9 Ways to Get the Most from Playtime

Get lost, buzzing phone. Move over, dirty laundry. Our nine brilliantly easy ways to carve out short bursts of playtime with your baby will transform his day—and yours.

Mom and Son Playing on Couch Stephanie Rausser
Let's face it: Some days, you’re so busy trying to put Baby down for a nap, or take a chunk out of that pile of paperwork on your kitchen table, that you forget to hang out with your baby and simply play. But while the thought of playtime calls to mind pure fun (and may therefore seem kind of optional), it’s actually crucial to your child’s emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development. “Play is your baby’s work,” explains Michele Borba, Ed.D, author of UnSelfie. “It’s how infants explore the world, develop fine and gross motor skills, learn language, and connect with us emotionally so that they can grow into happy, healthy, and smart little people.”

The good news is that finding moments to play with your little one throughout the day is a lot easier than, say, trying to book a coffee date with another busy mom. And you don’t have to feel pressured to entertain your baby—in fact, the opposite is preferable. “A better approach is to use play as an opportunity to tune in to your baby,” explains Janet Lansbury, author of Elevating Child Care. “Respond to her instead of trying to get a response out of her.” Use these ideas to seamlessly enjoy your sweetie throughout your day. 

Before You Leave for Work

Ease the transition into your work day (and your baby’s day with another caregiver) by blocking off 10 to 15 minutes of your morning for one-on-one playtime. “This should be a quiet, peaceful time for you both,” says Lansbury, who suggests getting away from the phone, TV, and other distractions, including mental ones. “You may already be thinking about your commute or what you need to tackle at work, but try to stick all of that in an imaginary basket and put it aside so you can sit down together and give your baby your undivided attention.”

You might sing a song or gently exercise his arms and legs, or you can simply talk to him about your upcoming day. “Whatever you do, you’ll be cementing your baby’s attachment to you and planting the seeds of empathy,” says Dr. Borba. “And many parents find a special morning play ritual helps them feel better about going off to their job.” 

After Eating

When your baby finishes nursing or drinking her bottle, she’ll likely be calm, happy, and ready for some gentle play. Just be sure to get that big burp and spit-up out of the way first! “My daughter loved when I held her face-to-face with me while we sat on the bed,” recalls Katherine Brown of New York City. “We’d chat and giggle at each other for a bit. Then I’d pretend to fall over and sit back up again, which was always good for a big belly laugh!”

In the Stroller

“Sing or talk to your baby whenever you’re out for a walk,” Dr. Borba recommends. “You can point out familiar landmarks or talk about what’s going on with the weather. Even if he can’t see you from his perch in the stroller, he’ll start connecting the sound of your voice to the different objects he sees.” Resist the urge to tie on lots of stroller toys or distractions, since anytime you’re outside, your baby is automatically “playing,” thanks to the stimulation from the lights and sounds of the natural world. “My 4-month-old is fascinated by the way the sunlight flickers between the leaves on trees and by the different textures of sand, grass, or water,” says Melissa Nelson, a mom of two in New Paltz, New York.

While You're Folding Laundry

Create what Lansbury calls a “yes space” in your house, so you always have a safe place for Baby to play on her own while you do a task in the same room with her. For babies who aren’t yet crawling, this can be as simple as a soft blanket on the floor.

“If you’re folding laundry next to your munchkin, you can talk to her about what you’re doing and even offer her a soft, clean washcloth to explore,” suggests Dr. Borba. “Fabrics and textures are incredibly interesting to babies.” A washcloth is also perfect for a peekaboo session. Playing this classic game teaches object permanence, the important concept that people and things don’t disappear just because they can’t be seen at the moment. 

In the Kitchen

“Babies love to cook!” Dr. Borba notes. Keep your little one at your level as much as possible, perhaps by bringing his high chair over to the counter where you’re preparing food. (Obviously, steer clear of the stove!) “This way he can see what you’re doing and also play with his own set of measuring spoons or cups,” she explains. “Babies love to copy, so if you say, ‘Let’s stir, stir, stir!’ he’ll soon do the same.”

When your baby begins crawling or cruising, try designating a lower cupboard for him to explore. “With both of my boys, I made sure one kitchen cabinet was stocked with Tupperware and wooden spoons,” says Jennifer Benz, a mom of two in Marblehead, Massachusetts. “They loved crawling or shuffling in and pulling everything out!” 

After Naptime

As your baby grows, she’ll have an increasingly longer period of feeling energetic and alert after each nap, which offers a prime opportunity for more boisterous play. “This might sound weird, but both of my girls loved when I pulled them around in a cardboard box,” says Jennifer Rainey Marquez, a mom of two in Atlanta. “A diaper box is often the perfect size, and you can use the cut-out handhold to attach a rope or ribbon. Voilà: baby car!”

Mom Helping Baby Walk Stephanie Rausser
When You're Stuck

If Baby’s on your lap while you’re in the pediatrician’s waiting room or a long line at the grocery store, keeping your pumpkin calm gets easier if you look at these times as opportunities to connect and play. Songs with finger games, for instance, offer gentle stimulation and language exposure. “This is when I’d do endless renditions of the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’” says Jenny Hyatt McGlothlin, a Dallas mom of three.

Lansbury suggests bringing along a small bag containing a favorite teether or a couple of board books. “I always like to offer babies a choice of two toys or books,” she notes. “It gives them a sense of agency over the situation, which can be helpful when they might otherwise get restless or impatient.” 

In the Bath

Baths tend to become more fun once your baby is sitting up by himself, which usually happens between 6 and 8 months of age. “Start by noticing how he interacts with the water. Does he get excited when he sees how he can make a splash? Is he interested in how a plastic cup can float?” asks Lansbury. You can incorporate the actual bathing (even the dreaded hair washing!) into your play by talking to your baby about each step of the process as you do it, and also by maintaining eye contact. “Maybe there’s a song you always sing about taking a bath, or a certain way he responds to the rubber duck, which you can notice and talk about with him,” suggests Lansbury. “‘There’s that yellow duck you like, floating by!’ you might say. It’s almost like an inside joke between you and your baby, but it also serves as a helpful reference point so he knows where you are during the bathtime ritual.” 

Before Bed

Most babies need to wind down to go to sleep, notes Dr. Borba, so this is definitely not the time for lots of excitement. Quiet songs, finger play, and reading books are all perfect ways to connect and cuddle with your little one at the end of the day. The warm, fuzzy feeling you’ll both get is the perfect segue into the land of nod! 

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