A new-parent’s guide to sensory play for babies

Parenting comes with quite a to-do list, doesn’t it?

When my son was born, my head was suddenly full of a whole heap of new tasks I needed to keep on top of. The constant feeds, trying to ‘crack’ sleep, various appointments, immunisations, making sure we had enough nappies/wipes/clean clothes for him… I could go on!

For me, particularly as a first-time mum experiencing postnatal anxiety, it was overwhelming. And it came as quite a surprise to learn that I was also supposed to be ‘playing’ with my baby in a way that nurtured his developing brain. It felt like another thing on the already overflowing list, and – because I didn’t know how to do it (before I had Sam I’d never even heard the term ‘sensory play’) – it felt like another thing I was failing at.

Fast forward five years and I can see with my older, wiser head on that a lot of the pressure I felt was coming from me, and I was the only one judging my parenting skills. If I could go back in time and give my new-mum self some advice, it would be to trust my instincts, block out most of the external noise and instead look for sources of accessible, simple advice about the areas I needed some support with.

Had The Little Sensory Box been around when I was a new mum, I think I’d have felt very differently about playing with Sam! This UK-based business was set up in 2019 by Dee Featherstone, after she became mum to her son, Alfie, and went on her own journey of discovery around sensory play.

Baby lying on their back surrounded by black and white sensory toys

Like me and so many others, Dee became a parent without any real experience of looking after a baby and, though she learned to read Alfie’s cues about his basic needs such as milk, sleep and nappy changes, she found she had no idea if he ‘needed’ toys and playtime at all. When Alfie was 11 weeks old, they went to a Baby Sensory class and Dee saw how instantly mesmerised he was. But she was also struggling with postnatal depression, which meant there were times when she simply didn’t feel up to leaving the house to attend baby groups.

Feeling inspired to recreate similar experiences at home, Dee tried to research sensory play and quickly  became extremely frustrated. Most of the information she found was written for early-years professionals, not parents, and most of the resources were incredibly expensive. Armed with the belief that playing with her baby shouldn’t be this complicated or costly, she spotted a gap in the market for a business that demystifies sensory play for parents and provides a curated collection of toys and resources that are age appropriate, high quality and affordable.

Nearly three years on, that’s exactly what The Little Sensory Box delivers! And Dee has been kind enough to let me pick her brains about the benefits of sensory play for young babies to understand more about what it is, why it matters and how to do it.

What is sensory play?

The term ‘sensory play’ really refers to any activity that helps a child discover the world through one or more of their senses. The most well-known senses are, of course, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But there are also internal senses, known as the vestibular system and proprioception, that relate to balance and movement.

Babies are born with all of these senses, but because the nerve cells in their brains aren’t well connected, they’re not fully developed.

Why is sensory play important for babies?

Every bit of sensory stimulation your baby gets causes those nerve cells in their brain to multiply and connect, forming pathways known as synapses. It’s these synapses that lay the foundations for cognitive growth, language development, gross and fine motor skills, social interaction and problem solving.

Put simply, by stimulating your baby’s senses you’re nurturing their developing brain and helping them work towards key milestones like crawling, sitting, babbling, holding objects and eventually talking, walking and much more!

How do babies’ senses develop from birth to three months?

During the first twelve weeks of their life, your baby’s brain is developing rapidly – forming more than one million synapses per second, in fact! From the moment they’re born, you’ll notice they’re particularly sensitive to sound, movement and light. At first, their startle reflex might kick in if there’s a sudden noise, bright light or movement, but this automatic response will gradually reduce and instead you’ll see them intentionally turning their head towards lights and sounds.

Sight is the sense that goes through the most dramatic development in these first weeks. A newborn baby can only see things that are eight to ten inches from their face – anything farther away is pretty much just blurry light and shadows. But week by week their vision improves, and by around twelve weeks their eyes begin working together to focus and follow moving objects. Colour wise, black and white register most strongly on a baby’s retina at first, which is why high-contrast monochrome patterns grab their attention. By around eight weeks they’re able to see strong, highly saturated shades of red and green, followed by blue and yellow a few weeks later.

Throughout these first few months your baby will also be working on their fine and gross motor skills by learning to control their head, realising their hands are connected to their body and starting to reach for objects. It’s likely they’ll also begin to interact with and respond to their environment with those first heart-melting smiles and giggles, and make their first attempts at language with adorable coos and babbles.

What sensory activities should I be doing with my baby?

