Of all the powerful roles in humanity, a father teaching his baby to play has got to be the coolest. Playing, your baby’s main job, teaches him how to laugh and take risks. It develops his motor skills and speeds the development of his brain and nervous system. Very serious stuff.
As a father, you’re designed to be his perfect playmate. Flight lessons, peek-a-boo and wrestling all come naturally. A bonus: playing is bonding at its finest. Dads elicit the most radiant smiles and infectious belly laughs, sometimes with just a wink.
It starts right after birth when your bright little bundle notices that you look, smell, feel and sound different than Mom. While Mom is soft, warm, comforting, beautiful and smells good, you’re, well, different. Your baby won’t know what to think of you right off, which is why she stares at you so much: she’s taking you in.
As the weeks go by, a baby notices that while Mom tends to be protective and calming, Dad is more playful and physical and sometimes very surprising. Your baby soon learns that Mom will pick her up when she’s fussy, but Dad tends to tickle her or lift her into the air. When even a very young baby hears her father’s voice, she’s likely to raise her shoulders and eyebrows, or begin kicking her legs, anticipating something exciting.
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So when you’re crawling on the floor, perhaps barking like a dog as you chase him around, remember it’s a dirty job and it’s dad’s job.
Exercise for dads and fun for babies (0:15).
Pediatricians report play “lays the neural groundwork” that helps babies pursue goals, ignore distractions and handle stress. It nurtures children's ingenuity, collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, self-advocacy, decision-making, leadership, and physical activity.
Bottom line: playtime with Dad contributes to your baby’s physical, intellectual, and social development and leads to great qualities later in life—good relationships with peers, a knowledge of limits and a spirit of adventure.
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How to bond with your baby, cut her nails, and learn they're never too young to mess with you (1:06)
For the first couple of weeks, a baby’s vision is fuzzy and he'll fixate on things that are about a foot from his eyes. Place a picture or toy with highly contrasting colors in his line of sight to catch his attention, and then move it back and forth slowly so he can track it.
She’ll focus on your face and recognizes it at about one month. While she likes mom’s face too, your whiskers make yours more interesting. For some reason, at around six months, babies like to grab dad’s nose and try to pull it off.
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She may be finished before you are, and it’s important to recognize the signs before you irritate her. If she turns her face away, arches her back, or whimpers when you expect her to be having fun, assume she’s worn out or overstimulated and it’s time to quit.
Getting scared will not just trigger crying; remember all those neurons firing for the first time? You want your baby wired to trust you and his new environment and not grow up anxious. Be gentle and careful about situations—sudden loud noises, people getting too close or picking him up roughly—that may frighten him.
Your voice can soothe and delight. Babies pick up inflections and gestures and start to understand storytelling at a young age. Some babies will utter nonsensical sounds mimicking you. Talk to her about daily events, sports, news, your job, anything at all. Sing and read, as well. Use a variety of high and low pitches, loud and soft tones.
Notice when he’s reaching out for something and encourage his exploration. Let him take his time. Let him try for something just beyond his reach. Before you do something for him, let him try to do it himself. Encourage, don’t frustrate.
Put your own creative stamp on playing with your baby; build your repertoire of games that only he (and you) know. Opportunities abound; make your sock into a puppet that sings to him. Dip his toe in ice cream and give him a taste. Blow raspberries on his tummy, stopping and starting a couple of times until he’s bouncing with anticipation, then cut loose with a big one.
There’s no one else around? It’s time for ELVIS! Or whatever you like. Got a comedy act buried deep? Drag it out. No matter how bad you truly are, she’ll think you’re the best.
0 to 2 Months
There's always something you can do to engage your baby. Here are some ideas to get you going:
She might mimic you sticking your tongue out, even as a newborn. As she grows, she may mimic your other facial expressions and cooing sounds, too. Start early: hold her face-to-face, smile, open your mouth and slowly stick out your tongue. Repeat.
Hold your baby firmly with both hands—one under her bottom and the other cupped on the back of her head. Lift her up in the air and let her “fly” around slowly and gently. Always firmly support her head.
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Put him face up in your lap, and place one finger in each of his hands so he grabs on. Then pull him up a little, let him down and repeat.
With your baby on her back, gently pull her legs up to you and then side to side. Up, out, down, back, reverse. Do the same with her arms.
Their walking reflex is very cool. Using both hands to hold him, stand him on the bed and lean him forward. He’ll slowly raise one foot as if taking a step and if you move him forward, he’ll take another.
When he starts cooing and babbling away, grab your phone, load a voice recorder app, and hit “record.” Then play it back to him and watch the fascination in his eyes and the smile on his face. Do the same with his fussing, and he’ll stop to take in this new distraction. Keep the recording; it'll be a special memory.
