their research.
So how do we do this? By being in the third mode, The Explorer State. In this mode we’re not leading our babies in play nor are we checking out; rather, we’re finding a middle ground. In this state, our babies lead the play and we follow.
Magda Gerber, a childhood educator who founded this approach (which is called RIE, which stands for Resources for Infant Educators and is pronounced “wry”), says “An infant always learns. The less we interfere with the infant’s natural process of learning, the more we can observe how much infants learn all the time.”
The goal of this activity is to experience the world through your baby’s eyes. Although you aren’t leading the activity, you can’t snooze on this one. To get the full benefits you do need to be present and engaged, but not active.
Here’s how to do it:
- Put your phone and other distractions aside for three minutes.
- Optional: Put on soothing music. (I find this helps me get out of my thinking self and into my sensing self.)
- Lie down next to your baby with your head close to theirs.
- Give them a toy to hold. Or, if they aren’t grasping yet, hold something over them without manipulating it.
- Now let’s notice:
- What is your baby looking at?
- What part of the toy are they exploring?
- Did they turn the toy around and put a specific part in their mouth?
- Are they examining colours and shapes?
- Are their eyes wandering away from the toy? Where to?
This simple three-minute activity is a surprisingly strong connection booster. It strengthens your bond by helping you learn to see the world through your baby’s eyes. Best of all, it’s a way to give the cruise ship activity director a break and go swim with the dolphins instead.