Sensory play is important during your baby’s first few months. Babies need to explore and touch different textures, shapes, sounds, tastes and smell in order to develop their senses. Sensory toys are designed to facilitate learning and early development through sensory stimulation.
They can help with hand-eye coordination, language skills, and cognitive development. And they’re perfect for little hands!
Sensory play for babies can take many forms but is essentially any activity that stimulates the senses. You can invest in some beautiful baby sensory toys to encourage sensory development and you can use everyday objects and even your own face and voice to play with your baby.
Using baby sensory toys to encourage babies to explore the world around them using their senses is an important part of their development. Allowing them to investigate, create and explore builds pathways in the brain that sets them up for being able to achieve more complex tasks later. It also helps with language development, social skills, memory, and developing sensory thresholds.
When babies are tiny you might find you don’t have a lot of specified playtime. Looking after their needs can be time-consuming enough. But stimulating the senses in playful ways can be easily incorporated into daily activities as well as dedicated playtime.
Sensory play could be giving them things to look at while they are lying in a cot or pram, giving them fun things to touch (there are lots of great newborn soft toys that have different textures and make crinkly noises when you touch them), giving them an activity cube with sensory toys on or letting them explore a wipe or clean nappy while you are changing them.
Simple ways to encourage play
Depending on the age of your baby there are lots of things you can do to encourage sensory play.
A few minutes of tummy time on a play mat or lying on your chest is great for developing physically as well as using the senses. If they are on your chest make funny faces at them or sing a rhyme. If they are on a playmat add things with texture for them to explore, a mirror for them to see themselves or place an interesting toy just out of reach.
Tune in to your baby and notice when they are interested in something. Talking to them throughout the day and telling them about things that seem to attract their attention is a great way to encourage sensory play. And allow them to explore things whether its the feeling of an ice cube from your drink or the noise the table makes when they bang it.
Although babies can become quickly overwhelmed by too much stimulation you can still set up simple play activities for them to explore even if it’s just for a few minutes. And they don’t need to be elaborate. Water and ice cubes, rice to pour or spaghetti to squish all make great activities for little ones.
Simple sensory toys like a rattle, a rain stick, a mobile or sensory blocks are great for little ones. And we love the comforters and soft toys that incorporate multiple colours and textures as they are great for babies to explore. Plus, we have lots more sensory play ideas here.
Sensory Development for Babies
Babies develop faster in the first year of their lives than at any other time. They use their senses to discover the world around them recognising sounds and smells from the moment they are born and figuring out their surroundings with sight and touch.
Interestingly, the senses of a baby begin to develop long before she is born. Touch begins to develop from just 7-8 weeks gestation, her first taste buds develop at around 10 weeks and by around 23 weeks she can detect sounds from the outside world.
The sense of touch
The baby’s sense of touch is highly developed at birth and touch will be the first way you communicate with your child. Their mouth is particularly sensitive and you’ll notice how they use it to explore the world.
From a very young age your baby will enjoy being stroked and touched, and gentle touch is one of the best ways of soothing your baby. They love lots of skin to skin contact and the best news is it’s great for parents too as it boosts levels of oxytocin.
A baby might enjoy a massage, you gently blow on their skin, the sensation of being in a warm bath or touching different textures. As they get bigger and their muscles develop they will start to reach out and grab things, exploring them with their hands and mouths.
Hearing and development
A baby’s hearing is essentially fully developed when they are born; they use their hearing to make sense of the world and learn to communicate. In fact, the parts of the brain that interpret and attach meaning to sounds continue to develop until a child is around 12.
Talk, read and sing to your baby from the moment they are born, before if you like, as this will help their development. As they get bigger they will delight in trying to mimic noises and love toys that allow them to make noise. Rattles and crinkly toys are great as they allow babies to start to learn about cause and effect.
How babies see the world
Sight is the least developed of the senses at birth but is still a powerful way for babies to take in information about the world around them and by the time they are 6-8 months they can see pretty much the same as we do.
To begin with babies can’t focus more than a foot away from their faces so get in close and let them explore your face. They also struggle to distinguish between similar colours so high contrast patterns in black and white will probably get the most attention.
After a couple of months bright primary colours will become more appealing, and by around 4 months their perception is good enough that they can locate an object and make a grab for it. At around 3-4 months they will also be able to track objects that move in front of their faces and will follow your face or a toy with their eyes.
Taste and smell
Taste and smell are closely connected and both are pretty well developed by the time your baby is born. They will already recognise your smell and use their sense of smell to seek out the boob or the bottle.
Breast fed babies will be able to taste a difference in their milk depending on what you have eaten, and all babies can find strong smells overpowering, to the point where they might not feed as well if there are particularly strong scents.
Babies find familiar smells comforting which is why you might find they sleep better with a favourite comforter or one of mum or dads t-shirts. And when they start to eat solids they use their sense of taste and smell to decide if they like what they are trying.
All babies senses can be stimulated and developed through play. Discover what is sensory play for babies here.
Sensory play ideas
Sensory play allows babies and children to discover the world using their senses. Using these senses helps to develop connections in the brain, allowing them to process sensory information and respond to it and it helps with physical development as well.
There are loads of play ideas that are fun and engaging for your child, from specially designed baby sensory toys to everyday objects. And in many cases, you’ll be stimulating more than one sense at a time.
Here are some of our favourite sensory play ideas.
Sensory play for sight
Sight is one of the senses that isn’t fully developed at birth, yet there are still plenty of ways to visually stimulate your baby.
- Give your baby plenty of things to look at. Have a mobile above their cot, lie them in different places in the house, let them lie outside under the trees and let them have plenty of close up time with you to discover your face and expressions.
- Move a toy in front of their face and encourage them to follow it with their eyes.
- Read simple board books to them with lots of contrast and bright colours.
- Sensory bottles can be a fun homemade toy for visual stimulation.
- Playing peekaboo
Sensory play for hearing
Babies can hear us even before they are born and will already recognise the sound of your voice. Although their hearing is fully developed the way the brain processes and responds to sounds is still developing until a child is much older.
- Talk, read and sing to your child from birth as hearing you is how they learn.
- If you see them notice a noise like a plane or the washing machine talk to them about it as this helps build connections.
- Music is a great form of sensory play. Make music together and explore rhythm with simple instruments. A saucepan and a spoon or an old spice jar with a bit of rice inside are great fun.
- Rainsticks are a great sensory toy for babies and toddlers. They create a lovely relaxing sound and little ones will quickly work out how to do it themselves.
- Velcro also makes a great noise. Find clothes, shoes or nappies that use velcro, or make a velcro board and discover how many things can stick to it.
Sensory stimulation the sense of touch
Touch is a great sense to stimulate during play. And most play activities will involve touch in some way.
- Touching your child, holding them, stroking them and massaging them is the first form of sensory play involving touch. Touching different parts of the body helps them discover that their legs, arms, hands and feet are connected to them.
- Messy play comes in many forms and is great for exploring the sense of touch. Edible finger painting, squishing dough, playing with rice or cooked spaghetti are all great fun activities for little ones.
- The bath is also a great place to stimulate the senses. Try adding an ice cube or two to the water to discover the feeling of hot and cold, or add bubbles or bath bombs that will stimulate sight and smell as well as touch.