Baby play: why it’s important for movement and motor skills development
Getting your baby moving through play is good for all areas of their development, especially their motor skills development.
Play helps your baby:
- strengthen the neck and upper body muscles they need to hold their head up and move around
- practise reaching and grasping
- strengthen muscles for movements like rolling, crawling and pulling to stand.
You’re the thing that interests your baby most. Playing and moving with your baby is a great way to bond with your baby. You can also give your baby plenty of praise and encouragement as they learn more physical skills and do new things.
What to expect: babies and movement
At 3-6 months, your baby might:
- reach for toys and roll on to their back during tummy time
- bring their hands to their mouth and reach for their legs and toys when lying on their back
- try rolling from tummy to back and back to tummy.
By 6-9 months, many babies like lying on their tummies rather than on their backs. When babies lie on their tummies, they can reach for toys and move around in a circle. When they’re ready, they might even try to crawl. Other things your baby might do at this age are:
- rolling from tummy to back and back to tummy
- sitting with your help or by themselves
- pushing up onto their hands and knees
- standing on their legs with your support.
From 9-12 months, your baby might be:
- crawling, rolling and pulling to stand
- sitting by themselves and reaching for toys without falling
- moving from a sitting position onto their tummy and back again
- playing using both hands.
The key moments in baby development generally happen in the same order, but the age they happen might vary among children. You can find out what to expect each month in our Baby development tracker.
Tummy time is time your baby spends on their stomach while they’re awake. Doing tummy time from soon after birth helps your baby build neck, head and upper body strength to crawl and pull to stand when they’re older.
At first, your baby might not like tummy time – it might make your baby vomit or they might miss seeing you when they’re on their tummy. If this sounds like your baby, try tummy time on your chest or across your lap. This puts less pressure on your baby’s tummy and can help with problems like reflux. This position also lets your baby see your face.
You could also get down on the floor with your baby. Let your baby know you’re there by singing, talking, stroking their back or tickling their hands. Try doing tummy time on a range of surfaces, like on carpet indoors or on a blanket outside.
You can start with 1-2 minutes of tummy time and build up to 10-15 minutes several times a day as your baby gets used to it.
Tummy time can be tiring, especially for young babies. When your baby gets tired, roll them onto their back for a break before trying again.
If your baby just doesn’t like tummy time or keeps being sick, it’s a good idea to see your child and family health nurse or GP for a check-up.
Play ideas to encourage movement
It’s good to try plenty of different play activities with your baby. This allows your baby to move in different ways, which builds their strength and helps them learn how to use different body parts. This is all good for your baby’s motor skills development.
At 0-6 months, you could try the following ideas:
- Encourage your baby to move to music and sound by singing songs and rhymes or shaking rattles.
- Place your baby on their tummy to play for short periods several times a day.
- Give your baby ‘face time’. This involves making eye contact and getting your baby to follow your eyes and turn their head. It helps to build your baby’s neck strength and head control.
Babies aged 6-12 months might like the following activities:
- Place toys just out of your baby’s reach to encourage reaching and moving. You can also use simple toys like rattles to encourage touching and holding.
- Give your baby wooden spoons to bang on pots and pans, or sealed containers with beads inside to shake.
- Sit and support your baby upright on the floor, and move a ball or toy in front of them. This encourages your baby to follow the toy with their eyes, reach for it and grasp it.
- Encourage your baby to pull to stand. Sit your baby near furniture, and encourage your baby to pull themselves up. Make sure that your furniture is sturdy and won’t fall over.
- Encourage your baby to squat from standing. Place some toys on the ground in front of your standing baby so they have to squat to pick them up.
- If your baby can stand with support, try push-and-pull toys like block wagons. If the wagon goes too fast, put some heavy books or a bag of rice in it to slow it down.
- Make tunnels out of chairs or cardboard boxes for your baby to enjoy crawling and moving through.
Quiet, gentle activities are also important, especially for developing your baby’s fine motor skills. For example, picking up small objects or putting pegs into a bucket is good for practising small finger movements – just make sure your baby doesn’t put any small objects into their mouth. And when your baby spends time just looking at things like colourful books or pictures, it helps them get better at moving their eyes.
Current national and international guidelines recommend that children under 2 years don’t have screen time other than video-chatting with people they know, like grandparents.
Babies learn how things work by practising and making mistakes. It’s normal for babies to sometimes get a few small bumps and bruises when they play. When you make your home safe, your baby can play without hurting themselves.
Baby equipment and movement
Baby equipment like highchairs, car seats, strollers, cots and playpens are all useful, but they can restrict some of your baby’s movements. You might want to think about using them only when you really need them.
When you use highchairs, car seats and strollers, try to avoid seating your baby for long periods of time.
Baby walkers and jolly jumpers aren’t recommended. They can delay walking, crawling and sitting without support. They can also cause injuries if babies move into dangerous areas without supervision, like near the oven, toilet, bath and stairs. It’s better to put your baby on a play mat or blanket on the floor.