Baby play gyms are likely THE most versatile baby products out there. And not only can they be used in a variety of ways, they also carry with them several important developmental benefits, which is why I’ve chosen to feature them as Mama OT’s product of the month! This post contains some referral links, which means if you click over and wind up making a purchase, Mama OT will receive a small commission to help keep this blog running, at no extra cost to you (thank you!). Read my full disclosure here.
What is a baby play gym? you may ask. In general, it’s a soft mat with two arches that support toys which dangle overhead. Some have lights, music, baby-safe mirrors, kick-activated pianos, tummy time pillows, and/or a variety of textured materials, while others provide a simple, safe space for baby to lay, look, and play.
As an occupational therapist, I recommend baby gyms so highly that I even listed them as the very first product in my post 15 Toys for Baby’s First Year. They can be used from the day your baby is born all the way until they are crawling (and some babies enjoy them even beyond that stage).
So what’s the deal with baby play gyms and why are they so great?
Below I’ve described several developmental benefits of using a baby play gym, plus what to look for when purchasing one and where you can find a great selection of them. Enjoy!
Baby gyms allow your baby to learn the basics of cause and effect. Between about 6 weeks and 4 months, babies engage in something Piaget called “primary circular reactions”. This means they learn to repeat an action that they initially did by chance (such as “accidentally” batting at a toy). Then between about 4-8 months babies begin to intentionally initiate these actions and repeat them because they find them fun! These actions are called “secondary circular reactions”. Some examples include grabbing, pulling on, or kicking a toy in order to make it light up or make sounds. This skill is important because it is the beginning of logic and the understanding of cause and effect. Baby gyms facilitate this development of the understanding of cause and effect by providing dangling toys and even kick- or pull-activated toys that respond to their actions, encouraging them to interact with them again and again.
Benefits in visual perception:
Babies are born pretty near sighted, which means objects far away are blurry. They can perceive objects the most clearly when they are about 8-12 inches from their face, and baby gyms are set up perfectly to accommodate for a newborn’s developing visual perceptual skills. Newborn babies prefer and are best able to see faces (so be sure to spend plenty of face-to-face time with your little one!), followed by objects with highly contrasting colors such as black and white. Many baby gyms take this into account by offering mats and dangling toys that have brightly contrasting colors. Babies begin to develop depth perception around 4 months of age (which coincides with the development of those intentional cause/effect actions), allowing them to enjoy their baby gym more as they can see what they are grabbing for when reaching for toys!
Benefits in grasping and reaching skills:
When babies are born, their grasping and reaching skills are dominated by reflexes, which means they automatically react in a certain way when stimulated and don’t really have any control over it. For example, newborns demonstrate a “palmar grasp reflex” and reflexively grasp anything that is pressed into their palm. This means newborns can grasp rattles or rings hanging in a baby gym as they learn to hold objects, develop a visual understanding of what they are holding, and build an understanding of cause and effect as they wiggle and shake toys (see how all these things are connected?). By about 5 or 6 months old, babies should begin to grasp objects in a baby play gym voluntarily as opposed to reflexively.
Babies also demonstrate a reflex called “ATNR” — whenever their head turns to the side, that same arm extends in the direction their eyes are looking, while the opposite arm bends behind the head. This acts as the very beginning of hand-eye coordination! Baby play gyms encourage babies to use that ATNR in a functional manner as they lay on their back and begin looking at and swatting at the toys! By the time this reflex “disappears” around 6 months, babies should be able to initiate and control their arm movements in conjunction with that cognitive understanding of cause and effect. Isn’t it amazing how all these skills develop and fit together with each other?!
In addition to these reflexive skills, baby gyms can also facilitate babies’ development of the ability to bring two hands together at the midline of the body while laying on their back while they hold a toy (around 1-3 months), reach for an object with two hands together at midline (around 4-5 months) and reach across the midline of their body. The ability to come to and cross the invisible vertical line down the middle of the body (and across the middle horizontally) is a SUPER important skill for children to develop! It strengthens the structure in the middle of the brain called the Corpus Callosum (learn more here) and is a huge part of babies being able to learn to crawl. It also helps them develop two-handed coordination (“bilateral skills”) and hand dominance as they move through the toddler and preschool years. In addition to practicing midline crossing while using a baby gym, little ones can practice crossing midline through music (read more here) and play (read here for ideas from another OT)!
