The Newborn Play Activity Every New Parent Should Know

Newborn baby play for infant development.

Baby milestones are so exciting and rewarding - the first smile, first roll, sitting up, walking (eek - this one terrifies me as it's fast approaching and I'm not ready!). But it's amazing to realize that nearly every single movement your baby makes in her first weeks is a milestone - a new movement experience that lays new pathways in the brain.

In fact, a large portion of early brain development is "activity-dependent" - meaning what babies DO shapes how their brains GROW. No Leapfrog learning device, baby gym class or infant sign language video will ever compare with the brain development that freedom for early movement experiences promotes.

The Ultimate Play For a Brand New Baby

The first intentional movement your baby will gain is the ability to turn her head. Capitalize on this in her early weeks and give her plenty of opportunity and incentive to turn her head on purpose. 

Not only is this practice important for developing head control and sensory processing skills, it helps baby work through any minor muscle imbalances from being confined in the womb. Lack of adequate opportunities to strengthen and balance the muscles of the neck (very commonly caused by too much time in Baby Gear) increases the risk of Torticollis, neck muscle tightness that leads to a tilted head and is a very common contributing factor in the development of Flat Head Syndrome (Positional Plagiocephaly) - and very frequently is diagnosed only after head flattening has occurred.

Positioning Your Newborn for Play

Great positions for encouraging head-turning with your newborn:

  • Belly-up: Baby can be flat on his back or with head elevated by laying against your thighs with your knees bent and feet propped up - awesome for face to face interaction (and you can ensure good positioning unlike a baby swing or bouncy seat).
  • Tummy Time: You've heard how important it is, but what you may not know is that even just 30-60 seconds counts for newborns; aim for frequent, short bursts of belly-down play throughout the day.
  • Sidelying: As baby gains neck strength, he can lay on his side for play and turn to look up; make sure to alternate which side you lay baby on so that he practices turning in both directions
  • Supported: Encourage head-turning while baby is supported on a shoulder with a hand guarding behind the head. 

Head-Turning Activities for Babies

Baby play from a pediatric Occupational Therapist. CanDo Kiddo

Simple sensory input is the stimulus your newborn needs to work on head-turning.

Keep in mind that her sensory and motor systems are new and aren't used to working together yet. Go slowly, allow baby to respond at her own pace.

Play when baby is in a "quiet, alert" state and keep her play session brief to avoid overstimulation. Two to four minutes is a great playtime for a newborn. Keep background noise to a minimum.

Visual Play for Baby:

Materials: black and white pictures, your face, a basic toy or simple household object. 

Hold objects 6-12 inches in front of baby's face in the direction she's looking. Very, very slowly move the object an inch or two in one direction. Newborns are just learning to follow moving objects with their eyes (called visual tracking), so wait for baby to find the object and then move it a bit more.

Hearing Play For Baby:

Materials: rattles, paper to crinkle, musical toy

In a quiet room, it doesn't take much noise to capture baby's attention. Make some noise on one side of baby's head and wait for her eyes and head to search for the sound. Repeat on the other side of her head. 

Touch Play For Baby:

Materials: your hands, textured toys or household objects (soft, bumpy, squishy, stringy)

Provide touch sensation to one of baby's hands and see if she turns her head toward that side. You can try light touch from your hand or a soft piece of fabric or more firm pressure like a gentle massage to her hand or arm. You might try rubbing a textured toy on her hand or wiping her arm with a bumpy dry washcloth, a cool metal spoon or your hair. 

Movement Play For baby:

Materials: your hands

By moving baby's arm for her, you bring her awareness and curiosity to the sensation of her muscles and joints changing position (called Proprioception). Gently bend her elbow and then straighten it again. Bend and straighten each finger. Watch to see if she turns toward the movement. 

The best way to play with a baby is to meet her at her ability level and expand on it with new experiences. Through head-turning play, you take an important skill that your little one is ready for and naturally working on and stretch it into new and exciting ways. You allow your kiddo to DO so that she can GROW!

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