Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Why Babies Are Boring (at least some of the time)

There is a well known secret whispered among new parents. I sometimes hear it from clients, at times from friends and it’s typically shared in a tentative, uncertain whisper: “I love him, he’s precious…but sometimes it’s kind of boring…” I usually detect a hint of shame in the confession, along with a longing for confirmation that the disclosure did not cross a line into the forbidden realm. 

One path I see many parents go down is to push themselves to be hyper-engaged with their little ones, perhaps a way to forcibly suppress the shame they feel. It is exhausting and they ultimately hit a dead end. Some of the ever-expanding cannon of parenting instructional manuals even advocate for this type of hyper-focused approach to raising children. 

Unfortunately, a lot of the advice misses the mark and inadvertently shames parents into believing they are not doing “it” correctly. 

I prefer to take a different path. Instead of professing what parents should or should not do, acknowledge the reality that babies are NOT a source of endless engagement and joy. Their behavior (or lack thereof at times) can and does elicit boredom within us.  And, there are some good reasons for this.

To understand why babies can elicit boredom, we can look to the evolutionary, neurobiological and social realms to formulate an answer. From an evolutionary perspective, it would not be adaptive for parents to maintain a hyper-focus on their children. Our brains have evolved to be able to shift attention, and we need to be able to do that in order to respond to external threats, or turn ourselves towards the most important information at a given moment that will ensure our survival.

When our babies are not doing much that is interesting or novel, it gives parents a chance to scan their surroundings, address their own survival and wellness needs, and then, when satiated or satisfied, turn attention back to the baby (or shift back to focus when the baby indicates needs). A caregiver who ignores their inner or external cues is not going to survive, and their baby’s survival depends on the caregiver’s survival.

Another piece of the evolutionary purpose of the boredom we can experience while raising children is the need of the baby.  Babies, like all humans, need breaks from intense emotional engagement. Boredom allows for growth and learning. If a caregiver is constantly hovering over their baby and responding to every cue, the baby misses opportunities to learn based on what naturally drawns them in.

Babies are not passive during these moments of intense social engagement; they are reading the cues that the parent is communicating through facial expressions, tone of voice and other non-verbal messages. Without a chance to rest from that, babies can get overstimulated and overwhelmed. Those mental states stymie the growth and learning their developing brains need. In those times of overstimulation and the resultant dysregulation, they must find a way to rebalance, usually by shutting down or becoming aggitated.  

This evolutionary purpose of boredom maps right on to the neurobiological realm. The engagement we have with our babies before they can speak is largely right brain to right brain.  Our right hemisphere is the part of our brain that processes emotion, deals in the unconscious, and encompasses the non-verbal ways we connect to others. The right brain is very active during this early phase of our babies’ development, both in ourselves and our babies.  

But our right brain needs breaks, and when it takes a break, our left hemisphere, which encompasses the verbal realm, problem-solving and logic, can take the driver’s seat. This shifting back and forth needs to happen for optimal development. This remains true into adulthood, when our capacity for putting our feelings and needs into words serves us well in relationships and more generally in getting along in the world. That training begins in infancy and is why the boredom is cueing us to take a break from intense engagement. 

This brings us to the social realm. We have connection needs as humans. We also have a need for autonomy. While we are interdependent as a species, we also operate at times as individuals. This makes sense when we think of what happens when a group of people are so interconnected and emotionally merged – they become rigid, carbon copies of each other and do not embody the diversity of skills, ideas, and perspectives needed for adaptive living and survival. Imagine trying to survive with a group of people who all have woodworking skills but no one can hunt or cook – you would have a nice cabin and furniture but be without a meal plan. On the other hand, too much emphasis on the individual means everyone is going their own way An abundance of autonomy can undermine efficiency and safety when more interpersonal coordination is needed due to limited time and energy. A situation in which five people are determined to find their own way to start a fire would be much less effective than them cooperating around the various discreet tasks involved.

Understanding why babies are boring can allow us the grace to listen to our cue to disengage, hear it as a need for ourselves and our children, and recognize the back and forth rhythm that we all need for optimal connection and autonomy. A follow up question might be “how much boredom is okay?”  There is no magic formula for this, as each baby is different and their needs also shift over time, with periods in which they are demanding a lot more engagement than at other times. The good news is that if parents remain attentive – not hovering, not constantly interactive – they will learn how their children signal to them that they need emotional engagement and connection.