Spending tech-free time together is more important than ever. When your family hits a rough patch (as all families do)—say one of you loses a job, Grandma becomes ill, or your child struggles in school or with friends—having a strong bond is like an inflatable mattress that cushions life’s blows. “The memories you create together will sustain, empower, and encourage your child,” says Sandra Hassink, M.D., past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
We’re all busy and tend to think that bonding happens naturally, but the truth is that forging a close connection takes effort. You already do lots of things to show your love—from kissing boo-boos to reading bedtime stories—but in case you need some fresh ideas, check these out.
1. Touch your baby every chance you get. When my friend Debra adopted her daughter, the social worker who visited after four weeks noticed how quickly and deeply they had bonded. “She saw how I would constantly stroke my daughter’s little leg or hand with my thumb,” says Debra, who wasn’t even aware of this. The social worker believed it was a way for Debra to let her baby know that Mommy was always present.
2. Go skin to skin. Moms who nurse do this automatically. But if you bottlefeed, pull up your shirt and let your baby lie across your belly or chest (dads can do this too). Take a few moments to drink in the warmth and feel your hearts beat together.
My favorite picture of my daughter, Hannah, and my husband, Ed, is from a time when we were crammed into a tiny apartment and living a no-frills life. She’s standing on a chair beside him at our kitchen counter, and both of their faces are dappled with flour. Hannah’s hands are plunged into a big blob of dough, and her smile is a mile wide.
Back then, Ed baked bread every week, and when Hannah was 2, he turned her into his little helper. Not only did she like to crack the eggs, sprinkle the flour, knead the dough, and taste the loaf fresh from the oven, but she loved having her daddy’s undivided attention.
3. Act like a mirror. Did your baby learn a new trick, like how to stick out her tongue, make raspberries, or say “ba-ba”? Imitate her. My kids were always thrilled when I did. It made me feel like we were a team, and I like to think it made them feel that way too.
4. Feed each other lunch. When your child is able to hold his own spoon and put it into his mouth (for the most part), let him try to get food in yours as well. If he gets it all over your face, say, “Uh-oh!” and act surprised, then smile.
5. Let her give you a new hairdo. No matter how it looks, tell your child she’s made you feel fancy. Pose for a picture (and if you’re brave, post it). Just steer clear of actual scissors!
6. Give gentle massages. Offer to rub your kid’s back, feet, hands, or scalp, even for five minutes before he goes to bed. He’ll feel calm and secure and sleep better too.
7. Gaze at the stars. Point out the Big Dipper, but then get creative and make up your own constellations: “That looks like Peppa Pig! And there’s a piece of broccoli, see?”
8. Be silly in the rain. As long as there’s no thunder or lightning, challenge your child to run outside and splash in puddles with you, catch drops on her tongue, or sing and dance like Gene Kelly.
10. Toss out open-ended questions. Ask about your child’s likes and dislikes (“What would be the best day ever? And the worst?”). Repeat back what he says to show you’ve listened and you care (“So, you’d eat ice cream while taking a horseback ride on the beach? That does sound like a great day!”).
11. Turn bathtime into spa time. Once your child is old enough, light candles and put lavender oil in the water as you supervise. My kids loved “candle baths” and requested them all the time. And they knew I took them myself.
12. Play Three Truths and a Lie. At the dinner table, take turns listing three things that happened that day and one that didn’t. Everyone has to guess which one isn’t true. Kids think it’s fun and funny that they’re supposed to fib. “When your children laugh, it releases hormones that make them feel relaxed and happy,” says Parents advisor Jenn Mann, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.
13. Warm your kids’ pajamas in the dryer. On cold nights, they’ll love hopping into something toasty. This is a little way to let them know their comfort is always on your mind. Plus, it literally takes two minutes.
14. Take a spontaneous trip. I’ll never forget the day my dad was supposed to drop my brother and me off at Sunday school but took us to the beach instead. It was the first sunny day of spring, and our walk along the shore with our hair whipping in the wind is etched in my mind to this day.
15. Have a staring contest. Before he could tell you what he was thinking, you used to gaze into your baby’s eyes. Here’s a way to start doing it again: See who can maintain eye contact the longest without blinking (or laughing). Your kid will love that adults aren’t always better at this game.
16. Look for recipes together. Ask your child to name her favorite fruit or veggie, then search for cool recipes that use it as a main ingredient (e.g., curried carrot soup, carrot soufflé, and carrot muffins). Then have her serve as your sous-chef. When you’re done, take turns rating your dish.
17. Video-chat before bed. When you’re away for business or pleasure, read a story or sing a song, and tell your child you can’t wait to get home. Your face and your voice are the best things he’ll ever experience on a screen.
18. Throw a dance party. Play some irresistible music and have your kids show off their best moves. Hoot and holler and then take your turn. Even choreograph a family routine.
19. Make funny family videos. You can let your kids wing it, but offer to help write and direct. My kids liked to pretend to be Mommy and Daddy, and their imitations were so spot-on that we cracked up every time we watched the videos. Keep them a family secret!
20. Pick new names for each other. I once asked my sons what they’d call our dogs if they had the choice. One said, “Fluffy Sniffy.” The other said, “Rainbow Petty-Petty.” So sometimes we called our pets that as a joke. When a friend let her toddler name their dog for real, their golden retriever ended up being Cucumber. Or ask the kids what they think the dog or cat would name you if he could. Ha!
21. Make up songs in the car. After hitting a record number of green lights on our way home one day, I made up a song that went like this: “It’s a green light day, It’s a green light day. Hip hip hooray, it’s a green light day!” Years later, my sons still know the tune.
22. Do something totally off the wall. When my friend Elena’s daughter, Elle, got up on the wrong side of the bed one day, Elena asked if she could suck the bad mood out of her ear and spit it out. Then she pretended to do it. They both laughed hysterically and this ritual got them through many grumpy moods after that.
23. Tell the story about the day he was born. Describe what you were doing when you went into labor, how you got to the hospital, what the doctor’s name was, and the first thing everyone said after he was born. Pull out your first photos and make sure you say it was the best day of your life.