When my friends started to get pregnant, even before being a mom myself, they’d ask me endless questions of what to buy or do. I noticed how scared they all were because they had no idea what to do with a human baby. I thought that with all my experience working in early childhood, I had something to offer: I wanted to empower moms to become their own experts. Having a background in psychology and education, I thought I could refine motherhood in a way that allowed moms to breathe and be confident that less is truly more. I could encourage children’s natural abilities through meaningful play right from the start in a way that wasn’t overwhelming.
That was all well and good, but even with my background, the truth was, I had no idea just how hard motherhood would be—that playing with your infant would be the last thing on your mind amidst healing, recovering, hormonal moods, breastfeeding, and well, just surviving. Two months into launching my blog, I gave birth and figured out that even with my experience, this motherhood thing—well, it’s hard AF and lonely. Moms need each other. So at eight weeks postpartum, I wrangled some new moms together, we dragged ourselves to meet, and I pretended I knew what I was doing by leading a moms group. Really, I just wanted to hang out with moms so I could feel more sane! Moms came to me for guidance on what to do with babies and I kept going, thriving off this community of moms supporting moms. Eventually, it turned into a physical space called Union Square Play. USP is not only a place for moms; it’s a space where young children come to feel a sense of “home away from home.”
Something that is very apparent both at USP (where we have now moved our entire brand online through moms groups, an app, and play materials) and on my blog is the importance of play in a child’s life. Children are born with a deep desire to explore and learn, and they do so by playing. When choosing the right toys, it comes down to providing opportunities for children to be engaged rather than entertained. I always say that busy toys = passive babies. Do we want them to sit and watch when they play or immerse themselves in learning and fun? I also think it’s important that the things children play with have no right or wrong use for them. That way, when toys can be anything, children can feel confident using them in ways that they come up with.
Here are my favorite play recommendations by age:
Babies On Their Back
By far the best first toy is a cloth bandana. Seems pretty lame, I know, but trust me on this one. The reason it’s so great for the youngest babies is that a baby who hasn’t discovered their hands yet can accidentally brush against this, maybe grab it, even before intentionally grasping it.
You can put it in a “peak” so that a baby on her back can see it by just turning her head. Through these types of head movements, gross motor development is encouraged because you’ll see your baby begin to notice what’s next to them and then begin to reach across their bodies and stretch. A bandana or cloth can also be strung through some play objects to prevent frustrating toys from rolling away from an immobile baby and also to allow them to bring a toy to them more easily by grabbing the bandana.
For Babies On The Move
RAID THE KITCHEN. (No, I don’t mean to satisfy our endless snacking cravings while working from home.) Your kitchen is FULL of ways to engage your kids. Trust me. One of the ones I found to be the most intriguing was this random cheese board. The reason I got this was because I actually needed a place for cheese with all the wine I was drinking in quarantine. Then one day I put it on the ground to set up some toys on it and noticed that it was light enough for Nell to move around and that she loved peeking under it too. She now even pushes it around as a walker! What’s so cool is that nothing else in their toy box looks like this or serves the same purpose.
Another great thing for babies who are sitting up is to make a Shaker Station to get the party started through noise-making. I used empty Altoids boxes and put in metal beaded chains for my daughters to shake. You can also use old spice jars or find metal utensils from your kitchen to get the beat going. I specifically love metal cupcake trays and metal condiment cups for music making too: Your baby will love knocking over the metal cups, watching them roll, and clanging them into an orchestra of sounds. A note: You may want to avoid any Zoom calls during this type of play because it can get noisy real quick.
Toddlers: Keys and Planters
Toddlers love seeing what “fits.” This experimenting is part of a schema for behavior called enveloping—you may see your toddler trying to fit themselves into every crevice possible. My daughter tried to fit into a shot glass, I kid you not. So by giving them an “invitation” to explore this behavioral urge, they’re not only exerting this urge, but they’re also learning about the properties of objects. (This is evident when you put out “suggested” activities like I did above by presenting the slitted planter and never-been-used keys—but a shoebox with cut slits and metal spoons from your kitchen can serve the same purpose).
