Often, in those early days of infancy, in between the feedings and the changings and the sleepings, it’s easy to wonder “What do I do with this baby?”
Especially for caregivers who aren’t familiar or comfortable with the newborn phase, how to keep an infant entertained can seem a daunting challenge. After all — what can you really do with someone who can’t focus their eyes, sit up on their own, or communicate their thoughts?
It’s easy to overlook the fact that their limited exposure to the world is actually an advantage. Everything is new and potentially interesting, so incorporating play into your daily tasks can be rather simple. And they don’t demand complicated games or stories that make sense — they just crave your presence and attention.
From the first moment you hold your newborn you are engaging their senses. They peer up at your face, hear your voice, and feel the warmth of your skin. These simple connections are the very beginning of what can count as “play” in the early newborn days.
In the first month or so it may seem that your baby’s interests are mostly limited to eating, sleeping, and pooping. But you may also notice that they perk up and turn their head toward familiar voices or try to focus their eyes on a toy when you give it a rattle or squeak.
It may be hard to imagine, but by the second month they may be holding up their head when placed on their tummy to look around. And by the third month, you’re likely to see consistent smiles and hear sounds that seem like their attempt to communicate with you.
While they aren’t able to tell you in words that they’re having a good time, you’re likely to notice signs that your baby is ready for — and interested in — playtime each day. While they spend a lot of time sleeping (for the first 6 months your baby will probably be asleep 14 to 16 hours each day) you’ll start to see times when they’re awake and alert, but calm.
During these times when they are receptive to interaction you can start to engage in some simple games and activities.
Tummy time is recommended for all infants, but it’s often not very well received by the participants who are still working on the muscle control and coordination needed to lift their heads.
For something different, place baby onto your chest and talk to them or sing songs. When your voice encourages them to lift their head, they’ll be rewarded with a glance at your smile. The physical contact and closeness can make tummy time a more pleasant experience for everyone.
And while tummy time may not be their favorite time, it’s an important daily activity for newborns, who tend to spend most of their time reclined. One study researcher observed that the position an infant is in affects their ability to interact with the world and, therefore, affects their development.
Fun while folding
Laundry. Chances are, you’re doing a lot of laundry with a little one in the house. The time you spend doing this chore can also be time spent with your baby. Bring a blanket or bassinet nearby while you work on tackling the pile of clothes.
The process of folding clothes can stimulate the senses — the colors of the shirts, the rush of air as you shake out a towel, the requisite game of peekaboo as you lift and drop a blanket. Again, you can talk with baby as you go, about the colors, textures, and use for different items. (Feel this soft blanket. Look, it’s Daddy’s blue shirt!)
Stretch, pedal, and tickle
Lay baby on a blanket and help them get moving. Gently hold their hands while you move their arms up, out to the side, and around. Give those adorable toes a little squeeze and pedal their legs (this one is also great for gassy babies!). Gentle massage and tickles from the bottoms of their feet to the top of their head can offer fun for both of you.
This is also a great time to introduce some simple toys. A rattle, high-contrast stuffed toy, or an unbreakable mirror are all good options. Hold them close enough for your baby to focus, talk about what you’re doing, and give them a chance to reach for and touch the items while you play.
Dance with me
As any parent who has rocked and bounced and driven in circles can tell you, babies love motion and find it soothing. You can always cradle baby in your arms, but this is an activity where baby wearing works especially well.
Put on some tunes and scoop or sling your little one. You can dance and bounce around the living room, but you can also work in some time to straighten up the house or make some phone calls while you move and groove with your little one.
At this point, your infant isn’t able to demand that you read “Hop on Pop” for the 34,985th time. They just like to hear your voice. So if you’ve been up late with your little night owl and are desperate to read that article on newborn sleep, go for it.
It’s more about inflection — how you say it — than it is about content — what you say. So read whatever you like, just read it out loud. Reading early and often is shown to promote brain development, increase processing speed, and increase vocabulary.
Sing a song
Whether it is a lullaby at bedtime or a little rockin’ out to Lizzo in the car, go ahead and belt it out. Your baby isn’t going to judge your pitch; they just like the familiar sound of your voice.
This one also comes in handy when you’re sneaking in a shower with a fussy baby waiting impatiently. Bring an infant chair into the bathroom and put on an impromptu concert while you shampoo.
Take a break
You don’t have to be “on” for all your infant’s waking hours. Just as adults can benefit from some downtime, infants need a balance of stimulation and quiet time to process their environment.
If your baby is awake and content, it’s perfectly OK to let them hang out in their crib or in another safe spot while you get some well-deserved time for yourself.
While they may not be able to do much on their own, your baby is happy for each moment they spend with you. Even small moments spent making funny faces or singing nursery rhymes can help to encourage development and engage your baby.
Don’t worry about fancy toys or equipment: All you really need to play with your baby is you!