We’ve all heard child development experts say time and time again that children learn through play. But what does that mean? And how do you ‘play’ with a newborn when they can’t yet move on their own, hold toys, or play games? The important thing to understand is that we have to expand our understanding of the word ‘play,’ and that it can take on many different meanings. For infants, play is learning how to move, communicate, socialize and begin to understand their environment. This is especially crucial during the first months of their lives when most of these skills are acquired through their interactions with their parents or caregivers. Although a newborn will spend up to 18 hours a day sleeping, they will still get bored and lonely if they aren’t stimulated with interaction and play during the 6 hours they are awake.
Chances are, you are already interacting with your newborn in a way that is considered play, although you may not have realized it. The first thing a newborn learns in life is to recognize their primary caregivers’ touch, voice, and face. This skill is acquired every time their caregiver leans in to smile, sing to, touch, and comfort their newborn. Just from that small, but significant interaction, the newborn is already learning to make associations in their environment. In fact, those first few months are crucial for newborn development, in order to prepare them for those other skills they will rapidly acquire over the months.
10 Tips for Playing With Your Newborn
Here are some other fun and easy ways to play with your baby to enhance their newborn development through those tiring, sleepless early months.
- Imitation. Did you ever see a parent conversing in ‘baby talk’ with their newborns and thought or remarked at how silly it looked? Well, it turns out those parents are actually teaching their children the skill of imitation. Many new parents may feel silly imitating the sounds, faces and movements their newborn is making, but by doing so, they are teaching their baby the basics of back-and-forth play, which is crucial for the development of socialization and communication later on in life. Which leads to the next play activity…
- Talk to them. Studies have shown that babies actually prefer “infant-directed speech,” and the more time a baby spends listening to their caregivers’ voices, the sooner they are likely to make connections between language and objects. So talk to your newborn throughout the day, even during everyday routines, such as diapering, feeding, and bath time. Research has shown that there is a direct correlation between higher performance in the classroom and the greater number of words children hear from their parents or caregivers before they turn 3!
- Look at them. Did you know that newborns prefer to look at faces over any kind of toy? In fact, studies have shown that they prefer faces that are smiling, looking at them directly in the eye, are responsive to their actions, and belong to their parents/caregivers. Not only does spending time simply looking at your newborn make them happy, but it helps develop and lay the framework for that special bond between you and your child.
- Hold them. There are numerous benefits to keeping your newborn close to you during the aforementioned strategies throughout the day. In addition to the promotion of bonding between caregiver and baby, the skin-to-skin contact has also been shown to fight postpartum depression, enhance breastfeeding, and regulate your newborn’s body temperature and heart rate.
- Sing. Sing to your baby, and while you’re at it, take their little hands and move them through the motions. Some classics include Pat-a-Cake, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and The Itsy Bitsy Spider. This activity will encourage physical and motor developmental, such as coordinating their hand movements, and bringing their hands to midline (center of body). By incorporating singing into your newborn’s routine, you might even begin to notice the beginnings of a smile or laugh. And they will not care how off-key you are!
- Dance. We naturally sway and rock when we are holding our babies, so why not add a little flair and incorporate dancing as a fun way to bond and play with your newborn? This activity exposes your baby to big movements, as well as prepares their little bodies for learning to roll. And, it’s also a great way to get in some tummy time as they’re flying through the air!
- Visually stimulate them. Those first three months of a newborn’s life is a crucial period for visual development. A newborn will go from having uncoordinated eyes and only being able to see highly-contrasting colors, such as black and white, to beginning to discriminate different colors and visually follow objects. So give them things to look at by dangling age-appropriate toys about 8-12 inches from their face, while simultaneously talking and singing to them. This activity will also contribute to developing their hand-eye coordination over the months.
- Let them feel. A baby will learn so much about their body and their environment primarily through their sense of touch. The more diverse textures and materials that their skin is exposed to, the more familiar those sensations will become, and they will be able to discriminate between those different feelings over time. This is important for the development of those fine motor skills in their hands and fingers. Many infant toys comes with a variety of textures for this purpose, so let your newborn explore those different materials and textures, as it will allow them to learn about their environment through those experiences.
- Read to them. It’s never too early to read to your newborn! This activity goes back to the importance of having your baby hear their caregiver’s voice. It also exposes them to language and rhythm. A newborn’s auditory processing system is not quite able to efficiently process sound when they’re born, making it more difficult for them to pick out important sounds in a loud or chaotic environment, so turn the television or radio down, and try talking, singing, and reading to your baby in a space with as little background noise as possible.
- Floor time. Most, if not all of the previously suggested activities can be done while your newborn is on the floor. Every motor skill a baby develops during their first year of life (e.g., rolling, sitting, crawling, standing, and walking) will be the result of time spent playing on the floor. So utilize that tummy time while you’re playing with your baby!
By Grace Schepelmann, M.Ed.