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Senses Of Wonder

I have a photograph of my daughter Melia (now 6) that was taken when she was about 4 months old. She and my husband are in our backyard, in the early spring, and he's holding her so she can smell the perfume of a newly opened rose. The expression on her face is nothing short of delirious. Whenever I look at that picture, I'm reminded of just how responsive newborns are, how ready to delight in the tiniest of sensations. When my younger daughter, Linnea, was born three years later, I was even more eager to introduce her to the sensory richness of the world.

These ten activities for young babies (newborn to about 6 months)  -- all recommended by experts  -- are the ones that most appealed to my daughters. They aren't aimed at teaching any particular skills or lessons; rather, they're just a few of the ways you and your baby can have a wonderful time exploring the world together.

Melanie Haiken is the managing editor of San Francisco Magazine.

Smell the Mums

Use fresh flowers or herbs from your backyard or the supermarket for your baby's first experience with aromatherapy. Hold a newly opened flower or a fresh herb to his face and watch his expression of astonished pleasure at the smell. In fall, you're likely to encounter fragrant roses, hibiscus, and tuberous begonia, says Stephen Hicks, of Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, New York. In the herb department, savor the scent of mint, coriander, chives, sage, and thyme. "A baby's sense of smell is amazingly keen," says Maria Valdes, M.D., a pediatrician in Rochester, Minnesota. "Take advantage of his sensory abilities to see what he likes and dislikes." (Be careful not to let your baby gum the greenery, however: Not only do roses have thorns, some plants, such as lilies of the valley, foxgloves, and rhododendrons, contain toxins.)

Spring Into Action

Sit down and stand your baby on your lap, facing him either toward you or away from you. Keep your knees together to provide a good platform. Wait until your baby flexes his legs slightly, as if he's trying to propel himself into space, then lift him into the air saying "Wheee" or "Zoom." Repeat each time he bends his legs, so that you're just adding momentum to his own natural springing impulse.

"When babies feel a solid surface under their feet, they love to pull their knees up and really give a strong push away," says John Bolton, M.D., a San Francisco pediatrician. "Parents may worry that this could make a baby bowlegged, but actually it's perfectly safe. In fact, it strengthens their bones, muscles, and joints in preparation for walking and crawling." If your baby doesn't have great head control yet, face him toward you and support his neck with your fingers.

Be a Swat Team

Between 2 and 4 months of age, babies are swatting machines, and nothing is a more intriguing target than an unfamiliar object suspended overhead. Put a hook in the ceiling above your baby's crib or over your own bed, and use strong string such as fishing line or dental floss to dangle a rattle or a set of plastic measuring spoons just within swiping range  -- close enough to touch but far enough away that she can't grab hold of it and yank it down. For outdoor fun, push your baby's stroller under an accommodating tree branch and attach the object. "Batting practice teaches cause and effect," says Bolton. "Babies will stare at their hands moving around in front of them as if they are thinking, 'Are these really my hands? Am I really doing this?'"

Pull a Disappearing Act

Prop your baby in a bouncy seat on a sturdy piece of furniture, making sure he won't tip over. Position yourself on one side (with one hand stabilizing the seat) and duck down out of his line of vision. Then slowly raise yourself up and bend over him, making a different face each time you appear in his line of sight.

Until your baby learns object permanence (the concept that things continue to exist even when he can't see them), he'll forget all about you the moment you're gone, then be thrilled anew each time you reappear. This works until your baby is 5 or 6 months old. Until then, "a baby completely ignores something if you drop it," says Gregory Felch, M.D., a pediatrician in Lowell, Massachusetts, and co-author of The Pediatrican's Best Baby Planner. "It's as if you went ‘poof!' as soon as you were out of sight." At about 7 months, the game changes, as your baby tries to see where you went.

Merrily Roll Along

On a warm afternoon, spread a big blanket on a shady patch of soft grass in your yard or a neighborhood park. Remove most or all of your baby's clothing (taking the temperature into consideration), since babies often seem to feel more mobile when they're au naturel. Lay your baby on his stomach or back. Let him roll himself over (with a little help if necessary), then roll him over again yourself. Continue in one direction until he's about to roll off the edge of the blanket  -- to give him a sense of getting somewhere  -- then lift him back to the center again. "Very early on, babies delight in their mobility," says Dr. Valdes. "They figure out that there's a lot going on around them and if they can just move around enough, they'll get to see something different."

Look and Learn

Collect a few colorful board books or picture books with simple, high-contrast illustrations (ones that have stripes, checks, and polka dots are particularly eye-catching). "Traditional soft pastels are totally boring for babies," says Dr. Bolton. "They'd much rather look at art by Mondrian or Miro  -- primary colors and hard edges that they can follow with their eyes." Prop your baby on your lap facing away from you and position the book 12 to 18 inches from her face, pointing out the pictures and offering a running commentary. Flip the page as soon as she turns away or seems to lose interest. Another option: Pictures of her peers. Flip through baby magazines and catalogs for vibrant photos of adorable faces.

Dance To The Music

Many babies love rhythmic music, especially when they're cranky at the end of the day. With your baby lying on his stomach across your arm, put light pressure on his tummy with your hand. Place your other hand on his back to hold him securely, and sashay away. Or, if he prefers being upright, hold him in a seated position facing forward, with one hand under his bottom and the other on his tummy. Zydeco and reggae are big hits with the under-6-months set; nothing soothed my daughters like the chank-a-chank rhythms of the Cajun band Beausoleil. Babies also make great ballroom dance partners: Try a waltz, a mambo, or a Gene Kelly-style soft-shoe.

Rub the Right Way

Let your baby roll around naked on cloth diapers or a plush bath towel. Warm a dime-size squirt of vegetable oil by rubbing it between your palms, then massage it gently into her skin, starting with her feet. Rotate each toe, then use your thumbs to press the soft soles of her feet. Work your way up her legs, squeezing them gently as if you were molding clay. (To get her used to the sensation, do just her feet and legs the first time.)

As a soothing stroke for the chest and tummy, place both hands flat against the center of her body, then spread them to the sides, as if flattening the pages of a book. Keep rubbing for as long as she's enjoying it; stop when she grows restless.

"Young babies are very sensual. They're just learning how much fun their bodies are," says Dr. Felch. "Touching them helps them develop a sense of the body as a whole."

Move & Mimic

Stand in front of a full-length mirror, holding your baby in your arms in front of you facing forward. Make simple movements such as tilting your head or touching your nose, all the while telling your baby what you are doing. If your baby makes any kind of movement, such as wiggling an arm or kicking a leg, make the same one yourself so that your baby sees both of your actions in the mirror and realizes that you are mirroring her. As your baby grows and becomes more interactive, the more fun this game becomes.

Push Me, Pull Me

This game lets your baby see his world from a different vantage point. To start, place your baby on his back, propped up slightly on a pillow (this game requires some neck control, so wait until he is about 5 months old). Sit facing him, and grasp his hands firmly. Gently pull him to a sitting position, letting his head follow his shoulders. He'll probably smile gleefully when he sees the world from this new viewpoint. Gently lower him and repeat as long as he's having fun. My daughters enjoyed this even more if I sang a chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" before lowering them.

"Babies are eager to see the world from new angles, and they really respond to faces," says Dr. Valdes. "As you pull your baby up, he sees your face from a surprising new perspective and thinks, 'Hey, this is cool! I want to do this all the time!'"

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