Congratulations on that beautiful bundle of baby! I still can’t believe such an important product comes without much of an instruction manual. A newborn doesn’t have much control over movement and uses the most subtle cues for communication, leaving new parents up to their own device for “figuring out baby”. Feeding, resting, and keeping the baby safe are the starter level basics, but what about the fun part? Play is different with a newborn, especially if compared to toddlers or school-aged kids. It’s understandable that many new parents are left asking, “Is there even a point to newborn play” or “How much can they really get out of it?’ Take my word for it – play is beneficial at every age. Purposeful play with a newborn is bonding and satisfying for all!
Newborns, aside from being squishy and cute, are actually quite boring. They mostly eat, sleep, poop, and just lay there. Babies from birth through 2 months of age enjoy being curled up (may dislike being straightened) and slow continuous motion (such as swaying or strolling). They can see only about 10-12′ away and enjoy hearing familiar voices/sounds, so recordings of songs to play during feedings or bedtime may be a nice way of bonding with baby. The good part is that play doesn’t need to be a whole production (unlike playing with a dramatic 4-year-old). The challenge is mostly in reminding yourself that even the smallest act means so much for baby’s development. Something as simple as blowing air gently along your baby’s neck and trunk while they lay on their bellies can improve baby’s movements and recruitment of those muscles. A soothing song can be the best remedy for a fussy or congested little one. Babies also recognize smells, so try leaving a loved one’s t-shirt for baby to play with (while awake and supervised) during those witching hours in the evenings.
The best time to play with a newborn is at diaper changes, after feedings, and whenever baby is looking at you with slow movements of their limbs. These are all cues for what is known as a quiet alert state, which pairs well with play. On the other hand, signs of sleepiness, hunger, pain, or discomfort (grimacing, loud/fitful crying, turning head/eyes away, and fast jerky movements of arms/legs) are calls to rest instead of engage with baby.
Purposeful play with a newborn is mostly strategic positioning and gently guiding movements. Here are my top 5 favorite ways to play with a newborn, but remember – a little goes a long way, so get creative or go boring – just play your way!
1. Dance & Sing
Support your baby with their belly to your belly and sway in a horizontal figure 8 and sing a tune with exaggerated expressions and strategic pauses to see baby’s response. This helps to soothe your baby and work on a social smile developing.
With your baby lying on their back (head/neck cradled or more inclined) – move baby’s limbs in a dance or choreographed way to match the tune or your words (for example, “head shoulders knees and toes”, or another tune you asked Alexa to play – preferably not “baby shark”).
Rolling baby gently side to side and moving arms/legs to a beat is a nice play option for baby to experience movement. Bicycling legs, raising arms gently overhead, out to sides, and across the body (self-hug) are all awesome dance moves.
2. Soaking & Skin to Skin
Bathing baby in a milk-drenched bath or even just running a warm washcloth along their skin could provide relief & playfulness a newborn seeks for belly pains.
Thinking of bath time as a play opportunity – leaving some time for skin to skin before or after the bath counts as a time to bond with baby. Skin to skin easily morphs into tummy time as you place the baby on your belly, whether you are in a seated or lying position – still counts.
3. Reflections & Rattles
Place a tri-fold stand up mirror for baby to see itself while on belly or side. You can also lay with them to model and encourage exaggerated mouth movements.
Move a hand-held mirror up/down or side to side to get baby to follow with their eyes.
Attach rattles to wrists/ankles to have baby practice reaching and rolling.
Place rattles or crinkly toys in baby’s hands to make noise with an early “cause/effect”!
4. Milestone on a Mat
Practicing milestones a bit before and a bit after the baby’s age is an easy way to know what to do. Consulting with milestone charts (CDC or pathways.org) and sticking to these basics are most helpful for newborns through age 2-3 months of age : lifting head to shoulder level on belly, pressing elbows together and in (under chest) to stabilize on belly, lying on side with top leg over towards the belly, and bringing hands to midline while laying on their back. The best place for playing is on a flat surface (a floor mat).
Assisting with head/neck strengthening and early belly-time skills with an incline, such as parent’s chest, incline wedge/pillow, over a Boppy on belly or propped on back) or a rolled towel under baby’s chest.
5. Belly or Side
A baby’s head and skull are extremely soft and easily flatten when exposed to continuous pressure (such as prolonged time lying on back, in a car seat, or on a lounger/swing). The best way to avoid falling into this habit is to incorporate play and change of positions. Placing baby on the side (switch from lying on the left/right side) for play promotes baby’s natural exploration of movement and shifting weight to prepare for rolling.
If you’re looking for more resources check out Pathways.org, a wonderful organization that places appropriate emphasis on motor development throughout your baby’s first few years. There are videos and ideas for playing with your baby at all stages, including newborn age.