“Parents are their baby’s first playmates—their first play dates,” says Michelle Beebe, MPH, BSN, manager of Perinatal Outreach for Kettering Health.
“Just gazing at and talking to your baby from the day they’re born is engaging with them and is a form of play,” adds Amanda Looper, RN, childbirth educator for Kettering Health. “They will gaze at you, then look away to reset themselves, and gaze back. So they’re learning from the very beginning about turn-taking.”
Michelle explains that play is an essential part of bonding and brain development that begins in the first few hours after birth. Play stimulates and supports everything from language development to motor skills by building connections between neurons in your baby’s brain.
From birth, babies recognize their mother’s voice and will automatically turn toward it. “The baby also recognizes the family’s voices that have been around them during the pregnancy,” Michelle says.
Your baby loves to hear your voice, absorbing the sound, rhythm, and eventually the meaning of your words. To encourage that:
- *Sing nursery rhymes, your favorite tunes, or simply talk in a sing-song voice. Even if you sing out of tune, “your baby doesn’t care,” Michelle assures. “Babies like their parent’s voice.”
- *Provide a running commentary as you go about your everyday activities. (“We’re going outside now. Look at the tree.”)
- *Expose your baby to speech sounds and words by reading aloud. For storybooks, use different voices for characters. While reading something for yourself, read it to your baby.
- *At about 3 months old, if you talk to your baby and then pause, they will talk back. “They are learning conversation,” Amanda says.
Even newborns start to imitate facial expressions.
- *Smile at your baby and make silly faces. “If you stick your tongue out and wait, the baby will stick their tongue out right back at you,” Michelle says.
- *Show them their own face. Babies love to see themselves. Put a mirror in front of them and say their name.
At first, babies can see only 6 to 12 inches away, and perceive only black, white, and primary colors. “Have colorful or high-contrast rattles and other simple toys for your baby to explore,” Michelle suggests.
- *Hold an object, such as a rattle, 10 to 12 inches away and slowly move it for your baby to track with their eyes.
- *Offer the rattle or another toy for your baby to grasp and focus on. Put a second one in their other hand and see if they have a preference.
- *Vary the scenery. Take your baby out of the house at least three times a week, whether it’s your backyard, a neighborhood walk, running errands, or visiting grandparents.
At 3-4 months, babies start putting everything in their mouths to learn more about it through taste and texture. Provide toys and other objects your baby can safely put in their mouth, such as teethers, rattles, and fabric books—and clean them regularly.
“As soon as the umbilical stump falls off, start with the tummy time,” Amanda says.
- *Begin with your baby on your chest. They will use their core muscles to push up and gaze at you, then babble-talk to you. “Your job is to listen, then watch them do safe nosedives right there on your chest,” says Michelle.
- *Interchange time on your chest with tummy time on the floor to increase muscle development.
- *At 3 months, include non-tummy floor time so they can learn to roll, get to their side, and reach for toys.
- *Your baby should always be within sight during tummy and floor time.
You needn’t play with your baby constantly. “Fifteen to 20 minutes cumulative per day during the newborn period is enough to help their brain development, enough to help them feel securely attached and that you’re responding to them,” Amanda says.
“As they get older and more skilled they enjoy it and may stay for longer periods,” she adds. “They also need time to explore the world on their own.”
To learn more about baby care, play and safety, click here to sign up for Kettering Health childbirth education classes.