1. Newborns
  2. Play & learning
  3. Play ideas

Thinking and imagining: newborns

0-3 months

Babies are born ready to learn about who they are, where they are and what life is all about. Newborn cognitive development happens through back-and-forth interactions with you and others, different experiences, and simple play. Here are play ideas to get you started.

About newborn play and cognitive development

Interactive, simple, fun and safe. These are the kinds of play experiences babies need for cognitive development – that is, to develop their ability to think.

When you play with your baby and respond to your baby’s cues, it makes your baby feel secure and loved. It also helps you get to know each other. This safe and loving environment helps your baby’s brain develop the ability to think, understand, make memories, imagine and work out what will happen next.

Your baby’s learning and development has its foundation in relationships, and you’re the key person in your baby’s life. This means that your warm and loving relationship with your baby is critical to her development.

What to expect: newborn cognitive development

Newborn babies have lots to learn and you’ll be amazed at how fast this learning happens.

At first, your baby starts off not even knowing that you will take care of him. But by about four weeks, your baby will recognise and respond to your voice.

Your newborn will be fascinated by your face and will gaze at you in wonder, especially when you talk. Your baby is learning to remember what you sound and look like.

At this age, your baby might look at a brightly coloured mobile hanging above the cot or sleeping area for a long time. This might seem like a simple activity but your baby is learning to understand concepts like movement and colour.

Babies want to experience the world, but not all at once – too many people, sounds and activities might exhaust your baby. Sometimes too much stimulation will also make baby too tired to sleep, so watch out for those tired signs.

Play ideas for encouraging newborn cognitive development

Play is about having fun together and the back-and-forth interactions between you and your baby. So there are lots of simple, fun ways you can give your newborn experiences to stimulate her thinking and imagination. Learning comes naturally as a result.

Here are some play ideas to get you going:

  • Talk to your baby often, hold your baby, and make eye contact.
  • Read with your baby, recite nursery rhymes, or sing songs.
  • Make faces with your baby. This is a game you can play together from birth. If you stick out your tongue or make an ‘O’ with your lips, some babies can do the same.
  • Give your baby lots of different things to look at – for example, friends or family playing in the backyard, flowers in the garden, or different colours and shapes in books. You could also go for walks outside or visit a park. 
  • Give your baby a soft toy or rattle to touch and hold. You could try this when your baby is a few weeks old.
  • Gently rock or massage your baby. You could also touch your baby’s toes and fingers and even play a naming game.
  • Listen to wind chimes, birds or different types of music.

Repeating the same song or game with your baby isn’t boring for your little one – repetition is one of the ways babies learn.

It’s a good idea to follow your baby’s lead during play. For example, if your baby is fascinated by a falling leaf, join in on the experience. You could even say, ‘Yes, look at those leaves falling’. But if your baby isn’t interested in an activity or is too tired to play, it’s probably time to try something else.

There’s a lot for your newborn baby to learn about the world. Depending on your baby’s temperament, you might need to introduce your baby to new play experiences slowly and gently so that you don’t overwhelm him.

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Last updated or reviewed
16-05-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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