In the early weeks, enjoying your newborn consists mostly of gazing at her while she sleeps or nurses (since that’s what she spends almost all of her time doing!). But before long, she becomes more wakeful and interested in the world around her — and you’ve got some entertaining to do. “Babies need a variety of experiences,” explains Jan Blaxall, a professor of early childhood education at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. “And the key ingredient in their play is one-on-one attention from you.” Here are some fun ideas to get you started with baby games.
1. Splish, splash
Water has such a joyful, relaxing effect on children — feel free to take advantage any time of the day. Your baby can go right in the tub (with you, if you’d like!) as you use your hands, sponges and funnels to splash water on different parts of his body. When your baby can sit up, spread a vinyl tablecloth on the floor and set out a shallow pan of water with lots of cups, sponges, spoons and maybe his own baby to wash. (Even with small amounts of water, never leave your child unattended during water play — not even for a second.)
2. Shake, rattle and roll
Fill empty water bottles with interesting things — rice, buttons, Jell-O, water mixed with liquid soap, food colouring or oil. (Be sure lids are tightly secured with packing tape and that your child can’t chew through the bottle.) Crawlers will love chasing after a two-litre pop bottle half-filled with coloured water, as it rolls along the floor.
3. Outdoor adventures
Some days it may seem like a lot of effort just to get outside, but don’t underestimate the positive effect a little fresh air has on your baby — and you. “When you get out of the house, you stop thinking about all the jobs that need to be done, and become more attuned to your baby,” Blaxall says. Lift your baby out of the stroller, pull a leaf off a tree and let him feel it. Put his hand on the tree trunk. If the area is clean, put him on the grass and let him feel around. Doing this gives babies a sense of what their world is made of, instead of just what they see, Blaxall explains. Provide narration for your days, naming the things you see and hear (“Oh look, there’s a car. Vroom, vroom!”) so your baby starts to pick up words and connect them to objects.
4. Rock and roll
Your big exercise ball doesn’t have to collect dust until you get back into workout mode. Use the ball for all your baby’s stages — it’s a soft, bouncy place for you to sit while holding her (you get a little light ab work at the same time). Or use the ball for your baby’s tummy time. Hold her securely on top of the ball with both your hands and roll her very slightly in different directions. Once your baby’s on the move, she’ll love pushing this huge ball around on the floor and chasing after it.
5. Peekaboo 2.0
Covering your face with your hands, then letting go with an enthusiastic “Peekaboo!” will entertain baby well into her toddler years. Babies love to be surprised as they learn that things they can’t see still exist, so shake up your baby games by ducking down and reappearing with a hat on, or a funny face. Cover a toy with a blanket and ask your baby, “Where’d it go?” Crawlers will adore early games of hide-and-seek, with you popping out from unexpected places as they explore hallways and bedrooms.
6. High (chair) art
Once your baby can sit comfortably in her high chair, try placing safe, edible play materials on her tray (not that she should eat them, but if some gets in her mouth, it’s OK!). Let her explore homemade fingerpaint, or playdough made with ingredients from your cupboard, or simply put blobs of thick pudding or Jell-O on the tray so she can slide her hands around in mess-making bliss.
7. Tuesday a.m. dance party
Who says that babies only need lullabies and Mozart? Shake up your musical menu and have a little dance party à deux. “Different beats, different jargon, different flavours of music all stimulate different parts of the brain,” as well as helping your baby develop language and social skills, Blaxall explains. Besides, it’s fun! And whether it’s a rattle or a margarine tub-turned-drum, have instruments on hand so you can both take active roles in the fun.
8. Under cover
Fort fun starts young! Put a big blanket over a table and sit underneath with your young baby on your lap and a few special toys for a new perspective on the world. Roll a ball out of your fort, and then find out where it went. “Even young babies can’t just sit all the time,” Blaxall says. “Change up their position — on their tummy, upright in your arms, on your lap, over your shoulder, facing outward.” As your child grows, let him crawl up on piles of pillows, and create paths and tunnels with big boxes and couch cushions.
To make the fun even more meaningful for your little one:
Show her you’re impressed
Your baby reaches for the toy you’re holding slightly above her. She swings her fist, grabs for it and — hurray! — she makes contact. Naturally, you lavish her with praise. And new research shows that your enthusiasm is doing more than just bringing a smile to her face. “Babies need that social cheering section, people noticing and getting excited about what they’re doing. It’s wiring the brain for both relationships and learning,” Blaxall says.
Whether it’s shaking a rattle (try doing it fast one time, slow the next) or talking about your day, give your child time to respond or imitate the action back to you. By doing so, you’re creating the sense of a meaningful partnership, according to Blaxall, where the child gets to be the leader and the follower.
Mix it up
“The best baby activities are multidimensional,” explains Blaxall. “Engage lots of senses — play music and have interesting things to touch and explore, and combine that with movement and with language.”
When to take a break
You want to excite babies enough with baby games to rev their engines, but not overwhelm them — so it’s important to recognize the cues that they’re not keen on your game of choice, or have had enough. “Babies who are overstimulated either shut their eyes or look away,” says Blaxall. Your baby will resort to crying if you miss that important sign. The key is to be fully engaged in the play, making lots of eye contact so you’re aware of your baby’s changing reactions.