Make the first year full of purposeful play by better understanding your baby’s development
Most parents project visions of their first baby-to-be in a dream-like haze of mutual singing, learning shapes, and bonding over a background of soft music a la Mr. Rogers. But when the newborn sleep marathon wanes and the schedule of rock, feed, burp, change on repeat turns routine, they’re left with time. Full days to admire what some parents lovingly call their sweet “lump” who can’t catch balls, build block towers or ride the slide. In other words, babies can be pretty boring.
They lack object permanence and basic motor skills. But that doesn’t mean there’s not fun to be had with your child at even the earliest moments. The answer is to meet your baby where they are, which, let’s face it, is pretty basic. The awkwardness that some parents feel in playing with their baby often derives from a feeling that baby play can border on the absurd and serves little purpose both pleasurable or developmental when, in fact, playing with your baby is the crux of your duty as a parent. Beyond concepts, playing with parents is a stepping stone for your child to relate to people and young peers in the future.
While most academic studies focus on the negative impact of parental interactions such as neglect or the development of phobias in future life, what these studies truly indicate is that positive experiences can also carry on into adulthood to build healthier attachments and characteristics even when the memory slips from their recall.
Babies are different and enjoy different play at different stages (as hard as it is to ignore that parent whose little Einstein has already mastered his shape sorter at 4 months). Infants communicate reactions emotionally, and when playing, it’s important to note when your child gets fussy or begins turning away. They’re more than likely overwhelmed, and it may be time to pause and try again later.
For parents seeking to bond with their baby and simultaneously build connections for learning, here’s a month-by-month guide to purposefully playing with your baby throughout the first year.
Month 1 Baby Games: Make Funny Faces
Scrunch your nose. Open eyes wide and exaggerate their closing. Laugh and smile. Your baby can start to mimic the facial expressions of their parents by one month old.
Month 2 Baby Games: Buy a Balloon
Babies don’t yet understand cause and effect, and they’ll be awestruck when a helium balloon is tied to their foot. They’ll begin to process how their movements have a direct correlation to the balloon’s movements.
Month 3 Baby Games: Five Little Monkeys & The Itsy Bitsy Spider
Song and finger play become possible at this stage and these songs incorporate both. Establishing your own original movements to other simple nursery rhymes are equally stimulating as you perform and help your baby perform the simple gestures.
Month 4 Baby Games: Silly Songs
By 4 months, babies can mimic some sounds, but it’s even more important that you mimic their sounds. When you sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” listen intently for your baby’s sounds and mimic them back in a mutual karaoke session. The funnier your noises in the song, the more interested your baby will be.
Month 5 Baby Games: Baby Aerobics
Babies are beginning to reach for objects and some may even start to roll. Choose safe, colorful (maybe noisy) toys just far enough that your baby will be motivated to wiggle towards them while you encourage on the sidelines. If your child isn’t quite interested yet, try airplane tummy time by resting your baby’s tummy against your shins, holding their hands and rocking back while keeping your knees bent so that your little one is “flying” on your legs.
Month 6 Baby Games: Texture Games
Your baby will finally start enjoying the textures of messy play games. Sit your baby in a plastic washtub amongst freshly cooked (and cooled) spaghetti for slimy, squishy fun. Of course, ensuring that your choices are edible and safe against swallowing are part of the process. Recipes for safe sensory foam, play dough and paint exist almost everywhere online, but Mother and Baby have a few to get you started.
Month 7 Baby Games: Surprise in a Box
Babies can now track objects, so when you put a toy or book inside an empty cardboard box, encourage them to “find” it. Wrap the object with colorful paper and unwrap the treasure for an extra surprise. Make the fun last even longer by taking the time to read the book to your baby after celebrating their find.
Month 8 Baby Games: Peek-a-Boo
Most family members play Peek-a-Boo with babies as little as one month old, but kids at this stage are now in on the joke and will cackle alongside you.
Month 9 Baby Games: Tunnel of Fun
When your little on has mastered crawling, you can use an expandable baby tunnel or a long cardboard box with peepholes to interact with your baby as they make their way through. Attach brightly colored socks, toys or baby-safe mirrors to the inside roof of your tunnel for them to discover as they crawl through.
Month 10 Baby Games: Organize and Build
Shape sorters, stacking toys and blocks are finally engaging at this stage. Toys which involve a little more precision can encourage motor development and can be easily combined with color and shape learning.
Month 11 Baby Games: Sandpit Treasure Hunt
Babies now fully understand object permanence, the idea that things still exist, even if they can’t see them. Show your baby brightly colored plastic toys before burying them in a sandpit or bin filled with sand. Babies love to scoop away the sand to rediscover them, and you can offer baby-safe tools to develop fine more skills as they dig.
Month 12 Baby Games: Dot-on-the-Nose
Between 12 and 18 months, kids will be able to discern they’re the image in a mirror. A fun way to test this out is to put a red dot sticker on their nose. Show them a mirror. If they haven’t made the connection, they’ll reach for the mirror. But if they’ve discovered their reflection, they’ll reach straight for their own nose.