Baby play tables are a great invention. As far as I can tell, they came onto the scene fairly recently (relatively speaking), and I have been amazed at how versatile they are. I’ve used them with infants in early intervention therapy, and they’ve also come in handy for promoting my own son’s development during his first year of life. They have all sorts of cause/effect buttons that sing and light up while introducing baby to songs, shapes, spatial concepts (open/close, up/down), ABCs, and 123s. Many of these play tables (including the one pictured above) now come with English/Spanish modes so you have the option of exposing your baby to more than one language at an early age.
Unless someone purchases one for you, don’t bother forking over forty bucks for a brand new baby play table. You should be able to easily find a gently used one on Craigslist or at a second hand store for twenty dollars or less. Just make sure it has removable legs so you can use it in a variety of ways throughout baby’s first year.
Here are eight ways you can use a baby play table:
1. Remove all legs and tilt against a couch, wall, or other stable surface so the play surface is nearly vertical.
Developmental stage: Newborn to rolling (approximately 0-4 months).
Interact with baby and talk to him about the lights, music, and sounds. Help baby lay on his side so he can look at and reach for the play surface. It’s important to get baby on his side while engaging, rather than just laying on his back and reaching over to the side. This is because when baby lays on his side, he is able to engage in “midline play”, which means he is being oriented to where the middle of his body is. Babies are not born with a midline orientation, and it is through midline play that they begin to develop a sense of symmetry (a balance between the right and left sides). If baby will not stay put on his side due to lack of strength or control, simply roll up a receiving blanket and wedge it behind his back. This side-lying position is also helpful for babies who have low muscle tone and find it difficult to engage in midline play while laying on their backs (as they would while playing in a baby gym).
2. Remove all legs and place flat on the ground.
Developmental stage: Tummy time to independent sitting (approximately 2-6 months).
This gives baby some incentive to push up during tummy time. It also gives baby something to play with while sitting up, even if she isn’t so sure about using her hands quite yet. Stay close by your baby on this one. It’s easy for the tummy time baby to suddenly drop her head and bonk her face, and it’s just as easy for the new sitter to quickly topple forward…also bonking her face. If your baby is not yet an independent sitter, that’s okay. Just support her trunk with your hands from behind while she sits and plays. The higher up you support her (closer to her armpits), the less she has to work. The lower down you support (closer to the hips), the more she has to work. Assist her accordingly.
3. Remove only two legs so the table tilts at a 45 degree angle.
Developmental stage: Pushing up and shifting weight during tummy time to pushing up onto all fours (approximately 4 to 8 months).
This is more stable than suggestion number one and, thank goodness, because now baby can reach out and clobber those buttons! The more advanced tummy time baby will find this fun and, again, it gives him an opportunity to engage in midline play no matter where he is around the table. As a therapist, I like this stage because it gives baby an opportunity to practice shifting his weight from side to side while on his tummy. He must shift his weight to one arm while he reaches out with the other. This is an important skill to learn before he can ever think about crawling. The more weight he can bear on one arm while he uses the other to play, the closer he is to crawling! This position also requires quite a bit of trunk and neck strength, which is important for — again — developing the muscles necessary for crawling. And, of course, this position is also fun with the baby who sits independently and is now able to engage more freely with his hands while sitting.
If your baby isn’t really comfortable on his tummy or doesn’t weight shift yet during tummy time, try putting him on his tummy on an exercise ball and slowly zooming him forward to the point where he can reach the play surface. You can help him practice shifting his weight by slowly tilting the ball to the left side (only, like, an inch or two, not a lot) while he reaches with his right. And then tilt it to the right while he reaches with his left. Not comfortable putting your baby on an exercise ball? Check out my post with video about how to play with your baby on an exercise ball. Sometimes a demonstration is all you need to ease your nerves.
4. Remove all legs and place flat on one couch cushion (or an object of similar height).
Developmental stage: Pre-crawling to crawling (approximately 6 to 9 months).
This is a great intro to assuming the hands-and-knees position because it’s easier to sustain a semi-upright quadruped position than it is a fully horizontal one. It takes some of the weight off the arms so baby can venture into a pre-crawling position without needing quite as much upper body and core strength. It also teaches baby about moving up and down through space, as opposed to only moving horizontally all the time (rolling, scooting, etc.).
5. Remove all legs and place flat on two couch cushions (or an object of similar height).
Developmental stage: Crawling to standing with support (approximately 8 to 10 months).
This just about mimics the height the play table will have when you put the legs back on, but it gives baby something to hold onto, lean against, and push against as he transitions to learning how to play in a kneeling and half-kneeling position. Translation: baby’s hand won’t slip off the bottom of the play table and he won’t hit his face on the hard plastic on his way down. We want to avoid injury where we can, right? This is also the perfect height and place for baby to start experimenting with pulling to a stand and remaining in an upright position for more than a few seconds at a time. We’re getting ready for cruising and walking!
6. Stand table up on all 4 legs and have baby use with table wedged into a corner.
Developmental stage: Standing with minimal support to cruising (approximately 9 to 12 months).
You’d be surprised at how much a newly standing baby leans into a play table…and how easily the table can slide or tip with that much weight being put on them. Once my little one reached this stage, I always felt most comfortable if I just wedged the play table into a corner so it couldn’t slide or tip. Of course, a baby this age still needs constant supervision because, as you will soon find out, those chunky little legs are still getting used to supporting all that baby weight and they have a tendency to unexpectedly give out. So stay close to your baby, keep a hand on her, and make sure she’s safe while you engage her with play and talk to her about all the fun stuff going on. Also, don’t be surprised if your baby pulls to a stand, plays for a minute, and then begins to cry…it’s probably because she can’t figure out how to get down! Help her problem solve and, over the course of the next few days or weeks, she’ll soon become a pro at using the table to stand up and squat down.
7. Stand table up on all 4 legs and place in an area where baby can access all four sides independently.
Developmental stage: Standing with minimal support to cruising (approximately 9-12 months).
As baby becomes more comfortable in a standing position, he won’t need to lean against the table so much, so you can get it out of the corner and into the middle of the room! He’ll start to experimenting with taking a step or two to the side, which is the beginning of the “cruising” phase. He’ll also start to become better at pulling to a stand and squatting down to the floor when he’s all done. Don’t be surprised if he starts to become a dare devil and tries to see if he can take both hands off the table. Or better yet, he may become so engrossed in his play time that he will “accidentally” take his hands off without even realizing it…and then quickly put them back on as soon as he realizes what he’s done!
8. Stand table up on all 4 legs and place near another surface so baby can reach over and “walk” to it.
Developmental stage: Cruising to early walking (approximately 10-12+ months).
It may take a while before baby gets up the guts to let go of the table AND step away from it. But oh the look of joy on his face when he does! Create safe opportunities for him to transfer between supportive surfaces, whether it’s a couch, a soft chair, or the very best thing — you! This is the beginning of the walking stage and it — in my opinion — is the best stage of all. Soon your baby will be saying good riddance to that play table in exchange for other, more exciting things to explore. You know, really safe things, like glass coffee tables, fireplaces, toilets, and garbage cans.
Always be sure to supervise and interact with your baby while he or she engages with their baby play table. And have fun!