Play with Your Baby: How Fun Can Help Your Little One Thrive

Interacting with your child is vitally important. Researchers estimate that 50 percent of a human's brain development occurs in the first six months of life; 70 percent is complete by the end of the first year.

By Wendy S. Masi, Ph.D., and Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D.

Play with Your Baby: How Fun Can Help Your Little One ThriveWhen you first bring a new baby home, your thoughts are usually full of the practical matters: how to keep your baby clean, warm, and well-fed; where to store the tiny diapers and clothes; how the car seat and stroller actually work; and getting some sleep.

Once the necessities are taken care of, there's something further that even the littlest baby needs in order to thrive: warm, playful interactions with the caretakers around him.

Dozens of studies in recent years have shown that a child's sense of self-esteem and his ability to form close emotional ties with others greatly depends upon the quality of his bond with his parents. This bond can be enhanced by close, loving play. Indeed, for babies who cannot yet go to school or read a book, play is the primary way they learn.

The Incredible First Year

During the first 12 months, babies undergo a profound mental, physical, and social awakening. They learn to recognize their families, the cabinet with the crackers, and the playground with the big slide. They learn to support their heads, use their hands, roll over, sit, crawl, stand, and - in some cases - walk. And long before they are ready to speak, they understand a range of human communication, from body language (the quick head shake that discourages further food throwing) to some of the words you say.

Interacting with your child is vitally important throughout his life, of course. But in the first year play can be especially important and rewarding. Researchers estimate that 50 percent of a human's brain development occurs in the first six months of life; 70 percent is complete by the end of the first year. While much of this development has to do with genetic heritage, a good portion of a child's later intellectual, emotional, and physical life depends upon the kinds and amount of stimulation she receives in her earliest years.

All Kinds of Play

Play, even "stimulating" play, isn't really about force-feeding experiences, but is rather about understanding your baby's temperament: her likes and dislikes and her tolerance for and ability to adapt to stimulation. Some babies love to be rocked back and forth, while others strongly object. Some like to be chased; others are uncomfortable with such rowdiness. Respond to your baby's cues and follow her lead.

Babies have distinct cycles of rest and activity, attention and inattention. The best time for active play - swatting at toys, rolling balls, or knocking over blocks -is when your baby is receptive and alert. Opt for more passive play - listening to songs or snuggling up with a book - when he is subdued. Both types are important. It's the timing that counts.

Baby Play

Here are a few activities to get you on the road to great play with your baby:

Swaying, Swaying - She loves to hear your voice, she loves to feel your touch, and she loves to be rocked rhythmically from side to side. You can combine all three of these soothing elements by using your lap as a cradle and your voice as a lullaby. Sit in a chair with your baby lying on your thighs, her feet pointing toward your stomach. Cradle her head with your hands and gently sway your body from side to side as you talk or sing to her.

The sensory stimulation provided by this activity - the sound of your voice, the feel of your hands, and the sight of your face - can reassure and soothe your baby. This activity may even put her to sleep. And as she approaches three months, your smiles and words may inspire her to coo and grin socially in return.

Airplane Baby - You may already have discovered that a classic "airplane" or "football" hold calms your baby when she's gassy, overwhelmed, or just tired. Combining a swinging or swaying motion and a rhythmic song with that firm hold around her belly can be even more calming. Just support your baby, tummy down, by holding her under her chest and belly with one or both of your arms. (But always be sure to support a newborn's head.) Then swing her gently to and fro while singing a song.

Parents around the world have spent many long hours comforting colicky babies by swinging them gently back and forth in an "airplane" hold. The steady pressure along the baby's tummy provides soothing warmth and tactile input. And with every passing week she'll practice lifting her head, neck, and shoulders so that she can look around and widen her baby's-eye view.

g>Eyes on Track - Even as newborns, babies display interest in sights and sounds. Try moving a brightly colored squeaking toy back and forth slowly in front of your baby's eyes. When she's focused on the toy, move it to the left and to the right. Don't go too fast or far afield, though. If she loses sight of the toy, she'll figure it simply doesn't exist, and she'll lose interest in the game altogether.

What's that sound? What's that movement? As your baby moves her head from side to side, she learns to locate the source of noises and keep track of an object's whereabouts. At around three months, she'll swipe at the toy, and at about four months, she'll grab at it. 

Noisemakers - Whether the sound is familiar, like that of a musical mobile, or unfamiliar, like a new voice, noises intrigue even the very youngest babies. Create a primitive symphony of sound by stringing a number of noise-making objects - jar lids, lightweight rattles, or plastic and wooden spoons - on a rope or ribbon. Dangle and shake the noisemaker about twelve inches in front of your baby. Or string it across the crib and let him gaze up at it as you shake the rope or jiggle the objects for him, just don't leave him alone with this kind of toy.

Hearing the various sounds from the dangling objects will sharpen your baby's auditory awareness and his visual discrimination skills. Seeing the objects will help him focus. And in a few months, when your baby is able to swipe at objects, this activity can encourage him to develop his gross motor skills.

Babycycle - When he's first born, your baby has no idea that his body is actually separate from yours. But his expanding physical abilities will give rise to an increased interest in his own body parts that will last him well into toddlerhood. They also let him enjoy more physical, interactive games.

In this simple exercise game, you very gently and very slowly move his legs in a bicycling motion, all the while talking and smiling at him to encourage him to wiggle his legs without your help. Before you know it he'll be grabbing his own little feet - and eventually pedaling all by himself! By moving his legs for him, you let your baby feel his little legs and feet moving in a new way - each side of the body working in reciprocal movement. You'll also mimic an action he'll be using later on as he learns to crawl.