How to play in the first year – it’s easier than you think.

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Much has been written about what NOT to do in the first year of your baby's life, most of it geared to accomplish a noble task - survival. The lists of don'ts are extensive (and contradictory!) and leave many parents anxious, bored or frustrated.

Many moms feel like they can't play in those first few months when their baby is not saying or doing much.

Many dads are concerned that the games that come naturally to them, like rough housing, are too 'rough' and will hurt their baby.

Parents are uncertain if they should be exposing their baby to stimulation programmes or keeping them at home to protect their delicate, immature neurological system from over-stimulation.

This blog looks to banish any confusion that has been created by so-called 'baby experts' and get you and your baby playing.

Because families that play together stay together!! And when play is joyful, magical things happen for both a baby's development and the parent-child bond.

mother daughter joy copy

Not feeling particularly energetic or joyful given the exorbitant demands of the first year of child-rearing? Don't fear, it is far simpler than you may have thought.

How to Play with your Baby

1. Look out for times when your baby wants to play, rather than trying to enforce a fixed play time. They may draw you in with their eyes, or smile, or coo, or babble when they see you. They are really saying 'hey mama, come play.'

2. Redefine what you call 'play'. Playing may last 5 seconds or 5 minutes depending on your baby's age and level of interest. Often, as parents we want an end product (or at least a really cute video to upload) but for babies the experience is what really matters. Blowing raspberries, ripping up a newspaper, discovering their toes. The first year is a busy experiment of discovering new sensations and movements and often all your baby wants is to discover alongside you. This is called joint attention. Rediscover your world along with your baby.

3. You are the best toy you could ever buy your baby. It turns out that if you want to give your baby the best chance at developing ANY skill, then playing with you is the best chance that they have. Motor skills? You. Emotional skills? You. Social skills? YOU! Many moms think it is exposure to a variety of toys that helps their baby learn when in fact it is exposure to their moms in a variety of situations that make their neurons fire. Your baby needs you to roll, munch, crawl, laugh, sing, rock, touch, talk, move, laugh, make funny faces, play peekaboo and clean up alongside them. And no, this does not require you to be playful all day long, but rather to be ready for play if the fun should find you.

4. Playing should be fun for you too. Every parent wants their baby to have rock-solid emotional and social skills. But what if I told you that something as simple as joy could diminish your baby's chance of developing psychological and behavioural problems in the school years and beyond? All that is needed is for you to share pleasure. Years of research by The World Association for Infant Mental Health has shown that all that is needed is:

Eye contact + genuine smile and/or laugh = Shared Pleasure (SP).

The more moments of SP, the more healthy and happy baby, and wait for it, the more happy and healthy momma! Go here to read more.

african mom baby joy copy

So if you find yourself feeling lost at home with little inspiration for play, take your baby's lead and see if you both enjoy any of the following sensori-motor games that happen to be things you do anyway:

  • Bathing- Jump in the bath together and see what happens when you add bubble bath, crunchy epsom salts, sponges and slimy baby soap.
  • Eating - Lie down on your tummies facing each other and enjoy making a yummy mess of picnicking. Prefer sitting or standing, go for it! Have a selection of smooth and rough textured favourites (apple sauce, banana slices, yogurt, chocolate pudding, teething biscuits etc..) and see what happens when you eat them, smeer them, lick them. You get the picture.
  • Dressing - Why not put on a silly hat or mask the next time you are dressing your baby? Let baby take a turn to make funny faces and hide.

Don't aim to get in 60 minutes of play. Take each day as it comes and see how you can steal these moments of joy out of the ordinary. It is amazing how much your baby will learn about following instructions, packing away, counting numbers, greeting strangers, dealing with upsets and taking turns through these simple interactions.

And remember this Finnish proverb:   “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily".

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