The Benefits of Healthy Play between Infant and Mother

“Play is an essential activity of early childhood as it contributes to the cognitive, social, emotional, and motivational development of children,” said Kristin Valentino of the Department of Psychology and Center for Children & Families at the University of Notre Dame and lead author of a new study. “During the first few years of life, parents have a critical role in influencing children’s play and developing social and communicative behaviors.” Previous studies have shown that children who are maltreated have significantly lower levels of social, creative and cognitive play by age four or five than those who are well treated. “Socially, maltreated children have been found to be more aggressive and less competent with their peers and demonstrate poorer skill in initiating peer interactions and maintaining self-control.”

Valentino and her colleagues have conducted previous research that clearly demonstrated that infants who were abused engaged in far less imitative and independent play than their peers. Additionally, they found that the mothers who abused or neglected their children used less verbal and physical cues to direct and instruct the children than the non-abusing mothers. In an effort to determine the long-term effects of maltreatment as it relates to play, the team assessed 130 infants, ranging in age from 11 to 14 months, and their mothers, and reassessed them 15 months later.

The researchers found that the children who exhibited more playful behavior also had higher cognitive functioning than the children who participated in very little pretend play. “The findings of this study have significant implications for informing intervention and prevention efforts aimed at improving the developmental trajectories of young children, and abused children, in particular.” The team added, “Given evidence that toddlers from abusing families demonstrated less autonomous and child-initiated behavior at age 2, which is consistent with behavior observed among these children at 12 months of age, it is essential to focus on early intervention efforts during the first year of life.”

Valentino, Kristen, Dante Cicchetti, Sheree L. Toth, and Fred A. Rogosch. “Mother–child Play and Maltreatment: A Longitudinal Analysis of Emerging Social Behavior from Infancy to Toddlerhood.” Developmental Psychology 47.5 (2011): 1280-294. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Marcie Griffin

    Marcie Griffin

    September 17th, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    Those poor babies! I cannot imagine any mother not wanting to play with her children. I only wish I’d made more time to do so when my own were growing up instead of working so much. I loved playing with them and missed out on doing that as much as I would have liked. It’s true that the time flies and their childhood is gone before you know it.

  • Anthony Hair

    Anthony Hair

    September 17th, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    This makes me think about those shocking documentaries on Romanian orphanages when the news of them hit the headlines back in the early 90’s. There were babies there that had never been held or interacted with apart from when being fed. Everything was filthy and the staff were overwhelmed with no support from the government.

    They were terrified by the newly arrived aid workers that wanted to lift them out of the filthy cribs to cuddle and play with them because they didn’t know what was going on. I remember crying to see some were tied down in their cribs and I don’t cry easily. It was appalling.

    I often wondered what became of those children in later years after they were adopted by families in other countries. I hope they fared well in life.

  • JaclynStephano


    September 17th, 2011 at 2:24 PM

    @Marcie Griffin: You should have stayed at home with your children then if it bothered you that much. I gave up my job and didn’t work again for years until my daughter was of school age and didn’t regret a minute of it. She was miles ahead of the working mothers’ children and still is.

    I put it down to me spending quality time with her and that of course included play that was both educational and simply for fun.

    You’re right, those years fly and you can’t get them back. I guess your new car or vacation or whatever was worth that eh LOL.

  • felix c.

    felix c.

    September 17th, 2011 at 8:37 PM

    Play, is an important part of being a kid. It is very important on so many levels. Children not only have a good time, they also learn social skills, get exercise and I am sure that it promotes exercise later on in life too.

    Infants who have mothers who don’t want to play with them not only miss out on these benefits but they must also feel some level of neglect. Could you imagine suffering through childhood with a mother who won’t play with you? All while seeing other mothers who are loving, compassionate and interact with their children. The effects of this can’t be good.

  • lucie


    September 17th, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    never is it easy for a parent to leave his or her child behind and engage in work or something else.most often it is a result of financial requirements.

    but it is a good idea to plan ahead and try and spend as much time as you can with your little will pay rich dividends in their lives :)

  • Sara


    September 18th, 2011 at 8:42 AM

    This is such a time of special bonding that many miss out on because they think that there are other things going on there are more important to attend to than their childre. I am so thankful for the time that I had to spend with my kids growing up and I hope that it ends up meaning as much to them when they are old enough to appreciate it as I am. This is time that you can never get back, and even spending time to gether when they are older cannot ever compare to the time that you have with them when they are growing up.

  • Sheena Cowan

    Sheena Cowan

    September 18th, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    @JaclynStephano-Well, I’ve heard it all now. I mean, seriously Jaclyn? How dare you equate abused children with the children of working mothers. We work to give them a better life and they are not ignored, abused, neglected or forgotten because of that decision.

    My mother looks after my three year old son when I’m at work and she spoils him rotten. Every day she’s got activities lined up for him at home or outside. He’s as bright as a button and can tell stories like there’s no tomorrow. He’s not lacking in imagination – or anything else!

  • jacques


    September 18th, 2011 at 3:18 PM

    there is just so much happening inside a baby…full of life and learning new things at every step and growing every second! and it is great if there is interaction between the infant and the parent at such a stage. it creates a great bond between them and is beneficial for the baby.

    an important thing that we all know of but many choose to forget or ignore.

  • Casey N.

    Casey N.

    September 18th, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    @Sheena Cowan: Thank you for saying what I was thinking, Sheena!! And we don’t all work for luxuries either. That’s a myth stay-at-home moms like to spread about how we’re all materialistic. We work out of necessity, or at least I do.

    My husband was downsized last year and my money keeps us afloat. It’s not fun money. We’ve not upgraded the car or had a vacation in eleven years. He didn’t have a high-paying job to start with.

    My kids are loved and cherished by every single person that’s involved in looking after them and they get played with plenty. I’ll not be taking on board that guilt trip you’re obvious trying to lay on us, Jaclyn.

  • Leigh Hart

    Leigh Hart

    September 18th, 2011 at 5:50 PM

    Now, now ladies. I think we can agree all mothers work their collective butts off for the love of their families. I will never understand why moms get worked up about the working inside vs. working outside the home issue.

    Why do stay-at-home moms feel the need to put down working moms anyway, and working moms feel the need to defend their life choices? We’re all MOMS, for goodness sake! Do what you think is best because you know your family best.

    How about some solidarity in the name of motherhood instead, huh? The parenting life’s tough enough.

  • Lorna Powers

    Lorna Powers

    September 18th, 2011 at 5:58 PM

    It’s sad to think that even at that young an age the neglect can have such a fundamental effect on those little ones. At only a few years old, already they are facing challenges before they can hardly walk.

    This is why we need to report any concerns about possible child abuse and/or neglect to social services, regardless of being sure or not! Let the professionals be the judge of that. You could change the course of a child’s life forever for the better the sooner you do.

  • betty


    September 19th, 2011 at 3:45 AM

    just the presence of a mother can help a toddler if you ask me.there’s just so much of bonding and connection happening at a sub-conscious level,we may not see it but it sure is happening.

  • StacyL


    September 19th, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Here is the thing- if you do not want to spend the time with the children and bond with them then why on EARTH would you choose to have children in the first place?!

  • Selena


    September 19th, 2011 at 10:12 PM

    Working all day long and coming home tired-earns money.

    Playing with your infant and watching him or her grow-Priceless!

    So I guess the choice is pretty much clear :D

  • Taylor


    November 15th, 2012 at 8:37 PM

    This article should have a different title. I believe this one to be misleading as to the topic. It’s telling the reader that the article is about the benefits of mother-infant interaction but in reality it talks more about the negative effects on children who are abused or mistreated.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.