When my husband and I first toted our newborn home from the hospital, the sheer terror of having to keep this tiny being alive threw us into survival mode. Out went superfluous chores like doing dishes or showering; instead, we focused on meeting Ella's most basic needs. In a few weeks we figured out that most of Ella's needs were basic. With some milk, a clean diaper, and a warm pair of arms, she was happy (at least for a while). And as she grew, we were relieved to discover other uncomplicated ways to please her. Here, 12 simple things that will keep your baby -- and you -- calm, happy, and connected during the first 12 months:
Month 1: Swaddling
As a new mom, your passion for your baby is matched only by your passion for an uninterrupted stretch of sleep. Long nights are the norm at first, but snugly wrapping your infant in a blanket may help him rest better. Babies love it during their first weeks because swaddling works in part by mimicking the close conditions of the womb. That makes your baby feel warm and secure.
Month 2: A baby carrier
Thanks to a highly developed vestibular system (the sensory system located in the inner ear), babies crave movement: rocking, swaying, pacing. "If you want to calm a new baby, you can't just sit there," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. A front carrier (most are designed for babies at least eight pounds, and they're especially helpful once you're out of the first-month haze) makes everyone happy. Your baby gets that soothing motion and you get something done. "Dishes, laundry, sweeping -- they're all doable while carrying a baby," says Rebecca Vega of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And while some naysayers felt her daughter Sydney, now 19 months, would be spoiled by being carried so much, Vega says the opposite was true. "Because her needs were being met, she didn't have a reason to be any fussier than other babies."
Month 3: Tummy time
Back sleeping has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), so it's nonnegotiable. But spending time on his stomach is also important to your baby's well-being. "As back sleeping has become more common, kids are rolling over and crawling a bit later than they used to," says David Burnham, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director of the HealthEast Maplewood Clinic in St. Paul. "Tummy time helps a baby develop those large motor skills." At around 3 months, your baby will be able to hold himself up by leaning on his forearms, so that makes this a good age to introduce a little tummy time into his day. If he hates it, don't force the issue, but also don't feel you have to spend a lot of time on it for him to get the benefits. Even three to ten minutes twice a day will do the trick. To make it more fun for your baby, lie down facing him or put a colorful toy in front of him.
Months 4 - 8
Month 4: A mirror
Babies love gazing at human faces -- Mom's, Dad's, and even their own. And since by this age they have the muscle control to lift their heads and really take a look around, attaching a baby-safe mirror to the crib slats will give your child instant entertainment (someone new!). Though some experts believe that babies can't recognize themselves until they're around 18 months, a mirror is still a lot of fun for younger ones. They may realize that when they smile or wiggle their nose, the baby in the mirror is doing the same thing -- and that's an exciting discovery for a 4-month-old.
Month 5: Downtime
Convinced that constant stimulation would make my baby smarter, I danced with Ella in the living room, sang "Ring Around the Rosy," and handed her an endless parade of noise-making toys. When she grew fussy and turned away, I assumed she was tired. But according to Holly Brophy-Herb, Ph.D., an associate professor of child development at Michigan State University, she may just have been tired of me. "If you're shaking a toy in front of the baby and she starts to look away, brings her hand up to her ear, arches her back, or stiffens, it's a cue that your baby's saying, 'I need a break, it's too much for me right now.'" With your baby reacting more to you -- and having so much fun -- at this age, it's easy to get carried away and think she needs a steady stream of excitement to keep her happy (not to mention boost her brainpower). But it's just as important to rock quietly with her or let her chill out by, say, watching the ceiling fan for a while. After some downtime, you'll both feel like playing again.
Month 6: A babysitter
If you haven't left your baby with a sitter by this point, now's a good time to start. Separation anxiety can appear at around 6 months, peaking between 9 and 15 months, as he starts to remember and recognize familiar and unfamiliar faces. "Before that happens, you need to get your baby used to the idea that someone who doesn't smell like Mom is still safe," says Eliot. By calling in a willing relative or a responsible neighbor now, you'll make it easier on everyone the next time you want to go to a non-child-friendly restaurant. Plus, a date night with your husband will make the two of you more pleasant -- both as parents and as partners.
Month 7: A game of peekaboo
While Jessica Picasso of Palm Springs, California, had played peekaboo with her daughter, Kayla, since she was just a few weeks old, it wasn't until Kayla reached 7 months that she could play along. "She likes to put a blanket over her head, pull it off really fast, and smile and laugh," says Picasso. Peekaboo helps your baby understand object permanence, which lets her know you still exist even when you're not in sight.
Month 8: A routine
With an 8-month-old around, it helps to be flexible about your schedule. But not too flexible. According to Dr. Burnham, a predictable daily routine -- breakfast between 6 and 8 A.M., first nap between 9 and 11, and so on -- is associated with the release of fewer stress hormones, so both you and your baby will be calmer. My husband and I learned to put our daughter to bed at the same time every night, and we consistently followed a soothing pre-bedtime pattern of jammies, feeding, and lullaby. By the time we laid her in her crib, she was ready to go to sleep.
Months 9 - 12
Month 9: Stacking rings
There may be a lot of toys out there that promise to boost your baby's brainpower, but there's nothing much better than a set of stackers or blocks -- classic, developmentally appropriate choices. Stacking toys put to use your baby's ability to reach and grasp, which he likely developed around 6 months, but they also stretch him to hone his fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Between 8 and 12 months, they provide just the right level of challenge. "Stacking rings are just a little bit beyond a baby's capability at this age, but he can see the results of his own practice," says Eliot.
Month 10: Security object
The soft stuffed animals that Bonnie Ferguson of The Colony, Texas, gave to each of her four kids when they were infants quickly became beloved companions that helped them settle down at bedtime well into toddlerhood. According to Brophy-Herb, a lovey can be an effective coping mechanism for babies when they're dealing with everyday stresses like hunger, fatigue, and the care of a sitter. Not all children want a security object, though, so follow your baby's lead: If at this age she doesn't have one but is sucking her thumb or rubbing a spot on her sheet, chances are a lovey could help. Just make sure it's one you can get in and out of the washer and dryer before naptime.
Month 11: Other babies
As Ella's social director and a stay-at-home mom, I enjoyed her baby playdates (read: the chance for adult conversation) far more than she did. But toward the end of her first year, Ella began to get a kick out of hanging out with other babies. When she and her pal Tommy played side by side, occasionally swiping each other's toys, they entertained one another and learned a little about the rudiments of sharing. Plus, watching Tommy tool around the house gave Ella more motivation to get up and go herself.
Month 12: A birthday cake
One-year-olds are hyper-attuned to tactile sensations; they figure out the world by feeling and tasting everything. So a piece of cake is perfect for exploration: intensely mushable, squeezable, and, unlike many of the other objects they pop into their mouths, tasty. "Most parents don't want their child flinging food around the kitchen," says Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., author of Why Babies Do That: Baffling Baby Behavior Explained. "But when you let your baby dig his hands into a birthday cake and try to get some into his mouth, you're letting him explore a natural fascination -- and do something he usually doesn't get to without being scolded." Happy birthday!
Melody Warnick welcomed her second baby this winter.