About newborn movement and play

Babies are born ready to experiment with movement. Play is one of the main ways that babies learn what their bodies can do.

Newborn play is simple, but it has an important purpose – through play, newborns learn how to interact with their environment. For example, when you hold a toy close to your baby and she reaches for it, your baby discovers that she can move her arms to touch nearby objects.

Play also gives newborns lots of 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, he’ll become stronger and more coordinated.

Give your baby lots of encouragement and praise, and be amazed at what she can do. This makes her feel loved and valued, and builds the confidence she needs to try lots of new movements.

What to expect: newborn movement

In the first four weeks of life, a lot of your baby’s movements are reflexes, so he 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 her first four weeks your baby might:

  • look at your face and follow side-to-side movements with her eyes
  • lift her head for a short while when lying on her tummy.

As your baby starts to gain more control of his movements, your baby might:

  • uncurl his fists and swipe at dangling objects
  • lift his head while lying on his tummy and lean on his elbows to look at a toy in front of him, at around 4-8 weeks
  • follow your face or a toy that’s moving slowly from side to side or in a circle with his eyes. You might need to be quite close – about 30 cm away – for this to happen
  • move and kick his legs, especially in the bath or when out of a nappy, at around 8 weeks
  • wave and watch his hands and feet or move his hands towards your face or a toy, at around 12 weeks.

Your newborn is still learning to control her neck muscles, so it’s important to support her head when you lift her up.

Your baby will be keen to copy your facial expressions almost from birth. If you give your baby a big, bright smile, he’ll try to do the same. Frown – and you’ll see that coming back at you too!

Play ideas to get your newborn moving

Here are some play ideas to get your newborn moving:

  • Put a toy or rattle in your baby’s hand for your baby to hold.
  • Dangle some fun, bright objects in front of or above your baby to encourage her to reach. You can put toys within easy reach by attaching a frame over a pram or bouncer and hanging toys from it.
  • Sing nursery rhymes with simple actions that encourage your baby to move his body.
  • Give your baby time to play on the floor and move her body. Try not to rush her into doing things before she’s ready. Just enjoy watching her play.
  • Give your baby tummy time. Put your baby on his tummy on a firm surface – like the ground – so he can practise pushing up on his elbows and lifting his 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 her tummy or being on her tummy makes her 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 put baby on her back to sleep.

Concerns about baby development

Babies develop at their own pace. In general, the key events in baby development happen in a similar order, but the age they happen might vary for each child and even for children in the same family.

But you know your baby best. If you have concerns about your baby’s development, including his movement and play, it’s a good idea to see your child and family health nurse or GP.

This is particularly important if you’ve noticed that your baby:

  • doesn’t seem able to do the things she 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.