Don’t Wait to Play!
By Laurie Winslow Sargent
play builds intimate relationships, makes parenting more fun, and teaches
children as well. But how early can you begin to play with a baby? The first
hours after birth are not too soon.
Newborn Elisa, a mere five hours old, lay facedown on my chest, with her
tiny head snuggled under my chin. I spoke softly to her. Shakily, she raised
her head to look at me. Her head flopped back down, whew ... then up again.
She stared deeply into my eyes. Later--when she was one whole day old--we
shared an intimate moment, cheek-to-cheek, listening to the violins of Vivaldi.
But it was when she was three days old that the fun truly began.
Lights, Camera, Action!
I was laughing so hard I couldn’t keep the video camera straight;
yet I managed to record my husband Gordy’s antics with baby Elisa. Holding
her securely on his lap, he placed his thumb under Elisa’s lower lip.
He then moved it to make her “talk”, saying in a high voice, “Boy
has this been a rough day ...”
He “answered” her in his deep voice. “It has? What did
He took Elisa’s tiny finger, and made her point it to her own head,
as if she were deep in thought. Back to the high voice. “Um, let me
think ... I ate, slept, ate, and slept again ... ” Giggles from Elisa’s
siblings, ten-year-old Tyler and six-year-old Aimee, drowned out much of what
else our puppet said.
Newborns are sloppy, funny looking little things: sleepy most of the time,
their eyes not focusing well at first. Of course Elisa didn’t know what
we were doing. But we had fun building our first memories with her, and now
Elisa laughs at that video of herself. She loves seeing how we welcomed her
joyfully from the start into our family.
In the first few weeks of your own baby’s life, you may need to look
beyond his uncontrolled movements and grimaces for evidence that he’s
aware of his surroundings. But don't wait until he reacts a certain way before
you begin playing. Your interaction with him may teach him how to respond!
Michael A. Weiford (Mental Health Program Director and child specialist
for The Center for Counseling and Health Resources) states that he can tell
by talking to older children just how much their parents have interacted with
“If a child has a very enthusiastic parent, one who initiates play,
that child is probably going to look more interactive, early on.” He
says this is often apparent in the way the child makes eye contact with other
On Elisa’s fifth day in this world, she and I posed with three other
mom-baby pairs for a picture. In the resulting photo, amidst the row of swaddled
babies, is Elisa, held upright: her arms dangling, blanket falling off. And
she is looking directly at the photographer.
Had our five days of loving interaction increased her alertness? Perhaps.
But I think the real significance of that photo is in how it revealed my attitude
towards her. She was another person in the room. I wanted her face in the
picture--not her blanket. I assumed she’d want to see what was going
on, and she responded ... with bright-eyed interest.
In one national survey , parents were asked what age they thought an infant
might react to his or her surroundings. Surprisingly, more than half responded,
"Two months or older".
First-time parents are often so naturally anxious and exhausted when caring
for their newborns that the thought of play doesn’t cross their minds.
That’s especially true when babies have health problems at birth. With
premature infants, hands-on play may have to be delayed, although preemies
are likely to recognize Mom and Dad’s voices and be soothed by them.
Yet once your healthy baby is home from the hospital, it’s important
to ask yourself: is she spending too much time laying flat on her back, looking
at a designer mobile that doesn’t even hang so she can see the designs?
Neurologists studying infants have determined that stimulation can actually
help build new connections in the brain. You might be surprised to realize
how early on a baby may respond to, or even learn, a game.
Six-week-old Eli—my nephew--and I began a very fine conversation one
day, as I lay on the couch with him propped up on my bent knees.
Baby Eli cooed, "Goo!"
I answered, “Is that right? Tell me more!”
To his smile, leg kicks, and “Ahuaa gah”, I answered with disbelief,
“No way! You’ve got to be kidding!”
I then played a condensed version of Pat a Cake with him, holding his tiny
fists and clapping them together. At the end of the rhyme, I raised his hands,
saying excitedly, "Throw them in the pan!"
After a few rounds, he relaxed his arms and went along easily with the motions.
His eyes were fixed intently on me. Then I added a surprise twist: just after
the word "pan", I quickly let go of his hands and gently poked him
in the armpits. He looked startled, then giggled--for the first time in his
Ah, that first, musical, lovely, charming giggle. What a delightful sound!
As I continued to repeat the rhyme, I found that before I could say "in
the pan" or let go of his hands, he'd begin giggling. The anticipation
of the tickle made him laugh.
His mother wondered: would he play by himself, too? Sim dangled toys from
the bar of Eli’s infant seat to see what he would do. At first he stared
at the toys with concentrated interest. He jerked his arms with excitement.
Within days he was attempting to bat at them with jerky arms and clenched
How can you stimulate your own little one?
- Whenever your baby is awake, set him in his infant seat near you as you
do household chores. Let him see some action! Talk or sing to him as you
work. If you have other children, encourage them to do the same with the
- Tape colorful posters to the ceiling above your baby’s crib, or
pictures to the wall alongside the changing table. Even colorful magazine
ads with smiling faces or sister's black and white swirly drawings will
excite an infant.
- Why merely fold laundry, when you can play peek-a-boo, using a dish towel?
Within a few months, your baby will put it on his own head and wait expectantly
for you to pull it off!
- Instead of changing his sleeper silently—unless that’s all
you can muster in the middle of the night—you can say, “Hmm
... do you want the blue or the yellow one today? See
the bear on this one? Okay, in goes one leg, now two.
Oh! I’d better kiss those little toe, first!” Smooch!
Meanwhile—effortlessly—you’ll find yourself beginning to
play. Along the way, you’ll naturally teach your baby color recognition,
counting, language recognition, and other skills. Then one day, your toddler
will startle you when he sees a blue ball and cries out “Dassa beu
baw!” or counts “wun, two, as he marches downstairs.
Mom, Dad: relish being your baby’s first love, your baby’s first
teacher. Two months--sixty whole days--is too long to wait to play!
2004 Laurie Winslow Sargent, material adapted from Chapter 6, “Pampers
to Proms and Beyond” in The
Power of Parent-Child Play, with permission from Tyndale
House Publishers, Inc.
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