New parents often tell me that they struggle to get any kind of self-care once their baby arrives. I can relate—after my son was born I felt totally disconnected from the habits that had nurtured me before his arrival.
Here’s a little secret. One of the best things you can do for your young baby also comes with a bonus: it’s self-care for you, too.
That thing that is so good for both of you is simple (and yes, hard too): put your baby down.
Why Putting Your Baby Down is Good for Her
Putting your baby down is so beneficial because it allows her to start moving and using her body in a way that strengthens and prepares it for rolling, crawling, and walking.
Babies are also most able to play when they are lying down on their backs, with their arms and legs unrestricted. When she’s very small, on her back your baby can freely move, as well as see in almost every direction. (Have you seen the amazing way young babies can look over their own heads?) As she grows, she can roll to her side and tummy to play, and eventually, start to move beyond where you’ve placed her.
Time outside your arms also helps your baby begin to learn an incredible skill: the ability to play independently. This not only naturally develops her curiosity and focus, it also teaches her that play doesn’t always have to include you in the role of Entertainer.
We can help our baby develop the ability to play independently if we set up a safe play space—often called a “yes space” in respectful-parenting lingo—starting when she is small. This “yes space” is where she can play freely on her own, without interruption by us to either redirect her or remove objects (things we’d have to say “no” to) for short or longer periods of time.
How to Set up a Safe Play Space
The most important feature of a play space for your baby is that it is completely safe. Magda Gerber, infant expert and the founder of RIE®, used to say that the space “should be so completely safeproofed that if you were locked out of the house for hours, you would feel confident that your child would not be in danger (though this is not recommended)” (Your Self-Confident Baby, 87).
For those of us that live in small homes, this safe space can be as simple as her crib when your baby is tiny. As she grows, a play yard or playpen works beautifully. As she starts to roll, creep, or crawl, she will need more space, like a gated off section of one room.
If your baby has her own room, with a little work the entire space can be set up to be completely safe, which will mean removing any furniture or objects that can pinch or topple, and securing remaining pieces to the wall for your budding climber. A gate on the door allows her to be safe inside when you need or want to be outside of the room, while still allowing you to hear and see her easily.
Once your space is secure, consider it from your baby’s perspective. Is it clear of clutter? Is it interesting to look at? Is there space to move and explore? What kinds of objects are there to engage with? And are those objects at her level?
With a safe, clear, and simple space set up, you’re ready to consider what kinds of toys to fill it with.
What Kinds of Toys Are Best?
Parents often ask about the best toys for young babies. In the Educaring® Approach we like to call these toys play objects. This little language shift may help you start to see some of the simple objects you already have in your house as potential toys.
When considering toys for your baby (and older child too), the best question to ask yourself is whether they are active or passive. We like to say that passive toys make for active babies. As Magda Gerber wrote,
I’d rather see a busy child actively manipulating a simple toy in a variety of creative ways to see how it works than see a passive child playing with a busy toy that encourages her passivity. A simple toy that allows a child to discover its many possibilities is a good choice—for example, a box that can be opened and shut or a ball that rolls and bounces. (Your Self-Confident Baby, 88)
Other passive play objects that encourage your child’s creativity are simple all-cotton scarves or napkins; old-fashioned plastic hair rollers (with no pins or Velcro); containers of all shapes and sizes; baby dolls; and silicone, stainless steel, and wooden cups and bowls.
Stay away from toys that light up, make lots of sound, or create their own movement. In addition to encouraging passivity, they can be overwhelming to young babies (and annoying to parents to boot).
Consider adding fewer toys to the space than you might be inclined to include. In addition to making the space feel open and beautiful, when fewer toys are at hand children tend to play with what’s available more, and more creatively. You can always rotate play objects (and books) in and out if you find that certain ones get neglected for a period of time.
And of course, the toys you select should be age-appropriate. Tiny objects that can be choked on or toys that would be baffling or simply uninteresting to your child at her age should be saved for later.
For a wonderful guide to selecting play objects for children at various ages—complete with many photos—see Respectful Caregiving’s Toy Guide.
And here are some other posts for further reading:
Play Space Inspiration, by Janet Lansbury
Creating a ‘Yes Space’ for Babies and Toddlers, from How We Montessori
And stay tuned for future posts on independent play and how to foster this lifelong skill!
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