Gross motor benefits:
Gross motor development may be the most obvious baby gym benefit of them all. Of course, baby play gyms encourage babies to use and develop the muscles in their arms, legs, tummy, back, and neck. They allow babies space to play on their back, left side, right side, and — yep, you guessed it — their tummy!
We’ve all heard about tummy time, right? Maybe you’ve heard about it so much that you’re sick of it by now! Well, without going into too much detail, tummy time is time your baby spends on his or her tummy while awake. Tummy time not only strengthens your baby’s neck, back, and arms, but it also supports the development of higher level gross motor skills (like rolling, crawling, walking), hand skills (developing the muscles in the arches of the hands as baby bears weight on them), visual skills (teaching the eyes to work together), and even speech and feeding skills (strengthening the neck which supports the jaw for talking and eating). Additionally, when babies spend time on their tummies it takes weight off the back of their heads and is important for prevention of flat spots (known as “positional plagiocephaly”). Can you believe that a baby play gym supports all these areas of development?! If your baby HATES tummy time with a passion (or even just a little bit), click here for several tips for how to ease him or her into it and make it fun!
Benefits in self-awareness:
Many baby play gyms are now equipped with a small, non-breakable mirror so that babies can spend time looking at themselves in the mirror. Babies tend to notice themselves in the mirror around 3-5 months of age (staring at it, reaching at it). They may first smile at themselves in the mirror between about 5-8 months and then they may playfully respond to their mirror image by laughing, patting, or making faces in the mirror around 6-9 months. All of these skills are important for the development of self-awareness, and baby gyms provide babies the opportunity to practice these skills.
Benefits in sensory stimulation and awareness:
Sensory stimulation is probably one of the most well-known means of interacting and playing with babies during their first year. Baby gyms often feature a variety of textures, sounds, and colors in order to stimulate babies’ senses while engaging with the gym. Once your baby begins mouthing objects, you can hang teething toys from the arches so he or she can reach for them (on back or tummy) and bring them to the mouth for oral stimulation and exploration.
In addition to sensory stimulation, baby gyms can also facilitate your baby’s awareness of sensory stimuli such as visual and auditory. Visually, babies begin to look from one object to another when they are about 6-8 inches apart and 1 foot away from their chest, at about 2.5-3.5 months of age. The dangling toys in a play gym can help develop this visual awareness skill. And the music or rattles hanging in a baby gym can help babies develop the ability to search for sounds with their eyes between about 2-3.5 months, and to look directly toward where the sound is coming from at around 3.5-5 months.
Though baby play gyms are great for providing your baby with some fun sensory stimulation, remember that the very best stimulation is YOU! Your face, your touch, your voice, the smell of your skin — all of that is wonderful, natural, responsive stimulation for your baby. Please make sure you don’t rely on a baby gym or other “special” toys in order to provide your baby with sensory stimulation. Some babies can become easily overstimulated by these products, and we definitely want to avoid an overstimulated, fussy baby!
In addition to all of the developmental benefits listed above, baby gyms are great because:
- they are easy to clean and can be tossed in the wash
- they are portable and can be easily folded up and taken with you to a friend/family member’s house or on a trip
- they provide a natural boundary for your baby’s play space if you are in a room where you are concerned he or she may not be noticed on the floor and accidentally bumped into
- you can customize them by hanging extra links or other toys (such as an Oball Rattle) from the arches
- you can take the gym’s links and toys off and hang them in other places such as from the overhead handle of your baby’s car seat or stroller for use while you are out shopping or going for a walk
- you can remove the toys from the play gym altogether so your baby can play with them on their own
- they are fun for babies from newborn through sitting and crawling…even toddlers may find their younger sibling’s baby gym to be entertaining!
What to look for when buying a baby play gym:
Based on all the information above, try to go for these basic features when buying a baby gym (any additional features are bonus!):
- highly contrasting colors (black and white, plus others). If you already have a gym and it doesn’t have contrasting colors, that’s okay, just place your own toys in there to meet your baby’s visual and developmental needs.
- loops you can use for hanging additional links or other items such as rattles or teething toys
- a detachable play mat that can be washed (your baby WILL eventually poop, pee, drool, or spit up on it!)
As with other baby products, be sure to supervise your baby while he or she is in the baby play gym. Use common sense when it comes to safety — only use it on the floor and not on a raised surface. Read your baby’s cues and remove from play gym if demonstrating signs of being overstimulated or just plain done.
Click here to browse through all the different kinds of baby gyms out there…yes, there are a TON!
I hope this has been helpful to you, and please let me know if you have any questions!