In this article
- When is my baby ready for sensory play?
- How can I help my baby’s senses develop?
- What sensory games and activities will boost my baby's development?
- How much time should I spend focusing on my baby?
- Can activity classes help to stimulate my baby?
Everyday activities such as playtime, nappy changing and feeding are a great opportunity to develop your baby’s sense of touch, smell, hearing, sight and taste. You can even help them use those senses to boost their physical and mental development too.
When is my baby ready for sensory play?
Right from the beginning. Even before your baby is born, they'll be tuning in to your voice and other everyday sounds, feeling your movements and even tasting the foods you eat.
By the time they enter the world they’ll already recognise your voice and smell, and they’ll instinctively be drawn to both. Your baby will love hearing you talk and having you close.
Your baby is also a born conversationalist, even though they can’t yet speak. Your newborn is drawn to faces, and will often try to copy your facial expressions as a means of communicating with you (Meltzoff et al 1983).
Try sticking your tongue out at them or opening and closing your mouth. They may imitate you! Even if they don’t seem to respond, you can rest assured that they're enjoying the attention. It’s just the start of a lifelong conversation between the two of you.
How can I help my baby’s senses develop?
Caring for your baby’s basic needs is time-consuming, but you can easily stimulate their senses with everyday activities – even while you’re feeding them, changing their nappy or settling them down for sleep.
- When your baby is lying in their cot, buggy or on a play mat, try to give them interesting things to look at and touch. Placing them in different spots around the house will give them different views too.
- Aim to give your baby at least three short sessions of tummy-time every day. Over time, you can gradually increase the length of the sessions until your baby’s spending about an hour on their tummy over the course of the day. Once they're more physically active, make sure there are safe places where they can practise rolling, crawling and climbing over obstacles such as cushions (Kaplan-Sanoff et al 2002).
- Keep chatting with your baby about what you’re doing, whether it’s climbing the stairs or preparing dinner. If you notice your baby is interested in something, talk to them about it. They’ll be much more likely to learn from you if they're really excited (NCITF 2007).
- While you’re changing your baby’s nappy, describe what you’re doing and how you imagine they're feeling to help them label their emotions. Give them cotton wool, wet wipes, and clean nappies to feel, and tell them about the different textures.
- When your baby is enjoying their milk, gently stroke their back and make eye contact with them to strengthen your emotional bond. Once they start eating solids, describe the tastes and textures of the different foods, and encourage them to explore them with their hands as well as their mouth. It may cause a bit of a mess, but your baby will enjoy it!
- Encourage your baby to explore toys in different ways by shaking, banging, stacking and stroking them. Build their self-confidence by congratulating them when they manage to reach something or seems to understand how a new toy works.
- Turn bathtime into an opportunity to learn about sinking and floating, warm and cold, wet and dry. Show your baby how water flows between different objects, and encourage them to explore this for themselves with cups, sponges and bottles.
What sensory games and activities will boost my baby's development?
Although their eyesight is a little blurry until they're around five months old, your baby can make out the details of your face. Watching your facial expressions and behaviour will play a crucial role in the development of social skills.
Between two months and four months, your baby will start making eye contact with you. They may even smile, “talk” or make gestures. Your responses to their little signals will help them understand a sense of self, as well as helping the two of you bond (Murray 2014).
Another skill they're developing in these early months is how to coordinate their head and eye movements. This will help them watch moving objects and understand how they relate to other objects around them (Slater 2007). You can help them develop this skill by slowly moving a toy across their field of vision and encouraging them to watch it.
Your baby’s sense of touch is highly developed at birth. Their mouth is particularly sensitive to textures and temperatures, and they’ll be keen to use it to explore new objects (Slater 2007).
From around five months, your baby may start to reach out for objects. You can encourage their physical development by placing a toy within their eyesight but just out of reach. Watch as they shuffle, stretch or roll towards it! Hanging a rattle or mobile where they can kick at it, will also help to teach them about cause and effect.
Gently stroking and massaging your baby will use their sense of touch to soothe and reassure them. You’ll probably find it lovely and relaxing too!