2 to 4 Months
Your baby will become more active at two to four months, smiling and starting to coo and babble away, and responding more during playtime. She’ll love having fun with you, especially when you smile and talk to her. The possibility for games increases; examples include:
Lay your baby on her back on the bed. Push down on the mattress so that she bounces a little bit. Go slowly and gently so she enjoys it and doesn’t get anxious or upset. Remember, she’s still learning to trust you, so don’t ramp up the action to a level your child isn’t yet comfortable with.
With your baby lying on his back, put the palms of your hands up so they are nearly touching the soles of his feet. Gently push his foot with your hand, switching back and forth between right and left. Soon, you’ll do nothing but hold your hands there and your baby will kick them in the same right to left pattern you initiate.
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Lie down on your back with your baby sitting on your chest facing you. Let him explore your face. Enjoy his intense concentration as he checks everything out. Be careful because he may start bopping your face and grabbing your nose.
Sit on the ground with your baby facing you in your lap. Get a firm grip around his midsection and roll back, holding him up in the air while you say “wheee!” If he loves it—and, there’s a good chance he will—you’ll be priming him for past-times that will terrify you later in life.
Since we put our babies to sleep on their backs, they have few opportunities to develop upper body strength by lifting their heads and pushing themselves up with their hands. So give him plenty of belly time while playing, and he’ll be the fastest crawler in his Mommy & Me group.
Place your baby on his back and sit behind him. Hold a colorful toy above his face and slowly move it to one side, encouraging him to grab it. If he turns over, or starts to, cheer him on and then repeat it with the other side. If he’s almost there, give him a little push. If he gets all the way over, give him the toy (some babies learn to roll across an entire room before they crawl).
“When I come home, she's doing something new or different every day. She crawls a little better; she pulls up on things. Starting about 3-4 months, you'll really start to notice that.” - New Dad
4 to 6 Months
Your baby is quickly becoming bigger, stronger, more active and responsive. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities. Babies love to be cheered on at this age, so don’t hold back.
Always a favorite. Put your hands in front of your face for a few moments, then jerk them away and say “peek-a-boo!” Repeat about five times, then put her hands over her eyes and show her how to do it. Over time, she’ll catch on and after a month or so you’ll be peek-a-booing back and forth with her giggling away.
When she’s cooing or babbling, take her hand and place the back of it over her mouth to cork her briefly, then lift it and repeat. The result will be bah-bah-bah, which she’ll find fascinating as well as a new trick to enthrall her adoring audience (Mom, Grandma). (See the video below/right)
He’ll love this one, though mom may not. Raid the kitchen for wooden spoons and a few pots and use them to make some serious music. Put a spoon in his chubby little hand and show him how to bang a pot like a drum, then cut him loose to bang away on his own. As he flails away, make sure he doesn’t inadvertently bang his head or yours.
Take something your baby is playing with and hide it inside or underneath something bigger. If it’s a cloth book, put it underneath a light blanket. If it’s a block, put it inside a plastic bowl. Show him where it is and then hide it again until he finds it himself.
Sit your baby on your knee as if it were a horse, hold him firmly and bounce gently in a rhythm, perhaps to the tune of the Lone Ranger. Every once in a while, bounce your knee a little higher and he‘ll soon anticipate it coming.
Put him on his belly, sideways over a towel. Grab both towel ends in one hand and lift him up a few inches, supporting him with your other hand. Get him on his hands and knees, and start moving his arms and legs one at a time in a crawling motion. While this maneuver may not actually teach him to crawl, he’ll find it interesting and maybe even fun—it can’t hurt.
Babies don’t just love music, they love moving to music! Crank up the tunes, pick him up and (carefully) cut loose with some of your best moves.
Classes start at six months and after some initial fussing, babies like it. You’ll be in the water with her, and dads tend to consider this one-on-one time together priceless. Plus, she’s getting water safe, which fuels your water-related aspirations together in the future.
Russell: Baby's First Song (0:17)
- “He learned the words more, all done, eat, diaper, up and out.”
- “She learned please, thank you, sorry, milk, juice, hungry, thirsty, eat, drink, poo, more, and all done.”
- “We did sign language with our first, and less so with our second. The most helpful signs for us were about meal time: more, please, all done, and milk.”
- “You don't have to go all out, but knowing what the baby wants especially around food was very helpful.”
- “My son only learned a few signs—milk, more, and all done. Once he got the concept that we could communicate the world became a much better place. He started talking early and hasn't stopped.”
