Locking eyes with their infant may be all it takes for parents to improve their baby’s attention span in the long run. A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, demonstrates the power parents can have on their child simply when they pay attention for an extended period of time. Researchers from Indiana University tested if they could influence how a child’s attention span develops over time, and were surprised by their findings.

“When parents and children coordinate their attention in toy play, they create joint attention moments as they look at the same object at the same time. The study’s co-author Chen Yu, a psychological and brain science professor at Indiana University, told Medical Daily. “Child’s attention span at the early age is predictive of later developmental outcomes, such as language learning and problem solving. Young children have difficulty to show sustained attention on objects, and they get better and better as they grow.”

Yu and the study’s co-author Linda G. Smith, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Indiana University, are the first to use eye tracking data to record how a parent’s behavior impacts their infant’s attention span in real time. Researchers recruited 36 parents along with their one-year-old infants and observed them playing with a toy. Parents wore a camera-mounted helmet that allowed researchers to measure the direction of their gaze and track the effect it had on their infant’s gaze in return.

They found the longer parents held their gaze on the toy, the longer the child did too, even after parents looked away. This came as a surprise to researchers because attention span was assumed to be individualistic and unaffected by environmental factors, like a parent’s behavior.

According to Yu, the cognitive skill to pay attention has always been viewed as a characteristic that children are born with and improve at his or her own pace as they grew up.  

If your child had a difficult time sustaining attention span for long periods of time, then it was assumed that there was nothing parents could do about it. Meanwhile, other parents seemed to have lucked out with children who could pay attention for long periods of time. But the results of this study reveal that it’s possible to train children as young as one year old to increase their attention spans.

“The surprising finding here is that child attention span can be changed and expanded by real-time behaviors from parents,” Yu explained. Namely, if parents join child’s attention on a toy object, children are more likely to show longer attention on the target object compared with cases that parents don’t show any attention or interest to child’s attention. ”

The researchers hoped to understand how parental behavior could impact child’s attention span and if there were any ways they could improve their learning environments during the very early, crucial years of cognitive development. According to the Urban Child Institute , a baby’s brain doubles in size within the first year of birth and by age three their brain has reached 80 percent of its adult volume. Parents can take advantage of their child’s highly formative years by investing more time in their child’s playtime.

For the study, researchers focused on play because toddlers spend a lot of time playing with toys and in many cases parents will join in on the play. While some parents are more engaged, responsive, and active participants in playtime, other parents are more passive. Yu points out that some parents divide their child’s playtime between looking at their smart phone and nonchalantly engaging in play, which can reduce the child’s ability to pay attention in the long term.

After confirming there were “dramatic differences between active and passive parents in toy play” researchers want to dig deeper. Looking behavior may not be the only key to unlocking a longer attention span. Verbal encouragement, and interaction with physical objects may also extend a child’s attention through everyday child-parent interactions.

“Multimodal behaviors may lead to better attention training,” Yu said. “With more studies in the direction, there are opportunities that we can provide principled ways on how parents should interact with their child to entrain their child’s attention. One future direction is to explore long-term effects on how parent behaviors may influence child’s attention development.”

Source: Yu Chen and Smith LB. The Social Origins of Sustained Attention in One-Year-Old Human Infants. Current Biology. 2016.