Your baby recognises your voice from birth (DeCasper et al 1980). They can detect if you switch to a different language, and they’ll be more responsive to a happy tone of voice than a neutral or sad tone (Mastropieri et al 1999). Every time you talk to them, your baby is listening and learning about different sounds, rhythms and patterns.
When you’re speaking to your baby, give them a chance to respond with a smile, gurgle or laugh. When they respond, answer them back. This shows your baby that you’re interested in what they have to say, as well as helping their language and understanding to develop.
Babbling, playing and laughing with your baby is also important for your own wellbeing. It triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which helps create that close and loving bond between you. Your baby’s dad will also produce oxytocin when he holds, plays with or chats to your baby. The more oxytocin he produces, the more engaged he’s likely to become (Gordon et al 2010).
How much time should I spend focusing on my baby?
Your baby’s attention span is far shorter than that of an older child or adult. You may find that your baby quickly becomes overwhelmed by too much stimulation. Signs that your baby may be feeling tired or bored include:
- rubbing their eyes
- looking away
- crying or fussing
- arching their back
- closing their eyes or falling asleep
When you think they've had enough entertainment, give them a break by clearing away their toys and just holding them or singing quietly to them. If they look sleepy, try putting them down for a nap.
Don’t worry about creating a set time to play with your baby every day. If they seem calm, and are making eye contact, moving their arms and legs, and making sounds (NCITF nd), they're probably ready to play! You may find this is usually when they're well-fed and feeling rested.
With time, you’ll learn to read your baby’s cues, but don’t worry if you can’t do it straight away - both of you are still getting to know each other.
Can activity classes help to stimulate my baby?
You are your baby’s first playmate, and should be able to provide all the stimulation they need in the early days. The activities you do together, such as cuddling, making faces, talking, singing, reading stories, and exploring interesting objects and toys, are all rich sources of stimulation for your little one.
As they get older, you may think about taking your baby out to group activities, such as music classes. Although babies don’t really start to play with other children until towards the middle of their second year (Murray 2014), attending group activities can have other benefits.
One study looked at six-month-old babies who attended a weekly music class that involved action songs and playing instruments. The study compared this with babies who attended a class where they listened to music while playing with toys.
The study found that the babies who played instruments in their classes had a better sense of musical pitch and more advanced early communications skills (Gerry et al 2012). However, it’s unclear whether the babies would have developed similar skills through simply making music with their parents in their own homes.
Group activities can also be a great way of meeting other parents and finding future playmates for your baby. They’re a great excuse to leave the house and stimulate your own senses. If you’re feeling happier and more invigorated, you’re likely to be better company for your baby.
Be aware that babies develop at different rates. If your baby doesn’t seem to be doing the same things as others the same age, this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong, or that they're not enjoying these interactions with you. If you have concerns about any of your baby’s senses, talk to your GP or health visitor.
DeCasper AJ, Fifer WP. 1980. Of human bonding: newborns prefer their mothers’ voices. Science 208(4448):1174-1176
Gerry D, Unrau A, Trainor LJ. 2012. Active music classes in infancy enhance musical, communicative and social development. Developmental Science 15(3):398–407
Gordon L, Zagoory-Sharon O, Leckman JF, et al. 2010. Oxytocin and the development of parenting in humans. Biol Psychiatry 68(4):377-82
Kaplan-Sanoff M. 2002. Stimulating environments. In Jellinek M, Patel BP, Froehle MC. eds. Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health—Volume II. Tool Kits Arlington, VA: National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health.
Mastropieri D, Turkewitz G. 1999. Prenatal experience and neonatal responsiveness to vocal expressions of emotion. Developmental Psychobiology 35:204–214
Meltzoff AN, Moore NK. 1983. Newborn Infants imitate adult facial gestures. Child Development 54(3):702-9.
Murray L. 2014. The Psychology of Babies Constable and Robinson Ltd.
NCITF 2007 Everyday ways to support your baby’s and toddler’s early learning National Centre for Infants, Toddlers and Families
NCITF nd Playing with babies National Centre for Infants, Toddlers and Families
Slater A. 2007. Introduction to Infant Development 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press
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