Rich Experiences Produce Rich Brains
A stimulating environment is deceptively simple: babies learn by reacting to the sights, sounds, smells, and shapes around them. They also learn by meeting challenges put before them—reaching, grabbing and getting you to pay attention.
Carry her against your chest, facing out, with her head resting against you; place one hand under her bottom and the other on her chest. Walk around slowly, positioning her so new things come into her field of vision. It doesn’t really matter what it is; just watch her face to see what captures her attention. Describe it to her in a soft voice and let her take it in.
Start with the light switch and move on to pictures, a mirror (always a good one) and windows. The kitchen is full of interesting stuff, so open the cupboards. A garden with flowers is great: let her check them out and touch them (careful she doesn’t try to eat them). Bugs are very cool as they crawl around, and boys love to watch them eat (a study found baby girls crawl away from bugs while little boys will crawl toward them).
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Every new place presents fresh opportunities. Someone else’s house, the neighborhood, local park, mall, or local truck dealer. Getting fussy at a restaurant? Show her the pictures in the hall leading to the restrooms, or take a walk outside and introduce her to cool cars. Make showing her the world a habit. A soft baby carrier that allows you to carry her around on your chest (facing out) may become essential.
Hard to imagine a place with more interesting stuff for a baby to check out than a Home Depot. Aisle after aisle with lots of colors, tools, and materials you can tell her about (and chances are you’ll always find something you need). Let her get the feel of a hammer while you firmly hold it in your hand, but be careful she doesn’t get close enough to grab things that might hurt her (or you!).
“For in the child lies the future of the world. Mother must hold him close, so he knows it is his world. Father must take the child to the highest hill so he can see what his world is like.”
— Mayan Proverb
Russell: "We go on Adventures..." (1:01)
Clearly, getting out of the house is in order. If you go out on your own, leaving Mom stuck at home with the baby, you’re tagged a laggard. But take your baby with you, and you’re a fine example of the male species. Start by taking him along on an errand, like a run to the store. You'll quickly get used to taking care of him on the road and might even find yourself using him as an excuse to get out of the house.
After being tied up at home for months, your friends get the idea that you can no longer come out and play. Jump back in by showing up to things now and then with Junior. Seriously, you can always leave if need be, and babies are like puppies: after a few times asking, “Can you hold her for a minute,” they’ll be asking to hold her nonstop.
Show them how to bottle feed her or rock her to sleep, and maybe a few tricks you’ve taught her. If she’s learned to stick out her tongue when you do (party tricks!), they’ll be calling you up asking to bring her over to play.
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What to Bring
Beyond the first six weeks when their immune systems are just cranking up, there’s no reason to keep a healthy baby at home. Make sure the diaper bag is fully stocked for an outing that will last more than several hours; if all day, add a daypack with extra diapers, undershirts, footed pajamas, an extra blanket, bottles and a few of his favorite toys. Include a plastic bag for diaper disposal.
If the temperature is over 75°, a diaper and t-shirt underneath a pair of footed pajamas is usually good enough. If it’s breezy, add a light jacket and a hat to keep the sun off his face and his head warm, and add layers as the temperature gets lower.
Because your infant has sensitive skin, avoid using sunscreen until she’s six months old. Use other methods of keeping her out of the sun, like a large hat or a baby-seat with a canopy. If you’re taking a stroller walk and the sun is in her face, just hang a light blanket over the stroller’s canopy to shield her.
It’s a good idea to stick close to your baby’s sleeping schedule, but it shouldn’t be a zero-tolerance rule. In new places, putting your baby to sleep can be a challenge. Bring a blanket from his crib that will feel and smell familiar, wrap him up, and hold him so he gets warm and falls asleep.
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We live with constant access to the internet in our pockets. Make use of it by finding your favorite music (and on occasion, some silly baby songs) and see what your child responds to most. Whether you connect to a speaker or just play it straight from your phone, the right music has the almost magical ability to calm and focus a baby.
Whether you’re a power user or see it as a silly app for tweens, Snapchat is a fun way to introduce (limited) screen time to your child. The front facing camera will act as a mirror, allowing your child to see the two of you together. The filters are an added bonus, as you can mortify Mom with all the silly characters you turn your baby into.
If you’re the adventurous type, get out in the local environment (whether that's country or city) and show your baby the sights. You’ll get a workout and your baby will get a refreshing change of scenery.
What are your hobbies? What were the games you liked when you were a kid? Sometimes what we like and what our kids like don’t line up, but it’s always worth a shot. Even if your favorite hobbies are way above your child’s level, see if you can simplify them down to make them baby friendly.
Dads having fun with their short ones (10:34)