Newborn play: why it’s important for movement and motor skills development
Play gives newborns practice at moving different parts of their bodies, which helps to develop gross motor skills and fine motor skills. As you play with your newborn baby, your baby will become stronger and more coordinated.
Through play, newborns also learn how to interact with their environment and discover what their bodies can do. For example, when you hold a toy close to your baby and they reach for it, your baby discovers that they can move their arms to touch nearby objects.
Give your baby plenty of encouragement and praise, and be amazed at what your baby can do. This makes your baby feel loved and valued, and it builds the confidence your baby needs to try new movements.
What to expect: newborn movement
In the first 4 weeks of life, many of your baby’s movements are reflexes, so your baby can’t really control them. For example, when you stroke your baby’s cheek, by reflex your baby turns to that side to suckle.
In your baby’s first 4 weeks, they might:
- look at your face and follow side-to-side movements with their eyes
- lift their head for short periods of time when lying on their tummy.
As your baby starts to gain more control of their movements, they might:
- uncurl their fists and swipe at dangling objects
- lift their head while lying on their tummy and lean on their elbows to look at a toy in front of them, at around 4-8 weeks
- follow your face or a toy that’s moving slowly from side to side or in a circle with their eyes. You might need to be quite close – about 30 cm away – for this to happen
- move and kick their legs, especially in the bath or when out of a nappy, at around 8 weeks
- wave and watch their hands and feet or move their hands towards your face or a toy, at around 12 weeks.
Your baby is still learning to control their neck muscles, so it’s important to support your baby’s head when you lift them up.
Your baby will be keen to copy your facial expressions almost from birth. If you give your baby a big, bright smile, your baby will try to do the same. Frown – and you’ll see that coming back at you too!
Play ideas to get newborns moving
Here are some play ideas to get your newborn baby moving and to boost your baby’s motor skills development:
- Put a toy or rattle in your baby’s hand for your baby to hold.
- Dangle some fun, bright objects above your baby to encourage reaching. You can put toys within easy reach by attaching a frame over a pram or bouncer and hanging toys from it. Just make sure that your baby can’t get tangled in the strings.
- Sing nursery rhymes with simple actions that encourage your baby to move their body.
- Give your baby time to play on the floor and move their body. Try not to rush your baby into doing things before they’re ready. Just enjoy watching your baby play.
- Give your baby tummy time. Put your baby on their tummy on a firm surface – like the ground – so they can practise pushing up on their elbows and lifting their head. Start with 1-2 minutes and build up to 10-15 minutes a day.
Some babies might not like tummy time at first. If your baby is unhappy on their tummy or being on their tummy makes your baby vomit, try putting your baby on your tummy or chest. You can try doing tummy time on a firmer surface later. Always watch your baby during tummy time and always put baby on their back to sleep.
Concerns about newborn development
In general, the key events in baby development happen in a similar order, but the age they happen might vary among children.
You know your newborn baby best. If you have concerns about your baby’s development, including their movement and play, it’s a good idea to see your child and family health nurse or GP or a paediatric physiotherapist.
This is particularly important if you’ve noticed that your baby:
- doesn’t seem able to do the things they could do earlier
- seems unusually floppy or stiff
- doesn’t startle when there’s a loud noise nearby
- doesn’t seem interested in you
- strongly prefers using one hand more than the other.