SILVER SPRING, MD, November 23, 2011 - As a parent, one thing you expect will be a part of your life for the next decade or two, are toys, lots and lots of toys. But what isn’t always as apparent is what toys to buy for your child. Which ones are just all hype, and which ones are crucial to aid in development? Everyone remembers the blocks and the xylophone you had as kids, but are they as good as toys that create the music themselves? And more importantly, how do you know what toys are appropriate for your baby?
Whether you are shopping for a holiday, a first birthday, or just trying to give your baby new toys to match her growing set of skills, these are the types of toys to look for.
Rattles are some of the first toys that babies will interact with, first by watching as you shake them, then by trying to pick them up and shake them on their own. The sound stimulates newborns, and when babies can hold it themselves, rattles help teach them cause and effect. Once baby has more motor control over her hands and can start playing with more complex objects, rattles will lose their appeal, but between 4 and 6 months rattles will find their ways into little hands and little mouths. So, look for rattles that are made without any small pieces that could break off or could act as a choking hazard.
Babies love to look at other babies and themselves. Many a mother has gotten stuck in the bathroom at the mirrors when they’ve taken their infant into change a diaper. While you have mirrors at your house, this is one place where you want to invest in a specific baby safe mirror rather than pulling out the old hand mirror tucked away in your vanity. Most mirrors are made of glass, which can easily break.
The baby mirrors are made of flexible plastic. Test the mirror before you buy. Some of them can warp or distort the image resulting in a funhouse image of the face reflecting in it, which can scare your baby rather than entertain her.
Baby mirrors come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and type of use. There are car seat toys with tiny little mirrors, mirrors that strap onto car headrests so baby can see herself (and you can see her) while riding in the car, there are floor mirrors, mirrors on wedges, mirrors that strap onto playmats, and mirrors that tie onto crib rails. Mirrors are easily incorporated into your child’s play as well. Mirrors placed on the floor within view of baby help make tummy time easier, and crib mirrors help entertain little ones when they wake up in the morning. Generally, mirrors will entertain babies from shortly after birth, up until around 6 months, but may last longer depending on your child.
Playmat and activity centers
Playmats are great first toys. These are generally arched toys that go on the ground and baby can lay under them and play. Many have toys that dangle from them and use bright colors; some light up, some play music, some do both. These are great for very young children and grow with the baby up until they start sitting and can graduate into an activity center. For a newborn, the toys are close enough that, even with their undeveloped vision, they can see most of them. Music and flashing lights entertain babies. As your infant starts being able to bat at toys, those that hang from the mat are good target, and the fact that they swing when hit tend to elicit squeals of excitement.
Playmats are also a great place to do tummy time. The bright colors are stimulating, and the toys can be used to distract a fussy baby. Also, it’s a lot easier to unhook the fabric base and toss it into the washing machine than it is to clean drool-covered carpet.
Activity centers are similarto playmats, but tend to be for older children, requiring the ability to sit. Some of the best activity centers are convertible. They are designed with different age groups in mind and adjust in height, shape and function to meet the needs of your growing child. Some of these start at 6 months, other boast use from birth until 2 years of age.
Plush animals and dolls
Stuffed animals, often called plush, are a favorite that starts at just a few months and lasts years into a child’s life. Stuffed animals and dolls can teach about different textures and colors. Many of the animals for young children also have objects like bells or paper that crinkle sewn into them and are brightly colored. For very young children, animals that can hang from a playmat or a car seat give them something to look at, and then to bat at when they develop more coordination between 3 and 4 months. Many of the animals for young children also have objects like bells or paper that crinkle sewn into them for little hands to safely explore.
The blanket animal is extremely popular - tiny blankets with an animal head, and sometimes torso, sewn onto them. The blanket portion makes it easier for tiny hand to grab onto and hold. Some of these will have different toys sewn onto the corners, such as rattles, teethers, or rings.
One thing to keep in mind before giving your baby any stuffed animal, is that those button or marble eyes may be cute, or look real, but they can easily come off, and the animal will invariably be chewed upon. Look for eyes that have been embroidered onto the animal or doll to avoid the safety hazard.
