Christine Sweeney, LICSW Program Manager, Parent Connection, BIDMC
MARCH 23, 2018
Let’s face it, most first-time parents (myself included), feel somewhat at a loss about how to “play” with their babies. In those first couple of months, babies just don’t do a whole lot besides eat, sleep, pee, poop and cry. There are no meaningful conversations about her/his favorite snuggly; when to start solids, or what they want to be when they grow up! We are bombarded with catalogues and internet ads extolling the many virtues of a gazillion toys that promise a “smarter” baby somewhere down the road. There is no shortage of books and articles advocating this strategy or that practice as the means to achieve an “above-average child.” So, what’s a first-time parent to do?
First, take a breath, and know that you’ve already been doing so many things that benefit your baby’s development and well-being. Developing your play repertoire with baby is not rocket science, and is easier (and less expensive) than you might think. You don’t need to bankrupt yourself with purchases of toys and gadgets. And it might help to make the 24/7 time you all spend together more enjoyable, because, let’s face it, this parenting stuff is hard work!
In the beginning, “play with baby” is less about engaging in the kinds of play activities that we think of as “play,” and more about facilitating sensory exploration: sight, hearing, touch, movement. Generally, the best time to engage in play is when your baby is quietly alert - which, with newborns, is not a lot of the time, but there will be some (short) windows, even then!
When you dance, sway, snuggle, and move with your baby, you are not only enhancing their social/emotional bond with you, you are also stimulating baby’s vestibular system (sense of balance and motion). According to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, the benefits of vestibular stimulation include decreased arousal/distress, increased development of reflexes and motor skills, and increased visual alertness (which helps baby absorb information about the surrounding world, and, thus, learn!).
At birth, baby’s sight is still developing. Baby can see objects that are fairly close up, and is more able to distinguish bold contrasts of color (and even then, not the full spectrum). Studies have shown that, within an hour after birth, a baby can recognize her/his mother’s face – a helpful survival mechanism – and one that can inform play with your baby. Whether holding baby or with baby sitting in a car seat or laying on the floor, you can entertain and educate baby with various facial expressions, perhaps talking calmly, quietly. Notice if baby responds to your expressions. Baby might even imitate your facial expression! “A University of Delaware study found that the infants of mothers with more animated facial expressions were more securely attached to their mothers than the infants of mothers with less animated expressions.” (Baby Play: 100 Fun-filled Activities for You & Your Baby to Enjoy, p. 43, by Dr. Wendy S. Masi & Dr. Roni Cohen Ledierman) You can also show baby bright, contrasting colors and patterns whether in a book, on a piece of fabric, a piece in an art museum, in displays of flowers at the store or in the great outdoors!
You have probably noticed that baby responds to sound. When snuggled up against your chest, the sound of your heartbeat grounds and soothes baby. Read to your baby. Whether it’s “Everywhere Babies,” or an article in The New Yorker, the sound of your voice provides baby another way to connect with you, and to learn about his/her world. Sing to your baby. Your baby won’t know that you are tone-deaf or that you are making up most of the lyrics. Put on music and sing to and dance with your baby, combining sound, movement and touch. Other ways to introduce sounds to baby – soft clapping; shaking rattles; spending time outside; attending concerts or parent/baby music groups.
Given the yet-to-be-developed language skills, how do you, the new parent, tell when baby’s had her/his fill and needs a break? Your baby might start looking away, crying, or closing her/his eyes. This doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong (we get way too much practice second-guessing and judging every baby-care-related decision!), it’s just that, like any of us, baby’s interest in anything is not going to sustain forever – and probably for shorter periods of time than the adults in her/his life. It’s as important to offer times of less stimulation as it is to provide baby with play/activity time.
This is just the nutshell version of parent/baby play. It’s really not that complicated and likely things that you are already doing and just didn’t realize counted! Just remember, play is not supposed to be one more thing to stress about. Play is fun!