Caring for a newborn baby is hard work, isn’t it? Who knew that a tiny human who sleeps 18-20 hours a day could make life so exhausting?!
THE FIRST THREE MONTHS
The first three months of a baby’s life truly are all about survival — survival for the baby and, even more so, survival for the parents. Between the seemingly never-ending rounds of changing diapers, feeding that
screaming precious babe every 2-3 hours, washing burp cloths, wiping baby puke out of your hair, swaddling and then, somehow, getting her and you to sleep…it just. gets. exhausting.
Been there. Done that. Remember praying that my newborn and toddler would miraculously engage in simultaneous naps so I could just. get. some. zzzzzzzz.
And then, on top of all that, you’re supposed to play with your newborn baby. How? What do I do? Where do I start? Somebody HELP ME!!!
Yep, been there too.
Getting past the first three months and officially graduating from the “Fourth Trimester” (as they call it) is amazing. Trust me, those first three months are the hardest part of baby’s first year (at least in my experience), so hang in there!
A WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT ABOUT PLAYING WITH YOUR NEWBORN
Playing with your brand new baby doesn’t have to be rocket science. It’s not supposed to be complicated. Yes, for some it might come more naturally than others. But you’ll find that many of the most powerful ways to interact and “play” with your baby are things that we new parents tend to do instinctively, regardless of how much prior experience we have with tiny humans. However, sometimes we need reminders of just how great those things are. So if you read this list and think to yourself, Sweet, I’ve already been doing most of these things…well then, give yourself a pat on the back because you are doing a great job! And if you read this list and think, Wow, I feel way less nervous about this whole newborn thing now…well, I’m glad I could help equip you with information and relieve your anxiety.
Okay, onto the suggestions for how to play with your newborn — quick, before baby wakes up!
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10 SIMPLE WAYS TO PLAY WITH YOUR NEWBORN BABY (0-3 MONTHS)
1. Face time: No, no, not the iPhone kind of Face Time. I’m talking about the Goo goo ga ga, Mommy loves you, Who has squishy cheeks?, Let’s do butterfly kisses kind of face time. Face time is the simplest, most engaging, most pleasurable form of play for your newborn. Research has shown that newborn babies prefer to look at faces over any other kind of interaction or toy. In fact, they prefer to look at faces that: A) are smiling, B) have open eyes, C) are looking them directly in the eye, D) belong to their parents/caregivers, and E) are responsive to their actions. Spending time face-to-face with your newborn not only makes him happy, it also helps develop that bond between the two of you that will likely lay the foundation for a healthy relationship in the months and years to come.
2. Talk to her: Talk to your baby during face time, but also talk to her during everyday tasks such as diaper changes, bath time, and feeding time. As she approaches three months of age, carry her in your arms and give her a tour of your house — she will be old enough to visually focus on the objects you include on your tour and can be introduced to the connection between language and objects. Don’t be afraid to do “baby talk” with your baby (you know, that high pitched, goofy way we smitten, sleep-deprived parents talk to our little ones?). Research has shown that babies actually prefer this “infant-directed speech”. Recent research has found that, for babies born prematurely, being exposed to the sound of mom’s voice three hours a day during the first month of life (replacing the sound of the noisy incubator fan) improved development of the auditory cortex (the part of the brain responsible for processing sound input), as well as baby’s ability to focus on human voices in general. Research has also shown that it’s SUPER important to talk to your baby throughout the day because “the greater the number of words children (hear) from their parents or caregivers before they (are) 3, the higher their IQ and the better they (do) in school.” There’s even a whole website out there devoted to helping parents understand how important and powerful talking to your baby really is — it’s called Talk With Your Baby. Yep, jabbering like a fool to your baby who doesn’t yet understand language is actually good and necessary for her. So go for it!
3. Hold him. There are many benefits to holding your baby close to you during face time, talking time, and other times throughout the day. It helps him learn to feel comfortable and safe in your arms. It not only develops a bond between you and your baby, but it also allows you to facilitate skin-to-skin, which can strengthen that bond, enhance breastfeeding, fight postpartum depression, and even help regulate baby’s body temperature and heart rate. Experiment with holding your baby in a variety of ways or even wearing him in a baby carrier (there are SO many benefits to wearing your baby!) such as the Moby Wrap, Ergo Baby Carrier, or baby sling such as the Maya Wrap. I have used the Moby Wrap with both babies and am a huge fan — read more about why it’s great to use a Moby Wrap in my post here.
4. Imitate her. By engaging with your baby by imitating her sounds, facial expressions, and movements, you are teaching her about the basics of back-and-forth communication. She discovers that what she says and does matters to you, and she learns that you will be responsive to her attempts at communication. So get lost in her sweet little world and follow her lead!
5. Sing with hand motions: It’s great to sing to your baby, and it’s even better to sing as you move his chubby little hands through the motions. The hand motions to many beloved children’s songs will naturally take your baby through gestures that encourage developmental skills such as bringing his hands to midline, crossing over the midline, and coordinating his hand movements for functional use. Some simple classics that are perfect for this age group include Pat-a-Cake, The Wheels on the Bus, The Itsy Bitsy Spider, and If You’re Happy and You Know It. If you incorporate singing and hand motions into your baby’s daily routine, you may notice that he begins to smile and demonstrate the beginnings of a laugh any time you start to sing one of those songs. So fun!
6. Dance: Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It’s not. We naturally sway back and forth while holding our babies anyways, so why not turn it into a fun way to play and bond with your baby? Plus, dancing with your baby is a great way to sneak in some tummy time as she flies through the air (learn more about dancing with your baby), it exposes her body to big-time movement, and it also helps prepare her body for learning to roll. So sing your heart out or turn on some music and dance with your baby!
