New parents and generous friends will buy a new baby just about anything that rattles, sings, dances, and can be cuddled. But which toys are best for babies up to 6 monthsand when to introduce them? An expert weighs in.
The Best "Toy"
"The first six months, the parent who talks while holding baby 'en face'—with one arm under the tush and the other arm supporting the baby's head so Baby is looking right at you about 12 to 18 inches from your face—is giving the baby the best and most interesting toy!" says Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University in New York. "That 'toy' is a parent responding to early cooing sounds with delighted smiles, responsive talk, and head nodding."
Baby's responses not only bring joy to Mom and Dad, but also help brain development. "A parent is a wonderful human toy that leads the baby's brain to release vigorous cascades of chemical and electrical stimuli, creating synapses for learning early causal relationships," says Dr. Honig. "'When I coo, Papa talks to me. Papa thinks my 'talking ' is important. I am lovable!' No toy can give this boost to baby learning or emotional feelings of lovability and efficacy."
As babies grow, however,toys that will respond to their actionsand that jibe with their developmentare good choices.
Black and White
During the earliest weeks of life, black and white toys are most appropriate. High-contrast and bold designs draw Baby's attention, stimulate eye development, and activate Baby's brain.
Around 4 months of age, Baby will begin to enjoy a mobile overhead and toys he can kick with his feet. "A mobile that a 4-month-old can view overhead that's at his toe level and securely strung over the crib is a fine toy for extending attention span and persistence," says Dr. Honig. "This toy will also make the baby feel competent and effective."
Dr. Honig reminds parents to make sure Baby cannot grab the mobile. Some babies may be strong enough to pull off part of the mobile and put it in their mouth. "The mouth 'calls' to the hand to put everything in the mouth as soon as Baby learns to grasp an object in the hand," she says.
Blocks and Rattles
Speaking of grasping, the best early toys are easy for Baby to hold. "For example, a plastic cube may be difficult for a baby to hold even when the hands are mostly in curled open position from 3 to 4 months onward," says Dr. Honig. "Wooden cubes, too large to gag on if the baby mouths the block, yet small enough to fit comfortably into the hand, may be more appropriate. Too many toys are made of slippery plastic."
The basic rattle can also do the trick. "A rattle that is shaped for a baby's hand is very comfortable and permits Baby to bring that rattle in the closed fist up to the eyes for inspection," says Dr. Honig. "Baby can shake that rattle and hear the interesting sounds she has produced."
When Toys Are Too Much
When introducing toys, it's important not to over-stimulate Baby. Dr. Honig advises parents to watch their baby closely. Baby's body language and expressions will let parents know that there is too much going on. "Usually a baby, where the room is filled with loud music or too much noise, shuts [his] eyes and curls into sleep when very young," she says. "The best sign that the sensory barrier is weakening is that the baby who is in an over-stimulating environment now cries, tries to turn the head away, avoids eye contact."