Parenting Tips: How DO You "Play" With A Newborn Baby, Anyway?

Katie J. had some great questions last time: How much does she need to “play” with her new baby? Should we call out the Mommy Police if a new baby is left to coo and gurgle on her own, once in awhile?

Now that I’ve (hopefully) dispelled the guilt that Katie J. felt for not “maximizing” every possible play opportunity, I wanted to answer another related question….How DO you “play” with a tiny baby, anyway?

Easy. Hold her facing you, propped up at an angle on your legs, so her face is no more than 1-2 feet from yours. Babies’ eyes don’t focus well at longer distances. (And babies’ brains are hard-wired to look for and be interested in the human face…especially their parents').  Or let her stay in her bouncy seat, and sit on the floor in front of her. See what she seems to like best.

When you catch her gaze, smile and talk to her, in short, simple sentences. While she won’t “respond” in words, she will respond by using her body. Try to figure out what her body seems to be “saying” to you. Tell her what you think she’s “saying”, even if it’s just a guess. “Answer” her. Be silly. Sing to her. Experiment with the tone and volume of your voice, and with the way you move your body and face. See what she responds to best, and do more of that.

After awhile (for many babies, just a few minutes), she will have had “enough”. The direct interaction is intense for a baby that age. She needs it, but often can only tolerate it in short bursts. When she gets fussy, starts to look away, cough, drool and otherwise get “disorganized” with her body movements, you know you need to make a change. Perhaps she’d like to be held now? Maybe facing away from you, to cut down on the direct stimulation of your body and face? Or perhaps she prefers being “slung” over your shoulder, to get a nice, calming back rub? Or maybe she just wants some “alone time” now for a bit in her bouncy seat or swing, so she can try to make sense of the intense interaction with you she just had? Experiment with your baby. Find her rhythm. It’s there, it just takes your parent detective powers to figure out the ebb and flow of her cycle.

Your baby is most receptive to direct interaction with you when she is alert and calm. These periods come regularly throughout the day, in a cyclical pattern. Start to take notice of your baby’s unique (and often, predictable) rhythms. Very young babies like yours go through fairly rapid sleep/wake activity cycles throughout the day. These cycles consist of 3-4 hour cycles throughout the day that are usually fairly consistent, from baby to baby. For instance, here is a typical pattern for a very young baby:

  • Sleep (1-2 hours), transitioning to:
  • Happy/awake alertness --“play time” (the shortest of the phases, sometimes as short as just a few minutes), transitioning to:
  • Fussing/overstimulated/hungry, needing to be fed, held, soothed, transitioning back to:
  • Sleep, and so on, throughout the day.

Each baby is a little different; our first baby tended to go straight from sleep to fussy/hungry, then had her happy/alert “play” time after her tummy was full. But her younger brother could wait awhile after waking up and liked to “play” before he got hungry.

Start to observe your baby’s sleep/wake/alertness patterns. Jot down her activity level and the time of day. After a few days, you’ll start to see her pattern emerge. You can then target your play time for when she’s most receptive.

Have Fun!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

PS If you're interested in learning more, you must watch The Baby Human series. It's fascinating, and demonstrates exactly what I'm talking about here, and more. It also showcases current infant research in a really exciting way (I promise)!