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The early months of a child’s life are already full of exhaustion, anxiety, and let’s be real–boredom! Throw in a global pandemic, and suddenly even a hint of normalcy is removed.
What are parents of newborns and infants supposed to do without physical connection to family and friends? How do they entertain themselves, much less a baby, while being largely stuck at home?
Let’s face it, none of us ever imagined giving birth during a pandemic.
So we’re left wondering how to provide developmentally appropriate stimulation for our babies and connection for our loved ones–will FaceTime and Zoom be enough to foster that connection?
Pandemic Parenting Is Hard
Parenting a new baby during a pandemic also means that your child isn’t getting the same exposure to things they normally would, like sensory-filled walks through the grocery store, play dates, or gatherings like church or picnics with friends.
It’s no wonder people keep asking us about activities for a 1 year old baby at home–and for infants that are much younger.
In this article, which is a direct response to queries from the Undefining Motherhood community, we tackle an area related to this pandemic that we haven’t seen a lot of information about: sensory activities for babies that are perfect during a pandemic.
Specifically, we want to talk about:
- Sensory play activities for keeping YOU and your baby engaged, and your baby developmentally on-track
- Sensory ideas for connecting with your family and friends through FaceTime and Zoom
- Activities by age group, as we all know that a few months during infancy makes a world of difference in what a baby is ready for!
Sensory Activities for Babies
Okay, so let’s be real with one another for a second: staying home with an infant can be SO FU*CKING BORING. Every day is basically the same thing:
- diaper changing
- a few moments of sweet coos
- maybe a smile, screaming
- reading books that baby doesn’t care about
- peek a boo
- wondering when the hell you’re going to do the dishes and laundry
- thinking it’s been an hour when it’s really only been 5 minutes
- mama tears because all you want to do is go to the bathroom alone or take a shower
You get the picture.
Many of us rely heavily on family and friends to come over and save us from the interminable cycle of diaper changes and sleep schedules.
And new parents often rely heavily on family and friends because being a new parent can be REALLY isolating.
And now we’re in a freaking pandemic! The various stages of quarantining ramp up the isolation factor exponentially. So what’s the parent of an infant to do?
Well, we can’t guarantee that all of these activities will be “fun” for you, but sensory activities for babies are a great way to make sure that your baby is getting developmentally appropriate interaction.
Sensory play is super important for early childhood development, helping your child grow as a baby and toddler. With these ideas, hopefully you’ll find something new your kid loves for both of you to engage in.
Age 0-3 Months
In the first three months of life (assuming your child was not premature–be sure to adjust your activities and expectations if your child was premature), babies have specific milestones most parents look to ensure they meet.
According to Pathways.org, which is an organization focused on the development of babies and children, your these are the baby milestones your child should meet for strong sensory development:
- While lying on back, attempts to reach for a toy held above their chest
- While lying on back, visually tracks a moving toy from side to side
- While lying on back, keeps head centered to watch faces or toys
- Able to calm with rocking, touching, and gentle sounds
- Enjoys a variety of movements
In order to stimulate development (keeping these milestones in mind), we recommend the following sensory activities for babies age 0-3 months:
(1) Texture Play
Texture play is great for young babies because:
- It introduces them to new textures and improves sensory development
- You probably have tons of things at home you can use for this activity
And just finding those things is a bit of an activity for you. Yay! (Of course, avoid choking hazards like water beads during infancy.)
Find the following items (or get creative and add more!):
- baby-friendly soft things, like blankets or loveys
- squishy things like these blocks,
- bumpy things
- any textures to help your baby physically grasp objects (we love Freddie the Firefly, who doubles as a teether as baby ages, and crinkle books with tabs.)
Place the items around your child as they are lying on their back. Allow baby to feel each item, and as you do, say the name of the texture.
(2) Exploring Faces
At this age, your baby should be able to visually track an item from side to side. We recommend the following activity:
Go through your Instagram or Facebook feed and find photos of loved ones. Have these photos printed using an online service from Costco, Walgreens, or anywhere else that still prints photos (yep, that’s still a thing).
