A few years back, Jonathan Liu of wired.com reviewed all the toy products to narrow down the five best toys that no child should be without: a stick, box, string, cardboard tube, and dirt. This is a fantastic list! In fact, I’m surprised these things are still in stock since I’m pretty sure we have all of them from everywhere. (If you need to borrow any, they lay on the floorboard of our collection-mobile or stockpiled in the closet.) No stick, box, string, tube, or pile of dirt has been left unseen, fetched, loved, and retrieved from the trash or recycling bin by my older son.
While I stand solidly by Jonathan’s spot on list of best toys, most of them are too grown up for new and growing babies. Infants have a while to wait before they are mobile and can fully partake in the fun. Meanwhile, parents struggle with how to occupy their mostly stationary little people, who want all of their attention all of the time.
Sure there is a huge selection of “must have” infant toys out there that are meant to satisfy. A host of overly priced and very plastic options pervade the market. There are teethers, rattles, stacking cups, plush animals, crib mobiles, and musical devices. “Make you smarter” electronics, vibrating chairs, and deluxe swings. Never mind the space takers: activity centers, gyms, walkers, and exercisers. Despite all of these niceties, parents still find it hard to get a free moment (while simultaneously experiencing guilt from not stimulating their very, very bored infants, whose brains are surely and rapidly gelatinizing).
Good news! It’s not true! Your little one’s brain is more invigorated than you know. And most of the aforementioned toys are unnecessary. Below is a list for YOU, parents of tiny critters! Here are some “toys” that are tried and true and sure to occupy your little ones as they begin to explore our world:
- Your face. Believe it or not, your smiling, love struck face is the single most interesting thing on this planet to your newborn baby. At birth, babies can see clearly up to about a foot. Holding and making eye contact with your baby aids brain development on so many levels – she can focus on and see you, prefers to look at human faces, listens to your words, and is looking for you to be expressive and responsive. Your mindful and loving presence is so meaningful, as it lays the foundation for social exchange. So spend ten-ish minutes at intervals throughout the day giving your baby undivided face time. It’s better for her brain than Baby-Einstein-anything. An easy way to do this is during feedings. Your baby will take breaks and look up at you. Be ready to smile and chat, and keep that smart phone in another room. (Imagine baby looking up over and over to see you zoned out.) Feeding is your baby’s first efforts at communication. Simply being present is enough to keep her brain plenty active.
- Your body. Your baby will know yours and your partner’s bodies better than anyone else. As the primary caregivers, she’ll know your heartbeats, warmth, voices, movements, and the unique ways you comfort and hold her. Splitting at birth into her own independently functioning little body is brand new and an altogether different existence than her cozy last nine months. She will be most happy living, breathing, sleeping, eating, and (yes) pooping attached snuggly to you. Bide your time, Mama or Papa. Too soon will come the day when you send her off to college. Relish in those early days and wear that baby. Little by slow she will sleep and eat without you. By staying close, you build a love and trust that all of her needs will be met. She’s learning about this brave new world, and you can ease that transition and reassure her that it’s safe by keeping her near.
- Contrast. As your baby increases her wake times, you’ll be able to put her down more often and for longer. Parents typically worry that their babies are bored during these times, and they tend to over stimulate with high sensory knick-knacks. Don’t do it! Your baby’s environment is plenty interesting. Babies love shadows, contrasts, and well timed scene changes. Corners at the ceiling are absolutely enthralling – especially if one wall is painted another color. Between an accent wall and the shadows that are cast by three walls coming together, your infant may stare (what seems like) mindlessly at the merger. She is processing depth, which is important for her vision. Red, black, and white are great contrast colors, but so are other combos – place your infant so that she can see and process contrasting colors (you can buy a contrast mat or just use what’s in your environment). When she’s done, she’ll let you know, and you can easily change her scene. Look for signs that your baby is tired or over stimulated – she may turn her gaze, get fussy, make fists, or kick.
- Ceiling Fan. Babies are unreasonably fascinated by ceiling fans, which most parents discover during diaper changes. It’s almost disturbing how they blankly stare for an uncomfortable amount of time at the rotating blades. Fans hit on several biological triggers for infants – babies are wired to pay attention to motion, contrast, and rhythm. Simply put, a fan is the perfect storm of everything your baby’s brain wants. They’re baby crack. So let her infinitely stare, she is learning more than you know! Do be careful about brightness if your fan has a light. Run the fan by itself and use a different light source if possible.
- Reusable nursing pad. Milk leakage is the bane of most nursing Mama’s wardrobes, as it is highly annoying yet guilt inducing all at once. Despite the loss of liquid gold into the nursing pad, there is a way to somewhat salvage the milk. Rather than toss your reusable pads into the laundry, consider tossing one to your baby. She will go to town chewing and sucking on it. The milk is quite possibly her favorite smell in the universe, it will have a comforting effect on her, and it will buy you a good five minutes of freedom if not more. Also consider tossing a heavily soaked pad directly into the freezer. You can pull it out later to help soothe your teething infant. (Please do not try this with disposable pads – I’m quite certain those materials are not to be ingested.) If reusable pads are not your thing, never fear. Soaking a small washcloth or cloth teether with some milk will also do the trick.
- Strap. A strap is an elongated piece of fabric or leather, and babies love them. As they get older, strings and ribbons are more fun and versatile, but string isn’t yet appropriate for our youngest humans. The right strap will keep your baby occupied chewing and grasping for many more minutes than commercial toys. Check out your bags, your clothes, belts, and household objects – you’ll find straps on backpacks, laundry baskets, reusable grocery bags, baby carriers, and more. Be careful to avoid straps that baby can wrap around her neck or get caught in. Straps are most safe when they are shorter or affixed to other objects.
- Paper towel roll. Cardboard tubes are one of Jonathan Liu’s original Five Best Toys. I wanted to single out a paper towel roll specifically for infants. They have just enough give to maul yet are robust enough to not break down too quickly. They do soften and start to tear with mouthing, so you have to be deft at switching them out. But they are perfect for grasping, swinging, smashing, mauling, rolling, and chasing. Your child will play with this far longer than a rattle. (Please do not give your child toilet paper rolls – there are obvious sanitary issues with mouthing these, and they are not as stout as a paper towel roll.)
- Spoon. As your child becomes interested in solid foods, she will be overjoyed to hold and mouth a spoon. You can give her a spoon while you feed her or just to occupy her. She will practice hand to mouth coordination by putting the spoon in her mouth as well as grasping by picking up the spoon each time she drops or throws it. You might be worried about letting her on the loose with a spoon, which looks like it could impale her. Be smart – don’t let your newly walking baby toddle with a spoon hanging out of her mouth. But also take a look at her other infant toys and realize there are many impaling hazards. Bottom line, always supervise your infant with a spoon AND a spoon is uber happy making.
- Water bottle. As your baby is learning to sit, try giving her your water bottle. She will enjoy grabbing it, pushing it over, and sucking on the lid. She watches you drink from it many times a day – nothing will excite her more than getting to do the same! Because she is not accustomed to drinking water yet, it likely won’t frustrate her to not actually drink from the bottle. As she begins to crawl, you can set it a few feet away to entice her. The weight of the water bottle, it’s shape, the reflection of the water, and the fact that it is something special to you all make the water bottle something your child will want.
There you have it, Mamas and Papas. Super easy “toys” that will pique your babies’ interests and grow their brains. Take a deep breath and rest assured, you and your environment are more than enough to keep your baby happy, well stimulated, safe, and growing strong. Much love.