This is my second child, and with thirteen years difference between the two, I’ve had a lot of time to consider what I wanted to differently with this child in order to serve his needs better than I did my first. One major area in which I possessed a dearth of knowledge was how to spend those awake, alert, non-nursing times with a baby.
There are hosts of well-meaning government and medical pamphlets with short lists of stuff to do, but without explanation of how to implement them daily and across hours of time each day. How do you stay focused, establish a routine, yet not become so set in said routine as to become blindingly bored?
In other words, how do you engage with a child under six months old?
Here’s what we’re doing this time around:
1. Exercise. I found a great link thanks to Pinterest titled Seven Activities to Do with your baby 0-6 months. It’s a short list with descriptions and video showing how to work with your infant to help improve sensory and gross motor function for the second half of the first year when babies tend to become more ambulatory. While it says 0-6 months, I’ve found some of these are better from one to three months on, but the massage is definitely good from birth!
2. Talking. We talk almost constantly. We talk about all the trivial things no one talks about (“mama is brushing her hair. Now I’m putting my hair into a ponytail so it’s out of the way”). We speak clearly, annunciating our words, and making eye contact as often as possible.
We hold conversations, “It’s time for a diaper change. Ooh look, there are elephants on this wipe. Which color diaper cover do you want this time? Yellow or green?” We make eye contact while speaking with him. We use simple ASL signs for common things like “milk” and “change diaper”; he may not be able to make these signs yet himself, but he sees them and will use them soon enough. He came up with his own sign to tell us he wanted to be picked “up” since he doesn’t have fine motor control of his fingers yet.
And I employ methods for language acquisition learned in my linguistic anthropology classes, namely: speak a single word or phrase slowly, breaking down the sounds (phonemes) and exaggerating the placement of the tongue, etc. I show my son where the sound comes from in my mouth and make sure he can see it, and I work with him on vowel sounds and consonants that can be made easily without teeth (e.g. “el”, “buh”, “puh”, et al).
3. Singing. Whether you’re musically gifted or not, try to sing as much as you can. Lullabies and soothing songs are great for calming and getting baby to sleep, but engaging in singing upbeat and up tempo songs are a fun way to interact and they ALSO help with language acquisition (singing activates a different part of our brains than speaking, and has been used as a form of speech therapy in people who have suffered brain injury and lost the ability to speak; by singing the words, they’re able to relearn how to verbally communicate). If you really can’t hold a tune, play music you enjoy and lip synch or dance with the music for your baby’s entertainment. Remember, it doesn’t have to be all baby and toddler music, play what you love, just listen to cues when your baby vetoes a particular song.
4. Reading. Read books out loud. Read books you enjoy, though if they’re not ready to sleep, they may not be as engaged in the story unless they can see your face. Picture books are wonderful, you can pick up dozens from the library at once, and if you and your child find one you adore, buy it later! Read with a slow, deliberate cadence, talking about the pictures between paragraphs or verses.
Some of my favorites for this age include: Seuss books (lots of contrast, primary colors, and rhyming words), There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, Where the Wild Things Are, Time to Sleep, and Song of Night: It’s Time to Go to Bed. The baby faces series is also exciting for little ones to look at (but not for bed).
5. Movement. Whether your baby has colic like mine or not, carrying you child most of the time will help recreate the familiar sensations of being in the womb and increase a sense of safety and security (it’ll also help move gas out and lymph fluid around). Also follow your baby’s lead about their own desires to move around and provide support for sitting, standing, foot grabbing, rolling, even attempts at walking. I also do postpartum yoga while he lays on a mat next to me and I like to hold my son close (supporting his head) and dance with him. For more ideas see the link in #1 and check out some baby yoga books.
6. Playing with toys. I love giving my son the opportunity to make choices even at this early stage (and use your best guess about what your baby prefers), and I tend to give him two choices for outfits or diaper covers (whatever he stares at most, kicks, or grabs for is what I take for a choice). However, with toys it’s better to offer one choice at a time, let baby play with it, and when clearly done, offer something else. At three months, my son plays with 5″ knobby balls, 5-7″ kick balls and non-PVC beach style ball, three wooden teethers (one sheep, one rattler, one set of rings on a rope, all from etsy crafters), a cotton teether, a “happy apple”, a “scraptopus”, maracas, a small tambourine, a handful of small fabric stuffed animals, and a homemade play mat from a baby gym I didn’t finish making. He loves playing in his bouncy chair or on a lap.
7. Playing games. And like his toys, he enjoys playing a rotation of games. Peek-a-boo involves him hiding his face beneath his blanket as we say “goodbye” and revealing himself, so we say “hello”. This game started around four weeks with me hiding under his blanket instead. At one point, his father flipped a blanket corner over our son’s face instead. He liked it so much, he created this game with us. He also enjoys patty-cake, but being unable to clap yet (our pediatrician suggested we help him with this and we do), he prefers to do it with his feet. We don’t use the patty-cake rhyme each time, either, just the first round (he could play for hours, which is why my upcoming children’s books is titled “The Patty-Cake Tyrant”). Instead, we use a host of nursery rhymes, songs, and other rhythmic poems while he lifts his feet. It teaches language, rhythm, repetition/patterning, and gives him a small workout.
8. Mirror time. Nothing is as wonderful as seeing my son light up in the mirror. At first I’d just hold him in front of it, or let him recline in his Puj tub in the sink to watch himself. Now, he wants me to hold him up while walks to the mirror over my partner’s dresser and let him try to touch his reflection. Whenever he’s particularly fussy and the usual tricks don’t work, we pay a five to ten minute visit to the mirror.
9. Alternate/switch-up the routine. While some things should provide a stable routine (bedtime is a big one), you don’t need to do everything the same way each day. Change activities, only use some toys some days, get out of the house, even if its to play in the yard or a visit the local park or library. A change in environment will refresh you both, and give baby a chance to explore new spaces.
10. Nothing. No really, once in a while you can choose to do nothing together. Sometimes, I’ll lay in bed next to my son when he’s calmly staring at pictures on the wall, looking out the window, playing with his feet, or nomming his fists or blankets, and just enjoy doing nothing for a few minutes. It allows him to process his recent experiences before encountering new ones, and gives me a break from having to perform or actively provide care. It’s relaxing, and we can bond in the way so many people do — we just hang out together. If we blacked out the window, turned on a red bulb, and put on The Wall, it wouldn’t be much different from spending time with my friends in my late teens! So, take five and enjoy the peace.
Of course, nursing, diaper changes, and cuddling are wonderful times to bond, get creative with your baby, be silly, be dramatic. Two days ago, my son made his first art by standing on a piece of paper with paint on his feet, though I dare say he was confused about the whole process, he loved having his feet washed in a bucket of warm water afterwards while staring at himself in the mirror.
Enjoy these tender times, for they truly don’t last as long as we’d like. Hug those babies for me!