Once you have the photos printed, place them in a photo album for baby.
Seriously, who doesn’t want this?
Spend time telling your little one about their friends and family, and as you do.
Make a fun game out of moving the album back and forth in front of baby’s face (they should be lying on their back). Watch to see if their little eyes follow the photos as you speak.
Pro tip: Babies this age aren’t huge FaceTimers, but you want them to be connected with family members. So if you’re distancing from loved ones, pick a friend or family member to talk to daily, and focus on the people baby will see on FaceTime when you look at photos that day! This will help your little one learn to recognize people they aren’t getting to see enough.
Baby should enjoy a variety of movements at this age, so do something good for yourself and for baby and MOVE!
Here are some ideas for enjoying movement together:
(1) Have a dance party!
Turn on your favorite music (baby hasn’t heard “Baby Shark” yet, and therefore can’t request it, so enjoy this time where you can still listen to things YOU like) and dance! If you have older children, get them involved, and have a dance party together.
Obviously, you’ll want to use parental common sense and not have a full-on rave in your living room to incredibly loud techno music.
Keep the decibel-level fairly low for baby’s sensitive ears. Save your arms and back by babywearing as you dance, and make sure your dancing motions are keeping baby safe inside their carrier.
And, if you want to include friends and family, hop on FaceTime with them while you dance! Grandma and Grandpa might not get down to your music, but seeing you have fun will be a happiness boost you all need.
(2) Go for a walk
Load up the stroller with snacks and water for you, queue up your favorite podcast (on low volume so you can hear baby if they need you), plus anything you might need for baby, and get outside.
We recommend dawn and dusk for walks (but mostly because we live in Georgia where it is currently hotter than actual hell).
Also, hang Freddie the Firefly from the stroller hood so baby has something to play with, letting them practice moving their arms until they (probably) fall asleep.
Age 4-6 Months
By age 4-6 months, your baby will be a lot more interactive (both with you and with others). Here are some sensory milestones from Pathways.org you can look forward to a this age:
- Baby will use both hands to hold toys
- They are generally happy when not hungry or tired
- They bring hands and objects to mouth
- Not upset by everyday sounds
Sensory activities for this age basically add to the ones listed above, but in fun ways!
Texture Play Gets More Exciting
Exciting is relative for you, mama, but keep in mind that introducing babies to new textures can be exciting for them, especially as they develop better fine motor skills and gross motor skills!
They’re finally old enough to do some fun activities using small toys and stuffed animals, so get their senses going!
We like the following baby sensory products for texture play for 4-6 months:
- Developmental Bumpy Ball
- Textured Stacking Blocks
- Stacking Cups
- Baby play gym
- Tummy time mat/play gym
- Visually stimulating playmat
Tummy Time is More Acceptable to Baby
We all know that tummy time for newborns and small infants can be painful for everyone when baby doesn’t like it.
But by 4-6 months, your child should be working up to 10-15 minutes of tummy time at a time, and hopefully, they like it a lot more (or at least accept it) at this point.
The good news is that it’s time to get more creative with tummy time! This is a great way to stimulate sensory development.
Here are some ideas for you:
- Try doing tummy time in different areas of the house or yard. Switch it up! This way baby gets exposed to new environments, and you don’t get bored, either.
- Chat with baby during tummy time. Point out various things in your household to increase exposure to vocabulary and help their language development. Plus, soothe baby with the sound of your voice.
- Put on some music and listen together. See if you can forego TV time (for yourself and for baby) for the duration of tummy time for extra connection.
- Work on hand/eye coordination by placing safe toys just out of reach of your child. Encourage baby to reach or them. This will also function as motivation for movement, as babies typically begin crawling between 7-9 months.
- Start integrating FaceTime and Zoom while your child does tummy time. This way the sights and sounds of the screen can entertain baby, and your friends and family can get a fun view of baby as they work on something that is incredibly important for development!
Keep in mind that you don’t have to actually buy anything unless you just want to. You can also find things around the house to stimulate your child’s development, like using measuring cups instead of buying stacking cups. You can make your own play gym with blankets and toys you already have, too!
