Many of the dreams parents have for playing with a baby go unrealized after the kid is born. Playing with babies, as it turns out, can seem awkward, boring, or completely pointless. Babies can’t throw the old ball around. They lack object permanence and basic motor skills. But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of fun to be had in playing with a super young kid. The key is to play to your baby’s strengths, which, let’s face it, aren’t myriad.
“So much of the fun is watching them learn,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, family therapist, and author of Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. “They’ll be incredibly fascinated by something. And then they’ve mastered it, and they’re over it. You can almost see their brains growing.”
Playing with a parent in infancy is very educational for babies and it goes far beyond any concepts they’re learning. “Playing with each other, being delighted by each other, it’s the crux of one of the great duties as parents: To help teach your child to relate to people,” says Kennedy-Moore. “And playing with parents is a stepping stone to later playing with peers.”
While there are certain developmental milestones which makes certain kinds of play more appropriate for different age groups, Kennedy-Moore says it’s important to remember that every child is an individual, so don’t freak out if a kid isn’t there yet by that age. And don’t get too braggy if they’re ahead of schedule.
Keeping an eye on how the infant reacts to any kind of play is important. There’s not a lot of communication coming from the child to the parent at this age, but there are two big signs to look for. If the child gets fussy or starts turning away, they’re likely overwhelmed. Pause and try again later, Kennedy-Moore explains.
Parents shouldn’t disregard the importance of infant play. While an older child won’t consciously remember the playtime that occurs at this age, there are lots of studies that show impacts from interactions at this age. Many of the academic studies focus on the negative, such as the impact of neglect or on the development of phobias. “But that just shows this time matters,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Positive experiences can do nothing but help.”
For parents who are unsure exactly where and how to begin, Kennedy-Moore offers a month-by-month guide to playing with a baby in their first year.
Baby Games For Month 1: Make Funny Faces
By one month old, babies can start to mimic the faces mom and dad are doing. Nothing too complex. Scrunch noses. Open eyes wide. Laugh lots!
Baby Games For Month 2: Buy a Balloon
Tie a helium balloon to the infant’s foot and watch as their movements make the balloon dance. “They don’t understand cause and effect yet, so they’ll be amazed. And it’s my all-time favorite thing to watch,” Kennedy-Moore says.
Baby Games For Month 3: The Itsy Bitsy Spider
At this point, song and finger play is possible. The Itsy Bitsy Spider does both.
Baby Games For Month 4: Baby Karaoke
By 4 months, babies can mimic some sounds. That means it’s the perfect time to introduce songs where you get to make funny noises. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is on point.
Baby Games For Month 5: The Baby Olympics
Babies can now reach for objects and even start to roll. By placing really cool stuff just out of reach, the baby will reach and wiggle to get them. And mom and dad get to play cheerleader.
Baby Games For Month 6: Play “Which hand?”
“This is fun. So the baby can now track between objects,” Kennedy-Moore says. “So take an object and place it in a hand. Put it forward and let them choose the right hand.”
Baby Games For Month 7: Face Puzzle
Kids can now recognize faces. Cut out a picture of grandma and put it on a puzzle piece. Use another picture of grandma and put it on the puzzle. Let the child match grandma to grandma. You can do the same with all the other important people in his or her life.
Baby Games For Month 8: Peek-a-Boo
Kids can now follow along. A game like Peek-a-Boo is great at this age because they’re in on the joke. They’ll cackle along and want you to do it again.
Baby Games For Month 9: Patty Cake
More motor development means giving high fives and reading the signs that a high-five is desired. That equals a rousing game of Patty Cake.
Baby Games For Month 10: Call and Response
Kids can now follow two-phase patterns. Teaching some call and response is particularly entertaining for onlookers. “When I say MMM you say Bop. Mmm…”
Baby Games For Month 11: Spoon Challenge
Kids will now just start to be able to use a spoon on their own. Putting chocolate pudding or another favorite treat that will hold onto the spoon is a great way to help them along.
Baby Games For Month 12: Dot-on-the-Nose
Sometime between 12 and 18 months, kids will be able to discern that they’re the image in a mirror. A fun way to test this out is to put a red dot on their nose. Then show them a mirror. If they haven’t made the connection yet, they’ll reach for the mirror. If they have made the connection, they’ll reach for their own nose.