New parenthood comes with a steep learning curve. One day, pre-delivery, you’re lazily scrolling through your Netflix queue. The next, you’re bouncing a wailing newborn in your arms chanting the solemn prayer of parents everywhere: “Please, please, please go to sleep.”
From diaper blowouts to midnight cluster feedings, the newborn stage can throw even the most well-prepped parent into survival mode. Everything but the non-essential falls off our to-do list (sorry, houseplants!). But here’s something every new mom should consider: play.
But it turns out, play is every bit as essential as a diaper change.
Sure, it may seem mind-boggling, even downright laughable, to think that your wobbly-headed newborn needs playtime. But it turns out, play is every bit as essential as a diaper change. I called on an expert, developmental therapist Emily Patillo, to walk us through why even the smallest of babies needs playful interaction with parents and caregivers — and what we can do to meet this need without going crazy in the process.
“Even in their earliest days, babies are learning,” Patillo explains. “They learn about the world around them through multi-sensory play, and in doing so, they lay the groundwork for healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Young babies are incredibly observant, watching their caregivers’ faces, tracking objects with their eyes, and bringing toys to their mouths for exploration, for example.”
Child development, Patillo tells me, is all about building blocks — and not just of the Lego variety. The primary function of play at this stage is to lay a healthy foundation for skills your baby will learn later on. And all learning, she assures me, stems from a healthy and loving relationship with mom and dad.
“Each time we engage our young child in play, we’re strengthening our bond and building trust. A baby’s attachment to his or her caregiver is the very basis upon which learning is built. Without it, play isn’t nearly as beneficial,” Patillo says.
So how do we engage in play that nurtures our little ones and builds lifelong connections? It’s simple: Use your senses. Lean in close to baby and make eye contact and silly faces. Cradle that adorable little head in your hands or press a finger into that tiny palm. Sing, sway, gently bounce — anything that comes naturally while your baby is in your arms.
When it comes to playing with newborns and young babies, think small. No need to haul out blocks, crayons, or fancy contraptions. Your voice, face, and gentle touch will do the trick. “Play, at this point, is really about exploring the world with a multi-sensory approach,” guides Patillo. “What simple concept can you show baby through sight, sound, movement, and touch?” Here are our favorite ways to play with newborns:
Let baby study your face
Set aside your notions of rambunctious play, at least for now. In the early days, babies love the simple act of gazing at your face. Easy, huh? Hold baby 10-12 inches from your face and watch as he or she takes stock of you from forehead to chin. Play around with exaggerated facial expressions, holding them for a few seconds before moving on. You may even discover that baby wants to imitate you! Try sticking your tongue out and see if your little one follows suit. You’ll soon find that, to baby, there’s nothing quite as brilliant or fascinating as the human face.
Allowing your newborn or infant ample time to soak up the sight of you encourages him or her to learn about social cues. When you return your baby’s gaze with one that’s loving and gentle, you’re sending an important message: This is what affection looks like.
Make some noise
Help encourage the development of baby’s auditory skills by introducing a host of noisemakers. Patillo is a big proponent of using ordinary objects to entice baby: “Look through your kitchen cabinets,” she suggests. “A couple of spoons, plastic cups, and a few jingling keys work nicely.” When your baby is alert and ready to play (read: freshly diapered and fed), demonstrate how each object makes a special noise.
You’ll likely see your little one’s ears perk and eyes widen. They might even kick their legs and coo in delight, too. Each new sound will intrigue baby, help develop focus, and help distinguish where sounds come from.
Swing baby back and forth
Nope, this swing is not the automated contraption with all the buzzing and beeping bells and whistles. Rather, Patillo suggests crafting a makeshift mini-hammock out of an ordinary blanket. Set it out on the floor, lay baby in the center, and — with your partner at one end — gently sway the blanket low and slow.
Baby may giggle and coo or follow moving shadows overhead. Whatever the case, some encouragement from you by way of singing, lightly tickling toes, or making a funny face will help baby feel comfortable and safe to explore in this new microenvironment. What’s more, the gentle support of the blanket as baby moves with the swaying helps lay the foundation for balance later on. This lesson will come in handy while learning to sit, stand, and walk.
And babies love looking at themselves
Want to really hold your infant’s attention? Set baby up in front of a mirror. Patillo recommends picking up an inexpensive floor-length mirror for play that extends well beyond the newborn stage. Prop it up sideways on the floor (make sure it’s secure, of course!) and let your little one wiggle, kick, and delight in that adorable reflection.
Your baby won’t yet recognize that cute kid in the mirror, but this opportunity offers a moment for intense focus using something no newborn can resist: the human face. Gazing at their reflection also encourages babies to practice visually tracking and helps build their sense of self-awareness.
There are so many ways to play with a young baby and the benefits of doing so are seemingly endless. What baby learns in these very early years sets the tone for development and growth all throughout life. By dedicating time to warm, nurturing, and playful engagement now, you are laying a strong and healthy foundation for a lifetime of learning.