Break open a book, make a silly face, cuddle while cooing, or tickle your little one's toes. Not only are you baby's best playmate, you are "the teacher of your baby's brain," says Alice Sterling Honig, PhD, professor emeritus of child development at Syracuse University and author of Playtime Learning Games for Young Children.
Playing with your baby unlocks endless possibilities for mental and social development. Here's how to make playtime even more rewarding during your baby's first year.
1. Ease into play. Take advantage of any opportunity to increase parent-baby interaction: It builds trust and creates a secure bond, Honig says. During diaper time, for instance, stroke baby's tummy and talk to her while making eye contact. Say, "You have such a pretty tummy" and "You're such a cute little baby." Speaking in "parentese"--using a higher-pitched voice, delighted tone, and drawn-out syllables--attracts attention to your speech and promotes language development. "She doesn't know what you're saying, but she knows that what you're saying sounds pleasurable," Honig says.
2. Play hardworking games. During the second 6 months, babies become more active play partners, Honig says. Continue stimulating speech with games that involve chanting or rhyming, such as "This Little Piggy," "Patty Cake," "The Wheels on the Bus," and "Ring Around the Rosy." Multitasking activities such as these teach sequences of actions and words; encourage baby to participate with movement, whether it's swaying to the sound or incorporating hand motions; and improve motor skills.
3. Encourage communication. Whenever baby babbles or coos, repeat the sound she makes, then give her the chance to respond. This shows her that what she's saying is important to you and encourages reciprocal communication.
4. Know when it's okay to play. Playtime is more productive when your baby is well-rested and alert. "It's not a good time to play if he's drowsy, crabby, or hungry," Honig says. Signs baby isn't ready to play? He'll turn his face or his entire body away from you, divert eye contact, or arch his back. "Respect baby's signals," Honig says. "Your baby will show you when it's a good time to play."
5. Engage their minds. Increase your baby's attention span by encouraging exploration, Honig says. While reading together, point out details about the characters, such as their color or the sounds they make, and ask your child to turn the pages. Give young babies something basic, like a rattle, blocks, or stacking toys, and let them chew, bang, and shake the toys to their hearts' content so they can determine what the toy does and learn about cause and effect.
6. Avoid over-stimulation. Stick to one or two toys at a time. Surrounding your little guy with several toys at once can do more harm than good. "He'll run from one thing to the next rather than fully exploring a single toy," Honig says.
7. Reap the benefits yourself. Playtime "enriches your entire life," Honig says. And by serving as a constant companion for your little one, Honig says, you develop solid observational skills that may allow you to detect potential problems, such as the need for language therapy, before your pediatrician or another medical professional does. "You are the first line of defense for your baby," she says.