How to Play with an Infant

Our stupidly simple play space: a blanket and Mommy’s mirror

Welcome to the Week of the Young Child 2018! To celebrate, I’m writing a week’s worth of blog posts on how to foster young children and our relationship with them. 

Being that mom, I worried about how to play with my infant son. Did I need to bring out special toys? How long should he have tummy time? Should I be with him at all times? Isn’t he supposed to be rolling over by now? Pinterest, help me before I ruin my child!!!

Of course, e.e. wasn’t remotely interested in any bright toy I waved in front of his face. He gravitated toward stuffing burp cloths in his mouth and staring at blank white walls.

In Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) philosophy, infants are competent little humans capable of expressing their needs and interests — as opposed to helpless blank slates requiring parents to do everything for them. Obviously, immobile, nonverbal infants require more help than mobile, verbal children, but it’s true that even the littlest of humans aren’t entirely helpless.

Once I began viewing e.e. as capable of thinking and communicating his own wants and needs, I took a step back and respected his ability to entertain himself as well.

I’ve since come to view my role as a parent as less of an entertainer, shaking rattles and singing songs, and more of an observer and a facilitator. I don’t make the fun; I make the space for it.

The light bulb moment happened when he was around two months old.

Every time he suckled for his pacifier, I stuck it in his mouth. Every time, he almost immediately spat it out — and began suckling for it again. Frustrated, I stopped giving him the nook.

“Look at him,” my husband said suddenly. “He’s playing with it.”

Sure enough, e.e. had invented a single-player game of fetch — spitting out the pacifier, then slowly reaching out his tongue to lick or nuzzle it back into his mouth. Then he spat it out again and repeated the whole process.

My two-month-old is making up games? Clearly, I didn’t even know my own child.

Ever since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time just sitting and observing e.e. — his interests, his competencies, his ways of doing things. From those observations, I’ve tweaked the activities we do together to strengthen his interests or pique new ones.

A little while ago, he discovered his hands were not only good for gnawing but also great for grabbing.

That’s when I reintroduced toys, after three months of no luck. But I didn’t play with him, per se. I didn’t jiggle the rattle or kiss his face with the bunny. (At least not very much. I’m only human — totally enamored and obsessed mom human, to be precise.) I just set them out and watched what he did with them.

In his own time, his gaze fell on the fuzzy gray bunny, and his mouth and fingers registered that stuffed animals felt a lot like his beloved burp cloths. He spent a good five minutes pawing and flailing at that bunny.

Then he lost interest.

Normally when a baby loses interest in something, I start shoving the object back in her face, cooing, bouncing, standing on my head to get her attention again. (Why do we do that? Do we feel like failures as caregivers when babies find the ceiling more interesting than our proferred activity? Do we just think that’s just the thing to do with babies? Asking for a friend.)

That’s annoying. That’s rude. That’s the exact thing I snap at my husband not to do. And if I don’t want anybody to stick a toy or a long explanation about hydroponic gardens in my face when I’m obviously writing this blog post, Erich, why does another human’s clear signal of disinterest deserve less respect just because that human is an infant?

So I curb my inexplicable tendencies to be the life of the party. I try to just watch instead, to see if I can facilitate another play opportunity or just let him be.

Babies know what they want.

No, really, they do — that, or my baby’s just the most prodigious infant that ever lived. (Which, like, duh.)

The other day, e.e. expressed an interest in sitting up. Whenever I propped him up on his Boppy pillow, he strained forward until I lifted him into a sitting position. This can’t be developmentally appropriate for his underdeveloped spine, I reasoned, and lowered him back down. But he stuck his neck forward, crunched his belly, and gave me that bewildered why-do-you-do-this-to-me-Mom? look.

The books say he isn’t supposed to be sitting up until four months, but e.e. knew what he wanted, and he knew how to guilt Mommy into making it happen.

Okay. Fine. (But I still want you rolling over, e.e. Prodigious babies roll over.)

Now that I’m looking for e.e.’s cues, his playtime objectives are quite obvious. When he wants to grin or talk, he grins or talks. When he wants to interact with me, he looks in my eyes. When he doesn’t, he looks away. When he gets tired of tummy time, he starts fussing. When he wants to be on his tummy, he rocks his body until I take a hint.

Sometimes he’s smiley and social. Sometimes he’s introspective. Sometimes he wants to stare at blank walls. Sometimes he just wants to gaze into my eyes while making duck lips. And sometimes he wants to lay prone on the ground and complain about life. (Like mother, like son.)

Through observation, I’ve seen e.e. for who he is, what he wants, and what he can do — even as an infant.


Okay, weird mom, but really, how do I play with an infant? Here are e.e.’s and my top five suggestions for easy, fun play:

  1. Baby yoga
  2. Songs with motions (“The Wheels on the Bus,” “Hickory Dickory Dock,” “Bananas Unite,” etc.)
  3. Blowing raspberries at each other
  4. Mimicking each other’s vowel sounds and facial expressions
  5. And, of course, chewing on burp cloths

4 thoughts on “How to Play with an Infant

  1. juliascreativeyear

    Mimicking with babies is one of my favourite activities EVER! And they love it too… It’s fab as they begin to realise that they can influence what you do. And then they might get you to do something they find funny, which makes me laugh, and the fun cycle continues. Enjoy playing with e.e. His smile is to die for 😊


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