The first year of your child’s life is an important period of learning. Dr Jo-Marie Bothma, clinical psychologist and play therapist, looks at games you can play with your baby to make the most of this time.

Foetal psychology and infant mental health are still in their infancy, but it is believed that the first years of a child’s life are a prime time for learning. More precisely, clinicians and infant-developmental experts worldwide are now recognising that the first 1 000 days of our lives, from conception to our second birthday, are critical to lifespan development.

These heart-warming, at times tiring, but without a doubt golden early months present a special window of opportunity for early neurodevelopmental stimulation to have the greatest impact.

It is well known that a baby’s physical development progresses in what we commonly call growth spurts. A baby might grow slowly for some time, and then suddenly their growth chart indicates a major jump. Research now also shows that essentially the same thing happens in a baby’s mental development.

Neurological studies have shown that there are times when major, dramatic brain changes take place in babies during the first 1 000 days. Shortly after each of them, there is a parallel leap forward in their neurodevelopment, and a baby comes to understand the world they live in in a whole new way.

Parents are encouraged to foster their babies’ physical developmental growth spurts with complementary playful activities. Babies that are ready for rolling over should be stimulated by maximising floor time play, while those physically ready for crawling will find interest in aiming to move after a toy on a string being pulled by Daddy.

The games we play with our babies during neurodevelopmental growth spurts can actually enhance their newly found synaptic connections in the brain and mental understanding about the world.

Sometimes it might be hard to think of new ways to stimulate your baby. Let these fun, but scientific activities inspire you to make the most of the first four neurodevelopmental growth spurts in your newborn baby’s life. These ideas for games and activities might be useful to help promote a baby’s development during those times.

Important neurodevelopmental tip: The games listed are relevant to babies who were born on their estimated due date. So, if your baby was born prematurely, remember to calculate your baby’s corrected age and adapt accordingly.

When baby is 5 weeks old

During this particular mental growth spurt babies experience an increased alertness as their senses have become more sensitive than they were immediately after birth. Playing games that explore sight, sound and touch are now the ideal.

You can slowly walk around the rooms in your house and give baby enough time to have a look around. Stand still in front of the mirror or a bright pillow on the couch and just let them stare at it.

Black and white contrasting dangling toys are also big favourites during this time, and fascinate babies. The visual nerve is greatly stimulated by watching these dangle as the high contrasting colours stimulate the newborn’s nerve cells to multiply and form connections.

Sound can be stimulated by merely taking your baby outside and allowing for some time to listen to the natural environmental sounds such as birds chirping or the wind blowing through the leaves. Overstimulation is a real concern during this age as the central nervous system is very immature. A few minutes of stimulation at a time is perfect.

When baby is 8 weeks old

During this neurodevelopmental growth spurt babies become more interested in ‘real’ and different things. Change some of the dangles on the mobile (still contrasting colours and shapes) and start to incorporate more walks outside in nature.

It is particularly of value to keep toys or other objects at varying distances as to train eye muscles. This is also the time to start chatting back when babies begin a conversation, by making good eye-contact, smiling and talking with your mommy-voice (high pitched) with contrasting intonation.

Allowing more kicking about in the baby bath helps them to explore how the water moves and adding a few bath toys will pique their interest.

When baby is 12 weeks old

Neurodevelopment in babies are now taking place at an astonishing rate and those jerky action movements that are so familiar in newborns are now about to change to more organised, flowing movements.

Your little miracle will now start to enjoy the airplane game and giggle at you flying them through the air. The rocking horse is another game that they will fancy at this age and many short bouts of pleasure can be achieved by gently bouncing them up and down on your lap.

Many babies love when their parents pretend to nibble at their tummies while playfully making chomping noises and smothering them with kisses. This would also be a great time to introduce them to many different textures, either by stroking their little hands or cheeks with a brush or felt cloth, or letting them experience the grass under their feet or while lying on their tummy.

When baby is 19 weeks old

This is another major mental growth spurt during which time your baby comes to understand that anything they experience is split up into a series of short familiar events. This is the time when they enjoy experimenting with their newly found discovery as they open and close their hands during the picking up and dropping of toys. Having a box full of interesting toys handy will offer you some breathing time, while they explore the contents of the box under your watchful eye.

Spending time under a playgym is now ideal as they want to touch and pull down everything while at the same time strengthening many muscle groups in their hands and in their shoulders. Many babies start to mouth objects at this stage, so make sure that everything is babyproof and safe for baby.

A toy hammer that they can hit on the floor or table is a winner and the game of peek-a-boo by pulling a cloth away from your or their face allows for good contact time. Also try to focus on talking to them by saying their name. Some babies will start to respond to their name at this young age.

Parents do not need to spend money on many toys during the first five months of their babies’ lives. The biggest and most precious toy that your young baby can have during this time is you! Make sure to playfully engage with them as often as possible; by focusing on specific games at certain times during the early months, you can be assured that you are helping their mental development along.

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