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  • Rachel Coley, MS, OT/L

How To Support Newborn Milestones Through Play

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

By Rachel Coley, MS, OT/L

Newborn Milestones

Do any of these Google searches sound familiar?


What week does baby first smile?

When should baby sit up?

Baby not rolling over yet


If so, you’re in good company! Wondering and worrying about baby milestones - if you’re doing enough to help your little one meet them or if your baby is developmentally on track - is a very common experience for parents.


Many parents ask me if they’re “doing enough” to support their baby’s development. That question makes a lot of assumptions that I think should be questioned. Assumptions about an arbitrary measure of parental effort, about deterministic parenting (what you put in determines the kid you get out) and about the value placed on expected development (instead of on a child’s individual development). How about a reframe:


When it comes to baby’s development, parents can set the stage and enjoy the show.



How do we set the stage for baby’s development?


Click HERE to watch the video online, or keep scrolling read about facilitating your baby’s milestones through play.



How Do Babies Learn To Meet Milestones?


Babies learn best through movement and interacting with their environment, often their favorite part of the environment is YOU!

Well, actually there’s one more vital ingredient I share in my free Brain-Boosting Baby Play email course.

But for today’s purposes let’s focus on baby’s movement and interaction with the world around them.


Babies Learn Through Movement


Movement initially looks like straightening and bending the arms and legs and turning the head. It looks like random newborn wiggles but it’s really important for baby’s development and learning. Through movement your baby begins to map out their own body, integrate newborn reflexes, strengthen their muscles and stretch out of the curled up womb position they’ve been in for months (nerdy term: physiological flexion).


Babies with movement or physiological (body) differences can benefit from the support of therapy professionals to help them with these important processes.


For babies on an expected developmental path, movement starts to get more purposeful as baby gets older and we start to see those big milestones - grasping toys, rolling, sitting, crawling, standing and walking. But what many parents don’t realize is that between these well-recognized milestones are dozens of “mini-milestones” - subtle skills that baby practices and masters in order to reach the next big milestone (learn more about those mini-milestones).


Babies Learn Through Interaction With The Environment


Your baby’s window the the world is his or her senses. Through engaged, interactive play, your kiddo is not only learning about the people and objects and world around him, baby is also learning about how to skillfully use those amazing senses. They’re new tools and there’s a learning curve!


Through active play, babies who can hear turn toward sounds and babies who can see follow movements with the eyes. They feel - the blanket, their hand, their own faces. Many babies touch and put things in their mouths. They imitate the silly faces you make and hear the cadence of your voice. They squeeze and bang and drop and push and pull. All babies learn through DOING and all the sensing that goes along with it.


How Can I Play With My Newborn To Support Milestones?

Allow Your Baby Unrestricted Movement - LOTS Of It!


One of the BEST things you can do to support baby milestones is allowing your baby as much freedom of movement as possible during awake times. This is because, if given the time and space to move, babies naturally develop according to their unique blueprint. They are quite literally free to grow into themselves. Unfortunately all those cute and convenient baby holders - car seat carriers outside the car, infant swings, bouncy seats, squishy lounge pillows, exersaucers and jumpers - limit your baby’s movement.


Some time in these devices won’t derail development but many (many, many) parents don’t fully realize how much cumulative time baby is spending in gear and how little of their awake time allows full freedom of movement.


If you’re realizing right about now that your little one doesn’t get much unrestricted movement time, DO. NOT. BEAT. YOURSELF. UP. Guilt can be a helpful emotion if it motivates change. It’s unhelpful when it motivates self-loathing. Let’s put that guilt to work for you with some changes to consider making starting today:


  • put blankets or playmats in frequently used areas of your home

  • put some of your baby gear in a closet so that it’s actually EASIER and more convenient to use those blankets or playmats

  • if the floor isn’t safe in your home (siblings, pets, etc.), use a portable play yard (the Pack ‘n Play has always been my go-to)


Place Baby In Different Positions During Awake Times


Babies have important developmental skills to work on in many body positions but for a good chunk the first year of life they’re dependent on us for their positioning and for position changes.


Modern babyhood consists of a LOT of time in one position - on the back. If parents are doing Tummy Time at all, it often amounts to a few minutes a day. But there are more than 2 positions to consider.


To learn about all the other positions and how to prioritize them, sign up for my free email course, Avoiding the Baby Helmet.


Support Active, Engaged Awake Time


Babies learn best by DOING. I know, I know brand new babies don’t seem like they can DO very much. But they can!


Observation & Reflection:

Take a few moments to carefully observe your baby free to move. Do you notice baby:


  • turning their heads to look at something they see or hear

  • visually exploring something new

  • beginning to imitate facial expressions (thanks to mirror motor neurons in the brain!)

  • engaging in reciprocal (back and forth) noise-making

  • feeling new textures on their skin as you bring things to their hands, feet, face, body

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