3+: Post-Its and Washi Tape
Your kids will love getting into a sticky situation with these play materials. Post-its are awesome, not just because they can be used by moms to stick motivational mantras on their bathroom mirror, but also because toddlers can stick them anywhere and have a blast taking them off of surfaces too. You can use washi tape for the same purpose while also making paths on the floor to jump, tiptoe, hopscotch, ride toy cars on, or simply to box yourself into a corner of your home and declare it your “office space”. This tape (or painters tape, if you need a substitute) is the definition of multi-purposeful.
Beyond 3: Color Tablets
Use these tablets to amp up bath time by changing the bathwater different colors. My kids love dropping them into the bath and mixing the water with giant ladles. They make colored soup in the bath and love it. It’s non-toxic and does not dye the skin. You can also have your children play with color mixing by filling different glass cups or water bottles with water and having them drop tablets to see what color combinations make what colors.
I could literally write pages upon pages of different ideas by age, but my goal is to empower you to look around your home at what you already have and think creatively and resourcefully. I even model this for my 3-year-old. When I sense that she’s feeling bored (or just asking incessantly for snacks) I’ll say, “hmmmmm what do you think we can play with in this cabinet?” And we’ll pluck things from the kitchen and make up ways to use them. The other day, I kid you not, she made up her own version of beer pong with those metal condiment cups, and I could not have been more proud.
This is how we raise the future thinkers and innovators: we think and innovate.
If you’re pregnant, you’re likely familiar with the not-so-fun phenomenon that is unsolicited advice. Everyone wants to tell you what you need to pack in your hospital bag (I personally used nothing in my bag but my toothbrush), how to handle those first few sleepless weeks, and the items you absolutely need to buy before your baby is born.
As a minimalist who lives in a very small New York City apartment, I found that a lot of items people told me I absolutely needed were nice to have at best, and useless and space-sucking at worst. In order to save you space, money, and do the environment a little favor, here are the things you actually need to buy before your baby is born.
1. Newborn Onesies And Pajamas
While my daughter spent a lot of time in her diaper in those early days, newborn onesies and pajamas are essential for both walks and warmth at home. Look for pajamas with little mitten-like ends to the sleeves so they can cover the baby’s hands—most babies are born with very sharp nails, which they love to use to scratch themselves and you. Because their hands are so tiny at first, cutting their nails is scary, and this is a nice solution. Baby mittens do exist for this purpose, but I found my daughter just pulled them off. And when it comes to PJs, opt for zippers over snaps—they’re so much easier to deal with in the middle of the night. Here are some onesies to get you started.
Gerber Baby Organic Cotton Long Sleeve Onesies, $7.99
2. Diapers And Wipes
While you will get a few diapers at the hospital, newborns go through a lot of diapers. So whether you’re doing cloth or disposable diapers, make sure you have some waiting at home for you—a month’s supply is probably a good bet. And don’t forget wipes! My favorites are Water Wipes, which are made with 99.9% water and great for your baby’s sensitive skin.
WaterWipes Baby Wipes Original, $42.99
3. Adult Diapers And/Or Thick Pads
I wouldn’t suggest going totally crazy with this one, especially because if you end up having minimal tearing they may not be necessary. Just getting one pack of adult diapers and thick pads may be enough, and the hospital will send you home with some as well.
4. A Bassinet
While your baby will do a lot of their sleeping on you, they do need somewhere to safely sleep when it’s your turn to get some shut-eye. You don’t need to get a crib ahead of time, but a bassinet is crucial—we actually ended up having our daughter sleep in the bassinet that attached to her stroller in the first weeks, and it worked out just fine.
5. A Swaddle
While you can use receiving blankets for swaddles (see more on that below), I personally found the process of trying to learn how to swaddle while also recovering from childbirth and taking care of a newborn to be exhausting and impossible. These Sleepea 5-Second swaddles are incredibly easy to use, and keep your baby snug and cozy so they sleep better and longer.
Sleepea 5-Second Baby Swaddle, $27.95
6. Burp Cloths
Babies spit up a lot, and if you want to semi-spare your clothes, sheets, and furniture, it’s important to invest in a few burp cloths. These muslin cloths are my favorites!
Muslin Burp Cloths, $20.99
7. Receiving Blankets
As mentioned above, you can certainly use receiving blankets as swaddles, but I personally used them a lot to change my daughter’s diapers in those early days. I’m not knocking the changing table—I do have one—but I kept a receiving blanket in each room for when I had an emergency blowout situation on my hands, which was quite often. So while changing tables are nice to have, I’m not sure I’d call them a necessity when you have the inexpensive convenience of a receiving blanket to work with.
