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Learning, Play, and Your Newborn

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

What Is My Newborn Learning?

Play is the chief way that infants learn how to move, communicate, socialize, and understand their surroundings. And during the first month of life, your baby will learn by interacting with you.

The first thing your baby will learn is to connect the feel of your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face with getting his or her needs for comfort and food met.

Even at this young age, newborns are ready to learn about the world around them. Your newborn loves to look your face. Newborns can recognize and respond to mom or dad's voice (or other interesting sounds) by looking alert and becoming less active. The baby may try to find out where the sound is coming from by looking around and turning his or her head.

Encourage learning with smiles, soothing sounds, and gentle caresses. When you smile and talk to your infant, your face and the sound of your voice will become a familiar source of calm and comfort. Your little one will learn to associate you with nourishment, warmth, and a soothing touch.

What Is the "Rooting Reflex"?

Babies are born with involuntary reflexes that help ensure survival. Reflexes also are a way for babies to interact with the world. For example, gently stroking a newborn's cheek will get the baby to turn the head and mouth to that side, ready to eat. This is called the rooting reflex.

But by the time they're 3 weeks old, babies will turn toward the breast or bottle not just because of a reflex, but because they've learned that it's a source of food.

Asleep, Active, or Alert?

During the first month of life, your newborn will spend much of the day sleeping or seeming drowsy. Over the next several weeks to months, your baby will be awake and alert for longer periods of time. You'll learn to recognize when your baby ready to learn and play:

  • A baby who is quiet and alert will be attentive and responsive and interested in surroundings.
  • A baby who is awake but active (squirming, flapping arms, or kicking legs) or fussing is less able to focus on you. The baby may seem upset or cry when you try to get his or her attention. These are signs that your baby may be getting hungry, tired, or overstimulated.

How Can I Help My Newborn Learn?

As you care for your newborn, talk, smile, and interact with your baby. Pay attention and respond to your baby's cues. For example, watch how your baby moves or starts to coo back when you speak. Take turns "talking" to each other. This is how your baby learns to communicate.

In the first few weeks, you may want to introduce some simple, age-appropriate toys that appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, and touch, such as:

  • rattles
  • textured toys
  • musical toys
  • unbreakable crib mirrors

Try toys and mobiles with contrasting colors and patterns. Strong contrasts (such as red, white, and black), curves, and symmetry stimulate an infant's developing vision. As vision improves and babies gain more control over their movements, they'll interact more and more with their environment.

Some Other Ideas

Here are some other ideas for encouraging your newborn to learn and play:

  • Put on soothing music and hold your baby, gently swaying to the tune.
  • Pick a soothing song or lullaby and softly sing it often to your baby. The familiarity of the sound and words will have a soothing effect, particularly during fussy times.
  • Smile, stick out your tongue, and make other expressions for your infant to study, learn, and imitate.
  • Use a favorite toy for your newborn to focus on and follow, or shake a rattle for your infant to find.
  • Let your baby spend some awake time on his or her tummy to help strengthen the neck and shoulders. Always supervise your infant during "tummy time" and be ready to help if he or she gets tired or frustrated in this position. Never put an infant to sleep on his or her stomach — babies should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Talk and read to your baby.

Keep in mind that babies develop at different rates, and there is a wide range of normal development. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about how your newborn sees and hears, or if you have any questions or concerns about your baby's development.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2019