Babies begin processing their world through their senses before they are even born. Early in the gestational period, when the fetus is only a few inches long, they feel the vibrations from mom’s voice resonating through her body. Babies take in information from the world by seeing, hearing, taste, smell, feel, and the gravitational pull on their body. Babies develop their skills further by interacting with their world and exercising their sensory processing skills. Some baby toys and items are better than others for providing these opportunities to explore and hone sensory processing skills. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I have some tried and true favorites for sensory development, and some aren’t even toys.
1. A deck of cards
When babies are born, they can best see contrasting colors, black, white, and red, because the rods and cones in their eyes are not fully formed. So something like a two of hearts or a five of spades is very visually stimulating for a newborn, and I always carry a few cards in my scrubs pocket in the NICU. Cards are novel and unfamiliar to babies and a great way to get them to focus their eyes.
Babies get bored with the same old toys and respond better to new and different objects. Try this exercise with newborns. Hold the card about eight to ten inches from the baby’s face and jiggle it slightly to get her attention. Once she can focus on it, move it in an arc horizontally and vertically and see if she can track it. This helps to develop her visual acuity and the coordination of the tiny muscles around her eyes which is great for visual-motor skills and will help with tracking and even reading a line of print later on.
Babies start to understand cause and effect at a very young age, and wrist rattles and bootie rattles are a great way to teach that. When your baby moves her arm and hears the rattle, then turns her head in that direction and attempts to recreate the sound, she is not only learning cause and effect but body awareness as well. This is another important part of sensory processing that provides the foundation for gross motor skills and coordination.
Studies show that babies love to look at parents’ faces, other babies’ faces, and their own face in a mirror more than anything else, so mirrors are very visually stimulating for babies and an important part of developing the sense of vision.
4. Music boxes
The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa, and the corpus callosum connects the two sides of the brain. Processing music is an activity that stimulates both sides of the brain at the same time, helping to develop the corpus callosum. This helps with higher-level cognitive skills later on. Processing music is also great for developing the sense of hearing, which is very developed at birth but continues to fine-tune throughout baby’s first year.
5. Beach balls
Beach balls are a great tool to help your baby develop a sense of balance, core strength, and body awareness. Try some movement activities on the beach ball. First, place your baby on the ball on her belly or back and roll her forward and back and side to side. Allow her to process the gravitational pull on her body as she tries to move her head. Next, sit her on the ball and gently bounce her up and down while you support her torso. You are teaching her balance, an important sensory skill that will come in very handy when taking that first step.
Taggie blankets provide a tactile sensation that babies love. The silky fabric is soft against their skin, and the little tags are great for tiny finger dexterity.
Books that make crinkle noises when moved stimulate baby’s sense of hearing, touch, and teach cause and effect. Babies learn quickly that they can make that noise and re-create it.
Babies explore by mouth the majority of their first year. They learn a lot about the world by putting objects in their mouth and tasting it, assessing the texture, density, size, and shape. Different textures provide them with more sensations, and they can process more information.
The whole world is a sensory playground for a baby. With the right guidance and exposure to safe objects, babies can be provided with opportunities to develop their sensory processing skills.
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