It's never too early to play with your newborn. Play is how babies and children learn about the world. Newborn infants (birth to 3 months) don't pretend to bake cookies, play dress up or throw balls around, which we normally think of when talking about play, but they do benefit from other types of "play."

Sensory Exploration

Opportunities for play with your infant are all about sensory exploration: what a baby feels, sees and hears and how a baby moves. The benefits of this type of sensory play allow parents and babies learn about each other, develop warm interactions that strengthen bonds and help create intimate moments that nurture the beginning of a loving relationship. By encouraging play, you can help achieve developmental milestones and also lay the foundation for more advanced motor, language, social, emotional and cognitive development.

The first step in playing with your infant is to know what he likes. How does he react to the different play experiences? When is a good time to play? Every infant enjoys different types of play experiences. Because all infants are easily overstimulated, it is important to take the time to read your infant's responses by noticing when he feels upset or when he is calm, happy and alert. His body takes in so much information to help make sense of his world, so even just looking into his eyes can be the right amount of play. Signs that your baby is in that "calm and alert" state to play may be minimal body movement, brightening and widening of the eyes, regular breathing and focused attention on you or a presented toy. Learning play preferences is huge part of getting to know your baby. In turn, he will learn trust and feel cared for and protected.

A lot of play experience comes naturally to a parent. You may rock your baby instinctively while singing softly and looking into his eyes. This is how a parent provides movement experience with sound and visual information. You can have fun with it, too! Rock your baby when he's happy. Each play experience uses different senses that help calm your baby or excite him depending on the type of play.

Here are some fun and easy suggestions on how to focus play with your infant using the sensory systems as a guide.

Touch:

  • Gently stroke his arms, legs, belly or back with a soft blanket, plush toy, pom-poms or lotion.
  • Allow your baby to feel your body's warmth by having him lie on your chest skin-to-skin.
  • Massage your baby (There are many guide books or DVDs out there for specific directions).
  • Gently touch his chest or back with your warmed hands.
  • Tickle his arms, legs, belly or back with your hair.
  • Softly blow on his hands, arms, belly, legs, feet or back.
  • Stroke his body with a variety of fabrics like velvet, silk or corduroy.
  • Do tummy time on different textured materials and blankets.
  • Give soft squishes (gently) using a plush toy or beach ball on your baby's belly, arm, or legs (at about 3 months).

See:

  • Slowly move a brightly colored toy side to side; watch him follow the toy, bright pom-pom or colored rattle.
  • Look into his eyes and make faces like smiles, sticking your tongue out, puckering or raising your eyebrows.
  • Shake a brightly colored scarf, handkerchief or ribbon while he lies on a blanket; watch him keep his eyes on the material.
  • Position a mirror close to your infant's face (approximately 8 to 10 inches from his face).
  • Decorate your infant's room with brightly colored pictures/artwork.

Hear:

  • Hum softly or sing rhythmic tunes from a lullaby.
  • Let him listen to your heartbeat while he lies on your chest.
  • Talk to your baby-all of the time.
  • Say his name in a variety of playful ways.
  • Speak softly, then louder, then whisper.
  • Experiment with giggles or laughs and watch his response.
  • Talk to him from different parts of the room to help him develop the sense of near and far.
  • Use rattles or other musical instruments.

Smell :

  • Let him smell all the ingredients when you are cooking.
  • Share the aromas of your coffee, fruits, or other food.
  • Take your baby on walks, and stop to smell the roses (and other scents of nature).
  • Let him get to know your scent by lying on your chest.

Movement:

  • Dance with your baby while caressing him securely in your arms.
  • Carry your infant in a carrier while you do chores around the house.
  • With two people, use a blanket to swing your infant gently side-to-side.
  • Place your infant on his belly over a soft ball (e.g. beach ball) and gently roll back and forth.
  • Place your baby in a swing for rhythmic movement.
  • Try infant yoga (many books and DVDs show you how).
  • Place your baby on your lap facing you and rock side to side or back and forth using your arms for support.

As you can see, opportunities for play with your infant can be natural, easy, fun and spontaneous. Knowing your infant's play preferences enables you to develop a stronger bond and help lay the foundation for motor, social, cognitive and emotional learning.

Try these resources:

  • Itsy Bitsy Yoga Sleep 'n' Grow DVD: Yoga for Your Baby From Birth to Three Months
  • Aimee's Babies Developmental DVD with Baby Massage
  • Baby Play (Gymboree) by Wendy Masi

Erica Fuentes is an occupational therapist at TLC-The Treatment and Learning Centers.