8. Baby Wash
Babies have super-soft, sensitive skin, which means that whatever body wash or soap you’re using for yourself won’t work for them. The Pipette Baby Shampoo + Wash worked great for my daughter’s skin. And while you can use a baby bathtub, I personally found the one I got to take up way too much space—it was much easier to bathe my daughter in the sink or hop in the tub with her.
Pipette Baby Shampoo + Wash, $12
9. A Carseat
If you want to leave the hospital, you’ll need a carseat. And hey, this is important to have anyway if you want to go anywhere that isn’t walking distance from your home—like the pediatrician, for example.
10. A White Noise Machine
I was skeptical of actually needing this until I realized what a difference it made in my daughter’s sleep. The womb is very loud, and it helps lull the baby to sleep. A white noise machine serves the same purpose. I’m a huge fan of this machine by Vanzon, but I’ve heard people like the Hatch Restore as well.
Vanzon by ONSON White Noise Machine, $35.99
11. A Breast Pump
Unless you’re very sure that you won’t breastfeed, it’s helpful to have a breast pump on hand. It’s hard to know exactly how latching will go in those initial days, and if you want to encourage your milk to come in and keep your supply up, it’s important to pump if your baby doesn’t quite get it at first. Or, if you’re like me and you’re struggling with breastfeeding and need a break, pumping can provide that. Most insurance companies will send you a free pump, so if you’re insured, this won’t cost you anything. Alternatively, if you don’t have plans to breastfeed, make sure to order about a month’s supply of formula.
Whether you’re formula feeding or breastfeeding, it’s nice to have the option of a bottle. I used these Philips Avent bottles quite a bit from day one to feed my daughter pumped milk so I could get a solid four-hour block of sleep while my husband stayed up with her—a true game-changer.
Philips Avent Natural Baby Bottles, $28.90
13. A Breastfeeding Pillow
The My Brest Friend breastfeeding pillow is possibly the reason I was able to stick with breastfeeding at all. It was the perfect shelf for my daughter when she was so small, and made it so that I didn’t have to hunch toward her at every feed. While this isn’t a necessity if you don’t plan to breastfeed, it can still be a nice spot to place your infant when they’re drinking a bottle or when you want to let them sleep on you.
My Brest Friend Original Nursing Pillow, $34.95
14. Nipple Butter
Nipple butter isn’t a necessity if you’re not breastfeeding, but your nipples get so, so sore at the beginning—and nipple butter helps a lot. Once the soreness eased up, I simply used my nipple butter as lip balm. This one from Earth Mama Organics is my favorite!
Earth Mama Organics, $12.99
15. Something To Carry Your Baby In
Whether it’s a stroller or you like the idea of “wearing” your baby, you’ll need something to safely transport them in so you’re not totally housebound. And trust me, sanity walks are very necessary for mental health at the beginning. I used the Ergo Baby, which is incredibly comfortable once you get the hang of it.
Ergobaby Carrier Omni 360, $179
Image: Lucy Wolski / Unsplash
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As many exhausted parents can tell you, there’s nothing more heavenly than a baby that will sleep straight through the night. But for many new parents, there is also nothing more elusive. The harsh truth is, bringing a newborn home from the hospital often means a good night’s sleep will become a distant memory, because the
tiny terrorists little cherubs will be crying a ton and feeding every two to three hours for the first few months.
That doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to never sleeping again, though! Babies and parents alike need sleep, and getting your little one on a schedule is crucial. We spoke to Dr. Sofia Axelrod, a sleep scientist and mom-of-two, to learn her most trusted hacks to get your little alarm clock to *finally* conk out.
“One of the reasons why I got involved with baby sleep is that if the baby doesn’t sleep, no one sleeps,” says Dr. Axelrod, author of How Babies Sleep: The Gentle, Science-Based Method to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.