For very young babies, it makes sense to think of sensory activities not as ‘play’ but ‘stimulation’. The range of actions that can stimulate a baby’s senses is vast, and you’ll naturally be doing a lot of them without even realising; talking to your baby, singing to them, cuddling them, stroking their skin and of course making sure they’re not hungry, too hot or too cold are all important sources of sensory stimulation.

There are ways you can tailor any other activities you do with your baby to support the developmental milestones they’re working towards from birth to three months. For example, you can nurture your baby’s developing vision by spending time looking at black-and-white board books or flashcards; encourage their gross motor skills with tummy time; ignite their sense of touch with different fabrics and textures; and stimulate their hearing by exposing them to a variety of sounds.

What resources do I need to stimulate my baby’s senses?

Despite the mountain of stuff in the baby aisle at your local toy store, the truth is that babies really don’t need a lot of toys. Having a few good-quality, age-appropriate toys and resources is a much better option than a mountain of toys (both in terms of supporting your baby’s development and supporting your bank balance and sanity!).

Where possible, aim to invest in items with open-ended play potential. For example, fabric alphabet blocks that rattle and feature different textures are brilliant for infants, but they’ll also stimulate an older baby who’s interested in building towers, and then an older-still child who’s starting to learn letters and sounds. Remember too that many commonplace household objects can double up as sensory tools – a bottle of bubbles, a silk scarf, a patterned tea towel or an empty plastic tub filled with rice are just a few examples.

Can muslin squares can be used for sensory play?

When thinking about items you already have at home, don’t forget your humble muslin squares. If you thought they were just for mopping up sick and dribble, think again!

There are so many ways you can use a muslin in sensory activities with your baby:

  • Holding a muslin when cuddling your baby is a lovely way to introduce a different texture (it also has the added benefit of potentially being a comfort to baby if you’re not around, especially if it smells like you).
  • During a nappy change or after bathtime, gently run the muslin over your baby’s bare skin. The sensation of the soft fabric will stimulate their sense of touch.
  • When your baby starts to show an interest in grabbing or batting objects, try tying a muslin to their pram frame or baby gym and watch those little hands reach for it.
  • Once baby can track objects with their eyes, swishing and waving a muslin around in the air is super exciting for them.
  • Choose patterned muslins to nurture baby’s developing vision. They also make great floor coverings (and protectors!) to give them something interesting to look at during tummy time.
  • As your baby gets older and can hold objects, they may enjoy exploring a muslin with their own hands and even their mouth (pro tip: a cold muzzie makes a super teether!)
  • Wrap flowers or herbs such as lavender, mint and lemon thyme in a muslin and gently waft it in front of baby’s nose to let them experience new and interesting aromas.
  • Last but by no means least, a muslin square is the perfect peekaboo prop! Many babies become obsessed with this game from around four months, when they start to understand object permanence (the fact that things still exist even when they can’t see them).

If you’re thinking about starting or adding to your collection of muslin squares, check out our great-value three pack of rainbow muslins. Like all our products, they’re made from GOTS-certified organic cotton for extra kindness to your baby’s delicate skin. Their super-soft feel makes them ideal for incorporating into sensory time with your little one, and the fact they’re 100% organic and free from chemicals gives you the peace of mind of knowing they’re completely safe for your baby to explore in any way they fancy! Our high-contrast rainbow patterns are the perfect colours to capture baby’s attention when they begin to notice colour, too.

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Looking for a complete sensory-play solution?

If you want to take all the guesswork out of playing with your baby, the Baby’s First Year subscription from The Little Sensory Box is the answer. This quarterly series of four sensory-play boxes helps you nurture your baby’s brain from birth to twelve months with a carefully curated selection of age-appropriate toys and tools, as well as information-packed guides to the different developmental stages and milestones.

Dee has just won a gold Junior Design Award for this subscription series, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the kind of service I would have loved when Sam was a baby, because it delivers exactly what you need, when you need it AND tells you how to use it! The fact that the items in the boxes are open-ended and hand-me-downable also gets a big tick from me, as it maximises use and minimises waste. It’s also amazing value at just £43.97 per box/quarter – that works out at less than £15 a month for all the sensory resources your baby needs!

Subscribe now.

Huge thanks to Dee at The Little Sensory Box for sharing such invaluable sensory-play expertise and advice with me. I hope it’s helped anyone who was feeling a bit daunted and inspired you to get playing!

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