Age 7-9 Months
Sensory milestones at this age include:
- Enjoys a variety of movements (bouncing, rocking, etc)
- Turns pages of a chunky board book
- Focuses on objects near and far
- Investigates shapes, textures, size of toys
- Observes environment from a variety of positions (sitting, crawling, etc).
Again, sensory activities you can do with baby at this age build on previous activities, especially because your little one can sit and is probably mobile at this point. Fun!
For this stage we love:
- Chunky black-and-white baby books (the contrast is great for baby’s developing eyesight)
- Texture books (Pat the Bunny books are a classic!)
- Sit-to-stand activity centers (these are SERIOUS life savers at this age, but try to limit time in it to no more than about 15-minute spurts, as these total sanity savers are easy to want to leave baby in for hours, which is bad for their hip development.)
- Bath toys that develop hand-eye coordination
- Climbing toys (set them up in your living room, and let baby play while you fold laundry nearby!). This one is great and is made of vegan leather.
Bath time is also a good time to FaceTime friends and family (if your baby likes bath time, that is). Who doesn’t love a cute little nekkid baby??
Age 10-12 Months
Sensory milestones for babies age 10-12 months include:
- Enjoys listening to songs
- Explores toys with hands, fingers, and mouth
- Crawls to or away from objects seen in the distance
Sensory Products we love for this age:
- A cute little rocking horse (for age 12 months+)
- Ball popper toy (this musical dinosaur ball popper is admittedly annoying, but we know MANY families who call it a sanity saver, none-the-less.)
- A piano mat if baby is standing easily and without support
- Textured wooden puzzles
- Activity tables (a 360 degree activity table is a real game changer at this age!)
This age is a great time to start incorporating more music into your baby’s life, and music is an awesome way to get family and friends involved over FaceTime or Zoom!
Music Time for All Ages
We love music because it’s great for baby’s brain development in so many ways, and some of our suggestions (especially #5) allow for great creative play.
Using music to entertain your little one is a great idea because it can actually entertain you, as well, making music-related games among our favorite activities for kids.
To have fun with music while connecting with those you love, try the following activities:
- Dance parties! Hold a young baby, or for older ones who are pulling up to stand or even standing on their own, moving their little booties to appropriate dance music will be fun!
- Have friends and family sing nursery rhymes to baby. This will acclimate baby to their voices and help with developmental growth (learning new songs).
- Have everyone create noise makers (you can put rice in a coffee tin or beans in a water bottle–easy!) and then go crazy! You can even create fun rhythms with baby as you play together.
- Exercise to music! You can play with a ball, do baby yoga, etc. It doesn’t matter if your loved ones actually participate; it’s highly possible that they’ll just enjoy you being silly, and that’s okay!
- Music class! Many kids are already attending music class at this age, and most start as early as parents will let them go. You do not have to be musically inclined to setup a music class at home. Buy streamers and a set of music class toys. Then set aside time to play on the floor with your little one, planning one song that works on different musical elements. (Grab ideas for rhythm here.)
And remember, you aren’t looking for baby to be on beat–reaching milestones like moving their eyes to look for the music and moving arms and instruments at all are BIG!
Learn more about the developmental benefits of music for babies here.
Other Ways to Connect Via FaceTime or Zoom
You might have more than one child at home, or you might be interested in trying a variety of connection-based activities with your baby at home. If so, we offer these FaceTime or Zoom sensory activities for you to choose from.
Please note that you’ll want to see all of the sensory milestones above and decide which of these activities are developmentally appropriate for your baby, and some of these are geared mostly toward you, as parents (yes, you matter, too!).
(1) Watch a baby-friendly TV show with your family and friends
And do it over Zoom. This is great for connection for parents, mostly, as we need it, too.
(If you want to stimulate baby’s development, you can watch things like Baby Einstein. But honestly, sometimes it’s nice to connect via zoom and watch a show that you and your parents will like, too. Because seriously, that show is super boring!)