“So, there’s generally this terrible, trickle-down effect on the whole family, and if you fix your child’s sleep, then you will feel much better, and you can have a normal life.” So, what can a bleary-eyed mom and dad do? Sleep coaches and night nurses cost a fortune, and the SNOO, renowned for mechanically rocking fussy babies to sleep, carries a cost-prohibitive $1,395 price tag (even renting it will set you back $118 a month). But there are plenty of accessible ways parents can get their sweet pea into a predictable schedule, says Axelrod, who adds that her advice applies to babies and children up to age six.
A Full Belly Is Crucial
No matter if you breast- or bottle-feed, for the first few weeks of their lives, infants are literally non-stop milk-drinking machines. Trying to sleep seems futile, but there is a way to get baby down for longer stretches, so you can squeeze in a nap, too. “Ideally, baby feeds, and then they’ll pass out and wake up again after two hours,” says Axelrod. “But some babies don’t do that. Make sure they eat their portion, and if they fall asleep ‘on the job,’ so to speak, it’s okay to undress them, it’s okay to blow air on them. Get a cold, wet towel, and make them uncomfortable. Make them awake, so they eat, because only then will they sleep. Then everybody’s happy, and you can take a nap also.”
Put On The Red Light
No, not like the kind that TLC or Sting sang about, but like a real, red light bulb, which can work wonders for infants, toddlers, big kids, and even adults. Why? The hue encourages the body to produce more melatonin, the hormone that stimulates sleep. “During the night, when you have to nurse or feed or change diapers, only turn on the red light,” Axelrod instructs. Conversely, expose babies to natural sunlight—in moderation, and while using sun protection when outdoors—during the day. “Open the shades. lots of light. That signals naturally to their body, ‘Oh, okay, now it’s time to be awake!’”
Keep It Routine
Even though the pandemic has wreaked havoc on many parents’ schedules, Axelrod stresses it’s necessary to keep little ones in line. “It’s important for their sleep that things happen at the same time every day. It helps their bodies feel more adjusted. We’re helping them organize and recognize what it means to feel tired, what it means to be hungry. They don’t know that unless they have a schedule.”
Babies’ schedules can be a hotly debated topic—there are flexible routine suggestions to more rigid ones and everything in between—but there’s plenty of science to back up Axelrod’s claims. “Because what we show in science is that, if you do these things at the same time every day, whether it’s eating, sleeping, light exposure—the light being a cue that tells your body what time of the day it is—then you’re freeing yourself for other things because your body will run like a well-oiled machine. What I’ve said before about babies is also true for adults. You’re telling your body, ‘It’s 11:45. It’s daytime. Let’s make some digestive enzymes because you’re going to have lunch.’ Or, ‘It’s 8am, it’s time to get up. Let’s make some cortisol to feel really awake and happy.’” Or, ‘It’s like, 7pm, let’s make some melatonin so we’re sleepy and can fall asleep easily.’”
Regulate Those Naps
If your baby doesn’t sleep through the night, analyze the naps, says Axelrod, who also created her own app, Kulala, to help parents keep their babies on schedule with pop-up reminders. “The first thing, when parents come to me, they say, ‘Oh, my baby used to sleep wonderfully, and suddenly they started waking up again.’ And the first thing I ask is, ‘How much do they nap? And when is bedtime?’ And it’s always off. So, this is the biggest misconception: sleep begets sleep. Not true. Many people think that you need to sleep more during the day for a baby to sleep better at night, and that is not true. And there’s research that literally shows the opposite. There is a paper that has been done, very well-controlled, and the title of the paper is literally Daytime Naps Control Nighttime Sleep.” Axelrod says that we all have a daily sleep need, which is the total of any naps and nighttime sleep. That number goes down as we age, hence the need for less sleep. “If I put you down for a three-hour nap during the day, you’re just not going to be tired in the evening.” The same is true for your little one.
White Noise Is Your Friend
When fetuses are in the womb, they hear a mother’s heartbeat, digestive sounds, air moving in and out of the lungs, and even a rumbly tummy, which is exactly why a white noise machine is a must-have for new parents. “White noise just lulls right to sleep,” says Axelrod. But, she warns, “I would not overuse it. Use it when you put them down, and then, in the middle of the night, if you have a newborn, you have to feed them or change a diaper, turn it off for the duration and turn it back on when you put them back to bed.”
Take a deep breath, because this part will pass and you will sleep again. Eventually.
Images: Minnie Zhou / Unsplash