How to play with your baby (0-6 months)

While your infant probably isn’t quite ready for touch footy in the backyard, there are still plenty of ways you can play.

Dad playing with baby

Okay, so just so we’re starting on the same scorecard here, we’re talking play in the strictest sense of the word. Play. Messing about. General fun. Not backyard Ashes cricket. Not play-to-the-death Monopoly. Not winning and losing, nor victory by any means necessary.

The time for Wrestle Mania will come, but let’s face it, any child whose age is referred to in months rather than years is simply not a *credible* opponent. Unless it’s a game of ‘how many skin folds can I get my own crap caked into’. And that’s one contest you’re never going to win.

Regular ‘play’ with your newborn is an important part of learning – for both of you. It helps their brain develop, begins the process of language acquisition and also helps build trust between you and the little eyeball gouger.

Best of all, you get front row seats as their personality starts to emerge, and can learn more about them based on what they enjoy and what they don’t quite get on board with.

So instead of propping the blob up while you flick on the highlights from last night’s game, get limbered up and give these activities 100%.

Nothing else will do…

Follow ‘the thing’

Newborns are near sighted, and for the first four months or so, can only see things within about 20-30 cm.

This is quite opposite to cats, who can only see things at least 20-30 cm away (which is why when you give them treats they sniff around it for ages even though it’s right bloody there in front of them!).

Back to babies.

What this basically means is that you need to place things right in front of their pudgy little faces.

Also, their ability to recognise colours (babies, not cats) is only starting to develop, so brights will get a better response than pastels. This applies to toys, wall decorations and anything else babies find themselves regularly pointed in the direction of.

To play, line up a row of brightly-coloured soft toys and show them one at a time, moving them slowly into your baby’s line of sight and allowing them to focus and follow. They’ll be able to see them from early on, but their ability to follow will come later, typically sometime in the first two to three months (a very exciting, highly understated milestone).

This type of play boosts hand-eye coordination, strengthens neck muscles, and encourages your baby to exercise their full range of neck movement.

It can also help avoid a whole host of – Holy shit I didn’t even know that was a thing – developmental problems. Like flat head syndrome, which if severe enough will see your baby sporting a re-shaping helmet and win you lots of judgy stares from other parents.

Babies also have a natural inclination to sleep on one side of their face, which can result in neck muscles on one side being shorter than the other. If not proactively treated, this too can cause a bunch of issues down the developmental track.

Lastly, research shows that ‘child-directed speech‘ (talking ‘directly to’ your baby, instead of simply ‘in their presence’), improves language development, and playtime is a perfect opportunity to get those synapses firing. So, make this game more exciting by incorporating some interactive storytelling, starring your favourite soft toy as the lead character.

Babies aren’t in a mental position to dissect the holes in your plot – but regardless will significantly benefit from direct eye contact, hearing different words and listening to sentence structure.

My stories are legendary – between me and my four-month-old daughter, anyway.

Oh the scrapes Miss Bunny gets into…

Peek a boo

In the very early days, baby’s reality is limited to things they can directly see in front of them – if you’re out of sight, you don’t exist.

This is a strong argument for taking as much time off work as you can swindle when they’re born, as well as a partial explanation for the unearthly screaming that sometimes ensues if you leave a very young baby ‘alone’.

At around the three to four month mark, babies begin to grasp the concept of ‘object permanence’ – that just because you can’t be seen, you may not have vanished into dust after all. Phew.

Peek a boo reinforces this learning, and also helps them build memory skills.

You don’t have to move too far initially – just out of sight (they can’t turn their heads, ha! Too easy!). As babies get older, you may have to get a little trickier – ducking down beneath their high chair or behind a door while they’re secure in a bouncer.

Mixing it up is fun, too. I amuse myself by putting on different hats and reappearing with a different accent. My Mexican chilli dealer is a real showstopper.

You can also release your inner David Copperfield and play a variation of this game by covering toys with a blanket, only for them to magically reappear with a flourish.

Realise your stage dreams

When I first became a dad, a mate told me that if a baby is crying and you can’t get them to stop, pick them up and sing them your favourite songs, because it’s really hard to reach your wit’s end when you’re singing songs you love.

He was spot on – it works ridiculously well.

And even when baby’s not exploring the extremes of his or her own vocal range, singing and dancing with your baby in your arms is an awesome way to play and bond, too.

I’ve so far got through The Boss’s albums (up to Tunnel of Love) in full, and my four-month-old finds the lyrics to Blinded by the Light particularly amusing.

Gentle swaying movements will add fun, dramatic facial expressions will provide amusement, and interesting words and sentence structure can also help language development (“with this very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground”).

Just choose your songs wisely. Babies are cunning little sponges and by the time they start to talk they already know a lot more words than they let on.

There’s plenty of time to learn those sorts of words later.

Nursery rhymes are a good default if you don’t want to go full on Linkin Park just yet. They have stood the test of time for good reason – they have simple chord progression designed to suit the smallest of ears and, through their repetitive nature, help young ones get a grasp of language.

There’s also an academic school of thought that the origins of nursery rhymes help babies settle into the cultural context of their world, as they span generations, passing down stories that are deep-rooted in history. Some, it has to be said, more disturbing than others.

You can also introduce ‘musical instruments’ – rattles – to provide a bit of extra stimulation, and by around four to five months they will be able to grab it and you’ll have your own percussion section.

While babies have no say in your set list, beware. Very quickly they’ll develop their own favourites. Our three-year-old became obsessed with ‘there’s a hole in my bucket’. I became increasingly obsessed with ‘dear’ Henry’s general incompetence and stupidity, so much so that the book had to mysteriously disappear, and we had to ride out three days of searching…

Tummy time

Tummy time – essentially your baby lying on its tummy while awake – is an incredibly important part of a young baby’s physical development. It helps build head, neck and upper body strength, and prevents your kid from developing flat spots on his head as we discussed earlier.

It’s recommended you kick this off pretty much from day one for regular, short periods of time.

Of course, most babies hate it. So turning it into a game will increase how long you can get them to do it for, and make the whole experience less stressful for everyone.

Placing toys close by and creating a story with them is a start, while moving them side to side will encourage neck movement and help strengthen the neck muscles.

Soft, bright, picture books are great to introduce here too, while non-breakable mirrors can add intrigue (up to around 12 months babies think their reflection is another baby – this can provide an additional source of entertainment).

The key take out you should be getting from all this is that playing with your baby is important, and something you should invest your time and attention in. The more you do it, the more fun it becomes, and the better you will get to know each other.

Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t be long before they’re taking great pleasure in whipping you at the latest game on their Xbox 2022, beating you by double figures on the golf course or bowling you for a duck on Boxing Day.