Blocks and stackers
Yes, those old wooden blocks you played with are still around. In fact, they are one of the best types of toys you can give an older baby. Blocks help develop important motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Being able to stack isn’t so simple to a baby. There’s the added bonus, that she gets to knock her tower down once she’s built it.
Blocks are an important toy that lasts far into childhood. After her motor skills and coordination has developed, the colors and letters on blocks help her learn her alphabet and be able to identify the different colors. Aside from the simple square blocks, those with different shapes help identify triangles, arches, balls, etc. With an assortment of shapes and sizes, blocks provide a wonderful outlet for imagination, creativity and spatial relation as children get older.
There are other types of stackers that are valuable and teach other aspects of hand eye-coordination. The old colored rings that go on the peg are a great toy for the 8 month and older child. So are nesting cups, which not only can be stacked, but also teach about size.
Buckets and object sorters
Once babies can sit up, around 6 months, they love to put things into containers and then dump them back out. This helps develop the concept of object permanence. It can be as simple as appropriately sized balls into a bucket, or something more specialized. Manufacturers have had a lot of fun with this concept. There are bug jugs, aquariums with fabric fish, cookie jars, purses, and so on. There are also the sorters.
Sorters meet the function of putting objects in a container, but have the added bonus of teaching shapes. Sorters are usually a cube, or ball, or some other multi-sided shape that have slots cut into them in that match certain objects, like squares, stars, triangles and circles. The idea is that only the right shape can fit through the hole. Object sorters, not only teach shapes, but they help increase dexterity and help develop problem solving abilities as children try to find the right shape and right position to get each piece through the correct slot. Object sorters are more advanced than simple buckets, and tend to be good for children beginning around 7 to 9 months.
Music has been shown to influence brain development and function, so incorporating music into your child’s life may seem like a no brainer. Musical toys are one way to do that. There are musical toys that start as young as birth, such as playmats. Toys like crib pianos, which play a note then a jingle once the baby presses, or kicks, the right key, are popular favorites that not only teach cause and effect, but also introduce the idea of instruments early. Such crib toys start becoming entertaining around 3-4 months. There are music cubes that light up and when different parts are touched for 6 months, and anything a baby can bang on, since between somewhere between 4 and 8 months your little one will become a drummer. That rainbow-colored xylophone? Usually, older kids get more enjoyment out of those; the ball on the mallet is the perfect size to go into a baby’s mouth and is not designed to, so you might want to hold out until your baby stops chewing on everything the she comes into contact with.
Other things to consider
While the age ranges on the boxes are approximate there is still some wiggle room to those age suggestions. First, consider your child’s place on the developmental table and what her emerging skills are. Maybe your child is sitting up early, in which case, maybe that toy labeled 6 months might be appropriate at 5 months. Then again, if head control is important and your 4-month old is still wobbly, it is best to wait until she figures it out. For safety reasons, make sure the products you are giving to your baby are age appropriate. Jumpers are no safe if a baby doesn’t have good head control and cann’t sit on her own. Similarly, big wooden blocks are great to teach coordination , but while Lego’s are a favorite of every kid, they are a choking hazard to babies.
Remember somewhere between 3 and 5 months, everything starts going into baby’s mouth. So make sure anything you purchase can be chewed on and will not pose a choking hazard or be too tough on soft gums.
Nothing is more special than giving your baby your favorite toy from when you were young, but hand-me-down toys need to be thoroughly checked before giving them to a baby. Old toys are sometimes fine, but depending on the age of the toy, they may not be safe. Some may be broken, some may have small pieces that are dangerous. Then there’s the issue of lead paint. Some older toys were coated with it, and there have even been more recent issues of toys being recalled because of lead contamination at the plants where they are made. So, parents need to be wary of things they that aren’t new and they haven’t thoroughly checked.
One final consideration, research has shown that how babies and children play is important to development. An article published in Contemporary Issues in Child Development says that too much use of electronic entertainment can impact children’s development, including motor skills, problem-solving abilities, and creativity. This is due to the fact that electronic toys do too much to entertain a child and not enough to make them interact.. On the other hand, blocks, buckets, balls, rattles and so on rank among the top developmental toys. So, when you are staring down that aisle at the toy store, when in doubt, opt for the choices that don’t require batteries.
Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates on when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.
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