Heard of the '9-minute theory'? Find out how to use with kids of all ages (it might help ease the 'mum guilt' that creeps in)

Parents are just discovering it and can't stop talking about it

Mother reading with her happy daughter
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A neuroscientist suggests the '9-minute theory' helps parents identify when a child needs them the most throughout the day. Find out what it is, and how some are reporting it eases the much dreaded 'mum guilt.'

There are a lot of theories parents can apply to raising their children. They all work in different ways, but have the same goal - to support a child to become the best possible version of themselves. Gentle parenting is a theory that gets a lot of attention, a peaceful and positive approach that is often misunderstood. Similarly, authoritative parenting is usually mistaken with the old-school authoritarian parenting. There's also newer kids on the block, like the plastic wrap parent, who feels the constant need to protect their child from harm. 

Another theory currently popular online, is the 9-minute theory. If you aren't familiar with this term, it's not new. The phrase was actually coined several years ago by Estonian-American neuroscientist, Dr Jaak Panksepp. The simple premise suggests the most important times in a child’s day consists of three lots of three-minute blocks. Parent-child interaction during these essential minutes is said to increase their sense of happiness and security. In simple terms, the slots fall at the following times of day:

  1. In the morning, just after a child wakes up
  2. When they return from childcare or school
  3. Just before they go to bed

Speaking to Today, Dr. Tovah P. Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in the US, said the 9-minute theory essentially acts as a prompt for parents to pick out moments to genuinely connect with their child.

Dr. Klein said "Relationships aren’t built on the amount of time you spend with a person - relationships are built on being present when you’re present. When you see them, you have to be a listener because children want to vent. Your three minutes might just be nodding and taking in what they're telling you."

She concluded "What makes a child feel secure is knowing that you are there in the moments that they need you." 

Sarah Martinez shares her everyday mum life with her 112,000 followers on TikTok and has reignited love for the 9-minute theory by explaining her experience to her followers. Having felt the 'guilt' of being a busy mother who doesn't always have the time she'd like to spend with her child, she found the theory alleviated some of her negative feelings around this.


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The mother wrote "I always struggle with mom guilt and questioning if i was present enough. If this is true or not, I do find setting aside specific time to be present with my toddler (no phones out, etc) has made a positive impact." 

Her followers were quick to agree that the simple theory could have a big impact. One wrote "Oh my gosh I love this. Such a comforting theory for a working mum." Another added "YES! I live by this. I’m not perfect but can try to be in THOSE 9 minutes."

Being quite a generic theory not targeted to an specific age, means it can be adapted for any age group. As the focus is on cherishing reunions, teen parents could share a funny video with their child as part of their three minutes after school. Parents of babies could interact with their little ones by soothing them in their cot for three minutes on waking, with plenty of eye contact.

Modern parenting makes many demands on our time, and the 9-minute theory can act as a simple tool to maintain an emotional connection throughout the day, when everyone is feeling pushed for time by external needs.

For more on parenting styles, we have the full lowdown on permissive parenting, tiger parenting, and therapeutic parenting

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.