Last week in Part 1 of this series, I spent time telling you all about devices that are not necessary for child development and even going to say that some or many of them may hinder development. This week, I want to delve into a more detailed discussion on how to support development and provide you with some items that I find extremely useful at various stages of your baby’s development. In reality, these items are not a necessity, but they can increase enjoyment, ease, and variety. Many of them can help keep a safe environment. Before we get into those objects, let’s talk briefly about gross motor development. (Since I’m a physical therapist, I’m focusing on the whole body movements. The fine motor play and toy manipulation? I leave that to my occupational therapy colleagues.)
Motor Development works in a top down fashion.
- Early Development
- First the child learns head control. The neck is strengthened when you carry baby and when baby lays on his/her belly. Babies can also strength their necks on their backs by looking around (although not as much as on their bellies). Continuing “southward” on baby’s back the baby begins to see, and then reach for, toys. While this is happening, baby is also strengthening his/her shoulders while propping on forearms and beginning to look around on his/her belly.The higher baby pushes up on his/her belly – the lower the strengthening reaches down the back and simultaneously lengthens the abdominal muscles which allows them to be used more efficiently. At this point reaching for objects across their body may support them in rolling back to belly and pushing up on belly may support the child in rolling belly to back. At this stage on their backs, babies begin to lift their knees up and gradually get to their toes to play with. This position can also lead to rolling as well as the lower abdominals get stronger.
- Mid Development
- Once baby is playing with his/her feet and rolling, we often see a huge burst of skills on his/her belly. Baby begins to reach for toys and starts inching his/her way forward with early army crawling or pivoting around. Many times, kids learn how to push backwards first (this is totally normal). This play of push and pull often leads to pushing into hands and knees. Some kids rock here for a while and others start crawling pretty quickly. It is from this hands and knees position that babies often figure out how to get into and out of a sitting position by themselves.
- Late Development
- Once you have a crawler, babies rarely choose to spend time on their backs. As baby gets more adventurous, he/she will crawl to a surface and try to reach their hands up, which eventually leads to pulling to stand. In standing, kids spend a variety of time cruising (walking with hands along a surface) and practicing balancing without hands on a surface before they begin taking independent steps.
As kids transition onto the ‘next stages’ they will continue to use their previous mastery until the new skill is strong enough that they can fully rely on it. For instance, while kids are learning to army crawl, you will often see rolling around to get toys until the crawling is truly efficient. As you can see, we (as parents) don’t really need to play a big part in typical development. There is no need for a device to ‘teach your baby’ head or trunk control or standing. Motivation to get to something/anything is all your child needs (along with a safe area of floor space to move around). So what is nice to have?
Tools/Toys for Early Development (up to rolling)
- If you have no other children, no pets, and a clean, carpeted floor space I would only recommend a blanket in the beginning (because it’s easier to clean than the floor!). Although, I really love play mats. The one that I have (see it here) has a mirror on the bottom which can be a nice tummy time motivator for babies and various heights to hang toys from. I like to increase success in the beginning for babies by bringing toys closer to them when they play on their backs. The mini tummy time pillow can be nice if your child is struggling to keep their head up. You can (and I would highly recommend it!) also play and interact with your little one by offering toys like these: lightweight ball, rattle, keys, rings. I purposely picked very lightweight objects because many of the rattles, balls and teethers are too heavy for little ones. These toys can be motivating on both bellies and backs. My favorite item to increase tummy time (especially if it is challenging to lay on the floor in front of your baby during it) is a mirror like this one. It props up easily but is very light weight if baby knocks into it. Early on, babies respond to faces (yours or theirs) and black and white contrast. I don’t recommend too many light up/sound toys early on – and I promise you’ll thank me later for that!
- If you do have other kids/pets that you are concerned about safety, the floor may not always be an option for you. Something like this playpen may work well for you. Early on the goal is really to keep others out versus keeping the baby in but it can have that dual purpose. If that’s not up your ally, a standard pack and play would be my next preferred. The surface is not as firm as the floor for baby to push off of and it can be a little restricting. Once baby starts to roll, there isn’t as much room to go, but it will keep them safe. This is my favorite pack and play if you have the funds for it, because it’s a breeze to set up and you can wear it like a back pack. I also love that the side unzips so you can lay in their with baby.
- Do you only have wood/tile/hard floors? I love foam pads and they can follow you throughout the stages of development. There are some fun alphabet ones but in my opinion they always come apart! I prefer something like these.
- Bottom Line: At this stage baby needs a floor and you. If you can dangle some toys and get down on the floor with baby that’s ideal! When you walk away or the toy falls to the side – baby will start going for it and learn how to roll and move.