7. Give him something to look at: The first three months are a period of big changes for a baby’s developing visual system. During that time he will go from being unable to coordinate his eyes and only being able to see highly-contrasting colors (e.g., black & white) that are 8-12 inches from his face, to being able to discriminate some colors and visually follow slowly moving objects. He may even demonstrate the beginnings of eye-hand coordination as well. Baby play gyms are great for this purpose (read my post about the developmental benefits of baby gyms), and you can change-up your baby’s visual and sensory experience in a baby gym by doing things like hanging a variety of household items or black-and-white contrast cards. You can also play with your baby in a similar manner simply by dangling an age-appropriate toy such as this one approximately one foot away from his face as you talk, sing, or help him reach out and bat at it. He may also enjoy visually attending to a tornado bottle, glitter jar, or lava lamp.
8. Give her something to feel: A baby learns about her body and her environment primarily through the sense of touch. The more textures and materials her skin is exposed to, the more it will become familiar with them and learn to discriminate between all those feelings. This is important for the overall development of your baby’s tactile sensory system, and the development of these skills in the hands and fingers contributes to good fine motor/hand skills later on. Many baby toys are adorned with a variety of textures for this very purpose (such as balls, blankets, links, rings, and rattles). So feel free to place a variety of toys, fabrics, and other age-appropriate textures in your newborn’s hands at this early age. Lay her on the floor on surfaces with varying textures such as a receiving blanket, a sheepskin blanket, or a towel (make sure she can breathe at all times, of course). Or play a simple game touchy feely game with her hands and feet, which one therapist calls Rub Rub Rub Clap Clap Clap. Your baby will learn a lot about the world through tactile experiences and textures.
9. Read out loud: It’s true that it’s never too early to read to your baby. Start out with books that have highly contrasting colors and simple pictures. You can find some good ones online HERE. If you don’t feel comfortable reading to your baby at this young of an age, that’s okay. I know, it seems kind of awkward at first! Even reading your own book or magazine out loud while you feed him is good, too. All this out-loud reading exposes him to language, rhythm, sentence structure and, best of all, your voice. Just try to minimize environmental noise such as having the TV on in the background. Though babies are born with a fully developed inner ear and ability to hear sounds, they are not born with the mature ability to efficiently process auditory information, which makes it more difficult for them to pick out important sounds in a noisy environment. In fact, researchers say that “the ability to process speech amid background noise doesn’t mature until adolescence.” ADOLESCENCE! You don’t want to make it harder on him with all that extra noise, so do your best to talk, sing, and read to your little bundle in a space that has as little background noise as possible.
10. Play with her on the floor: It should go without saying that most of these suggestions can be done while your baby lays on the floor. Every single motor skill your baby will develop during the first year — skills such as rolling, pushing her chest off the ground, sitting, crawling, cruising, and walking — is the result of time spent playing on the floor. You’ve heard of tummy time? Yep, that plays a big part. A HUGE part.
As soon as baby is born (or you get the go-ahead from her pediatrician if there are unique medical concerns), you can start by gently rolling baby into the tummy-down position after being placed on the back. Practically speaking, this will usually mean after diaper changes and any “playtime” on the floor. Here is a great video of an OT demonstrating how to successfully roll a newborn into and out of tummy time, and how to monitor baby’s signs to know when it’s time to be done (hint: it happens BEFORE they start fussing!). The sooner you start this, the more accepting she will be of being on her tummy, and the more opportunity she’ll have to embark on the developmental journey that starts from the prone position!
As your baby gets older and gains more head control, you can transition into placing your baby tummy-down nearly every time you set her on the floor when she’s awake. You’ll know she’s ready for this when her forehead isn’t the first thing to bonk on the floor when you place her on her belly. Again, this will mostly mean diaper changes and floor playtime. It may just be a momentary belly flop and then you can roll baby over for the intended activity (because, seriously, who changes diapers with a baby on her belly?), or it may last a minute or so before baby is ready to roll. Either way, building the put-baby-belly-down habit into your daily activities will help your little one (and you!) get used to the prone position and come to expect tummy time as part of the daily routine.
So what do you do if your baby HATES tummy time? It’s okay. All is not lost. I’ve got you covered. Read my post on 7 tips for making tummy time a little less miserable. Then read my post on how to use a therapy ball to make tummy time easier and more fun. For even more tummy time goodness, check out this awesome blog by a pediatric physical therapist who is passionate about helping parents and babies have fun during tummy time, as well as this site run by a pediatric occupational therapist whose goal is to help parents understand infant development so they can confidently and playfully give their baby the healthiest start possible.
Whatever you do, do NOT buy into the myth that playing with your newborn while placing her in some sort of contraption will be better for her or help her develop muscles and motor skills faster. It won’t. So steer clear of the baby gear and get down on the floor with your new bundle. It will be the best thing for her.
To learn more about the developmental milestones your baby will be working toward in the first year, as well as ideas for how to make progress toward those milestones, visit my Developmental Milestones page here.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON PLAYING WITH YOUR BABY
Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t feel guilty if you don’t get to all of these things every day. I know. It’s hard. But, please, do hold and talk to your baby every day. And get down on the floor with your baby every day so he can work those muscles. Those are the biggies during these first three months. Stare into his big ol’ eyes (when he’s not screaming, of course) and have a moment, just the two of you. These first three months may be tough (REALLY tough for some of us), but they will be worth it. Trust me.
Photos by Annie Groves Photography.
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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL FOR YOUR NEWBORN
You may also like these infant-related posts on Mama OT:
8 Ways to Use a Baby Play Table (even when they’re little!)
CLICK HERE to access all infant-related posts ever published on Mama OT!
NOTE: This post has been republished with updated links and content since its original publication date of September 26, 2013.