(2) Turn on FaceTime during times when you feel lonely
Prop your best friend up on the pile of laundry you’re folding and chat as baby naps.
Zoom with your mom as you feed baby in the morning. Whatever helps you is important, too.
(3) Have your loved one tell your baby a story about when you were a baby
This obviously applies more to family or family friends, but it’s a great way to remind yourself that you aren’t the only one who has been through these hard months. Plus, baby will get to hear the sound of your own parents’ voices and acclimate to them.
(4) Play Adult Games
My own family has recently started playing JackBox games. There is a small, one-time fee for JackBox, but once you purchase it, you can play lots of different interactive games with family.
We set up the game using Zoom and then use our smart phones to dial in answers. Obviously, baby won’t need to be exposed to all of the games, but there are many that they can watch you play (like Quiplash), and if you have older kids, there are lots of games they can play on JackBox.
Remember, your own interaction outside of baby is important! Plus, baby will be able to hear and experience the joy that you feel as you connect with family. It’s a mood-improver all around.
(5) Have a meal together
This one is super simple. Grab your laptop and set it up at the end of your table. Baby can be in a carrier or in a swing, but make sure that they are within sight of the folks on the other side of the camera.
It doesn’t matter if it’s awkward at first, but having lunch every Wednesday (or whenever works for you) creates an event that you can look forward to.
If your friends and family are into it, you can always serve the same thing to liven things up. For example, you could all do Taco Tuesday or Italian night on Thursdays.
Whatever food you like on whatever day you want! Just make time to make a connection.
Keeping Yourself Sane While Home with a Baby
We’ve put together this list of activities for babies at home to help you entertain your little one while knowing that they’re getting educational development even if they don’t get to leave the house as much as they normally would.
But let’s not forget that this article was requested by members of the Undefining Motherhood community because staying home with a baby can make you want to lose your mind with boredom and exhaustion!
It’s not all about the baby here. It’s also about you, mama.
So let us give you a permission slip. Life is hard right now.
This is not our “new normal,” no matter what people call it. Nothing about this situation is normal.
A pandemic happens roughly every 100 years–a once-in-a-lifetime event is NOT normal. You are raising your little one under insane circumstances.
So yes, do your best by them. Help them develop and grow and get to know their loved ones through FaceTime or Zoom.
Make sure they’re stimulated with sensory activities and getting proper exercise for their little bodies.
But also, give yourself grace!
A Note on Screen Time
Another mama said she didn’t know how to entertain her kid at home all day because the World Health Organization (WHO) says no screen time for kids under 18-months old.
We empathize with both of these mamas. They’re both parenting their own way and choosing what feels best for them. We are not pediatricians, and we will not tell you to disregard researched recommendations.
But we will tell you this–the suggestions are different everywhere, which is because there’s no clear consensus. So ultimately, you do you mama.
Your Way Is Okay
Here’s a fine point we want you to know. Despite most people thinking the WHO says no screen time before 18 months, that’s actually not true. They recommend against sedentary screen time in the first 18 months.
What that means is that you don’t plop your baby in front of the TV to sit still. They’re worried about babies moving.
So if you need screen time, do it while baby is on the activity gym on the floor, or in a bouncer, or whatever works best for you.
Also remember with very little ones–they’re usually facing you, so just because baby doesn’t have screen time doesn’t mean mama can’t.
And if you’re totally averse to screen time but you need to save your sanity–podcasts and audiobooks, friends. They’re lifesavers.
Remember–to raise your baby well through this insanity, you have to maintain your own sanity. That’s harder than it should be right now, but doing what you need to do is okay.
What pandemic activities for babies have been saving your sanity right now? Please share them with us!
Sarah Creel, PhD, is the editor of Undefining Motherhood, and Director of the Research Communication Certificate in the Graduate School at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Sarah loves to be with her family (including eight nieces and nephews!), friends, boyfriend, and animals (she has two cats and one weird dog. Wait, who is she kidding? They are all weird). At Undefining Motherhood, Sarah brings new perspectives by shedding light on nontraditional ways of being a mother.