Tools/Toys for Mid Development (Rolling to Crawling/Sitting)
- Once baby is rolling, good luck keeping them on a play mat or contained. The playpen has more longevity than the pack and play at this stage but these babies just want to explore! This is the time to invest in baby gates, cabinet locks, and foam corner protectors. At this point, you’re baby is getting strong and looking forward ‘more interesting’ and larger toys to play with. Some of my favorites include: blocks, stacking rings/cups, and shape sorters. At this stage, a lot of kids really like ’cause and effect’ toys. This means if you shake it, something happens. Or if you press a button, music plays. You can start to incorporate more music and light up toys at this stage – but I would still limit it and make sure there is an ‘off switch’ (for your sanity).
- As these kiddos start to sit up and play these activity cubes and other larger toys can be fun for them to explore.
- This is also the time when household items can be motivating – like pots, pans and wooden spoons.
- Bottom Line: Baby just wants to move and play! This is a fun stage to both play with your baby and really let them figure out how to play more by themselves.
Tools/Toys for Later development (Crawling/Sitting to Standing/Walking)
- If you didn’t baby proof at the last stage, you might want to get on that now! At this point you may just see that your baby is standing in the crib and you didn’t know they knew how. (Time to lower that mattress!). I like the activity cubes mentioned in the last section for activities like pulling to stand but for them and tables like these – you really want to be nearby. They just aren’t always heavy enough for baby to pull up on it without it toppling over. I like the tables because you can take some of the legs off to prop it for tummy time or sitting or even remove all the legs to put it on the couch or an ottoman which are typically much more stable. The toys we used earlier are typically still appropriate and your babies just start to learn how to play differently with them.
- Ride-On toys versus Walkers. I like ride on toys and I don’t like walkers. Walkers/Push Toys can help baby walk with a walker but they encourage the baby to lean forward while walking which is an extremely hard habit to break. The use of push toys can actually delay a child in walking independently. Sporadic use is okay, but if your child is zooming around with one but won’t take independent steps – it’s time to put it away. I like Ride-On toys for balance, stability and new skills practice. This is my favorite – especially since you can tuck away the back handle if it’s being used too much as a push toy.
- Bottom Line: You need some sturdy surfaces and something motivating to get up there. Most kids are motivated just by learning new movement/skills at this stage, but some need a little more excitement.
Other Useful Items
- Feeding: I love high chairs. I know that not everyone has room for them, but if you can make room, do it! Ideally, I like the ones that lean back a little. If you’re looking to maybe get dinner cooked and baby just won’t lay on the floor safely while you do it, you can put them in the high chair. You can talk to them here, they can watch what you’re doing and it’s so much more interactive. My husband started pulling our highchair out when I went back to work at 12 weeks postpartum and he watched the munchkin for a month. Even if baby isn’t eating at this point, you just lean them back a little and maybe prop some blankets in there if needed. The one that I originally bought is no longer available but it’s similar to this one. Really, it doesn’t need to be fancy it just needs to be able to lean back. I love having baby sit at the table for meal times even if baby isn’t eating. It helps with getting used to the routine!
- Sleeping: For my first we were able to use a family heirloom bassinet. I’ll be honest that after about 2 weeks of her sleeping in our room, we all kept each other awake and we moved her to her crib. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends room sharing until age 1. My recommendation is to find what works for you. Find the safest way to get everyone sleeping as much as possible. I always prefer flat bassinets for sleep time over something like a “Rock n Play”. It makes transition to other beds (like a crib or pack n play) easier. This time, I’m hoping to either be able to borrow one so I can’t give big recommendations because we really didn’t use it much last time. We might also use a pack n play if that doesn’t work out. Speaking of, I do like the pack and play for naps if you’re not in the crib yet. For us we had the crib upstairs and the pack and play downstairs so I could put baby down wherever I needed to when she was ready.
Eat, Sleep, Play
I think that pretty much covers the big stuff for basic home needs and gross motor development. Do I have other preferences of bottles, cups, other feeding supplies, etc? Of course! But they are truly my preference, not my expertise. If you request it, I will share it although I’m sure things have changed this time around. Most of the items I linked are affiliate links; however, the majority of them are the exact items I chose for my kiddo 3.5 years ago and are still top choices today! (The others are just the updated versions.) I’m all about the classics. I hope that the realm of gross motor development in baby’s first year is a little less overwhelming and that you can see through some of the toy industry marketing a little bit now.
Final bottom line? Baby needs love. If you’re spending the time to read a post like this then you are doing more than enough. Maybe you take one suggestion to heart, maybe none, I hope that I have planted a seed for you to empower yourself and your child. If you have more questions, let me know!
Until Next Time!