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Play and infant interactions with caregivers

What are the benefits of quality playful interactions with your infant?

Playing with one’s own infant, or infants under your care, can be a rewarding yet challenging experience. During the early years of life, warm and responsive social interactions with adult caregivers are particularly important for scaffolding children’s learning and development.

Play is a natural way to provide these high-quality social interactions. In fact, play occurs universally – even amongst animals. For example, animals such as lions may play with their offspring to teach necessary survival skills such as hunting. Research in psychology has been clear that good quality interactions with infants produce positive outcomes for the child. Some of these benefits include:

  • Developing a secure attachment with the caregiver, which helps develop future positive relationships with others.1, 2
  • Developing communication and language skills.3, 4
  • Creating trust in the infant by knowing the caregiver will attend to their physical and emotional needs5.
  • Fostering emotional development and self-regulation (controlling one’s own emotion, cognition and behaviour) is promoted when infants and caregivers share and match their positive emotions6.

Investigating play with infants

Researchers at the University of Cambridge are investigating which specific processes are occurring in parent-infant play from both a neuroscience and behavioural perspective.

Dr. Vicky Leong is the director of the Baby-LINC lab where she studies how mothers and babies ‘get in sync’ with each others’ brain activity, and whether this brain synchronisation helps to support babies’ early steps in learning. Vicky says:

“Babies are naturally playful, and they love sharing play with adults too. But before they start to produce words, it can sometimes be hard to tell when babies are ready to play, how to draw them into a playful exchange and then sustain a high level of fun and engagement. Previous research has indicated that there are a few simple signals that can help adults to tune in to their infants during play. These signals include eye contact, using your baby’s name, using infant-directed speech and pointing. Our research is showing that these signals can literally put you on the same neural wavelength as your child!”

Dr. Ciara Laverty is working at the PEDAL Centre and studies playful interactions between parents and babies:

“In my research, I am interested in how parents play with their young babies. I watch interactions between mums and babies/dads and babies when the babies are as young as four months old, and up until they are 24 months old. I am particularly interested in finding out which types of playful behaviours parents show during play with their baby. For example, are there any facial expressions that parents use to communicate that playtime is happening? Through this research, I am hoping to find out if there are any interesting differences between the way mums and dads play, as well as whether parent play changes as the babies grow.”

It is important that parents and caregivers remember that even little moments of play and interaction with babies contribute to positive development.

How can parents and caregivers support their infant(s) through play?

  • Make routine care times (changing nappies/diapers, bath time or feeding your child) playful moments.
  • When shopping for groceries you can sing, talk, laugh and make faces at your baby while you push the shopping trolley with them in it.
  • Read books with your child – even when they are very young.
  • Even getting ready for nap or bed time can be an opportunity for gentle play – singing songs or saying nursery rhymes.


1Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 (Bowlby, 1969)

2Attachments beyond infancy (Ainsworth, 1989)

3Parenting supports for early vocabulary development: Specific effects of sensitivity and stimulation through infancy (Vallotton et al., 2017)

4Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains (Leong et al., 2017)

Childhood and Society (Erikson, 1993)

6On the origins of background emotions: from affect synchrony to symbolic expression (Feldman, 2007)




PlayFutures Webinar

You can watch a webinar organised by PlayFutures featuring Dr Vicky Leong, Dr Melissa Scarpate & Dr Ciara Laverty, which was filmed in conjuction with this blog post, by clicking this link.