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.
What is it about seeing a pregnant woman that makes some people lose all common sense? I know what you may be thinking: why is a man writing this article? Well, let me tell you—this man lived with a woman who was pregnant for 20 out of 24 straight months. So…yeah, I’ve learned a thing or two about how people seem to treat pregnant women, either by witnessing it firsthand or hearing about it later through frustrated tears and scoops of ice cream.
To get rid of the elephant in the room (no, not my wife!), my wife and I had two kids literally back to back. Our kids are 367 days apart, to be exact. Essentially, my wife went back to work from maternity leave pregnant, again. I left my wife and newborn daughter in the hospital to take our son to his one-year pediatrician checkup. You get the point. So I’ve heard a lot.
Some of you may be thinking that the majority of insensitive comments towards pregnant women probably come from men, which I assumed would be the case as well. Let’s face it: if you’re a guy and you’ve never had a kid, you’ve been somewhat trained to run in fear at the sight or even thought of a pregnant woman. And if it’s not fear, it’s a sense of being mesmerized at the thought of a baby growing inside of a human body, often resulting in silly questions like “can I touch it?” (as if that’s ever a normal thing to ask anyone). There was even the one dude in our apartment elevator who compared my wife’s stomach to the shape of a basketball. Huge technical foul! Because elevator rides weren’t awkward enough. But from my experience with my wife, it seemed like some of the strangest and most off-putting comments came from women, too. And even stranger, it was often employees at the stores we were shopping at.
For example, one time when my wife was shopping at Trader Joe’s and went to buy cookie dough, a checkout lady at the store politely told my wife that cookie dough isn’t good for pregnant women to eat because it contains raw eggs. Umm…what? As if my wife was going to buy cookie dough, go home, and just peel back the wrapper and start going to town on it, like it was a banana…? How did, at no point, the thought occur to this woman that my wife might be planning on, I don’t know, actually baking cookies like most civilized people do? Not only that—the cookie dough was for me! And while I admit, sure, I’ll snag a piece of dough or two, but the majority of that roll is getting baked. I’m sure this woman meant no harm and was only trying to be helpful, but what would have actually been helpful would have been to treat my wife like any other customer that day and not provide extra bits of knowledge that were uncalled for. If you want to do something extra, allow her to cut the typically long line and/or offer to help carry her bags out. Don’t cookie dough-shame her.
If people typically say unwarranted things to pregnant women in general, you can imagine the insensitive things people would say to my wife when she was five months pregnant and walking around with an eight-month-old. One time, we were looking around in a furniture store and one of the managers looked at my son in his stroller, commenting on how cute he was. At that point, I liked her. Then she proceeded to raise her eyes upward from my son’s smiling face towards my wife’s pregnant stomach, and the smile quickly turned to confusion. The conversation went a lot like this:
“Wait, how old is he?”
“And you’re pregnant…again!?”
“Yep…Five months. ”
She was like Rain Main trying to calculate the math in her head. Now, this isn’t the craziest reaction in the world, as it’s a comment we’ve heard often and still hear today. So at this point she was still OK in my book. And then she continued:
“My niece had Irish twins also…She was miserable. Really hard stuff when they’re so young!”
Umm…OK, lady. Now I no longer like you. We did not ask about your family history or your input on the matter, but thanks. And she didn’t even stop there:
“It’s still so tough on her. They fight over everything. It never gets easier.”
Never gets easier? Can’t even give us a little glimmer of hope? And to think—we’re customers in her store. I hid my true anger behind some sarcastic remark and immediately exited the store. There was not a chance I was giving this woman a dollar of my money, but part of me did want to drive back there later without my wife and break a few lamps as I really let loose on her for how inappropriate her comments were. My wife was going through a lot both physically and emotionally, and the last thing she needed was the manager at some furniture store to be comparing us to her miserable niece. If you ask me, her miserable niece has a pretty miserable aunt.
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Ultimately, these are only two instances that I’m referencing here in detail, but there were a ton of other off-putting conversations, too. It feels like some people think that when they see a pregnant woman, they have to address the matter in some way, whether with a joke, bits of advice, or some comparative story—when the truth is that sometimes they’re better off just saying nothing at all. It’s OK to just treat a pregnant woman like any other person. I do believe people should always help by opening a door, offering a spot on line, or helping them carry something heavy, because those are all considerate things to do. But striking up a conversation where you let them know about your miserable niece is not necessary at all! Just let them go about their day as they were; there’s enough on their plate.
But again, I’m just a guy who was married to somebody pregnant for a considerable amount of time. I mean for zero husband-splaining. I don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant, emotionally or physically. The only physical toll my wife’s pregnancy took on me was the scars on the bottom of my feet from constantly walking around on eggshells. I just really didn’t appreciate when other people sprinkled more eggshells in my path.
Image: Tai’s Captures / Unsplash; betchesmoms / Instagram
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