Congratulations on having your sweet little newborn baby! There are a million opinions on newborn milestones and newborn motor activities. As a mama of two little ones and a physical therapist, this is a subject that’s close to my heart.
We are breaking down the easiest ways to incorporate newborn activities into common family activities to avoid adding more guilt and getting more snuggles in with your baby during those first 6 months of life.
We look at a few different phases or “motor windows” of development: from birth to 3 months and then 3 months to 6 months. And the easiest way to incorporate them is during “wake windows” or the time when your baby is alert and has all their other needs addressed – think feeding, clean diaper, and temperature regulation.
The first few days of being home with your baby are full of sweet moments, snuggles and raw emotions. You’re healing from the labor and birth process which likely means feeling exhausted, in pain, and potentially recovering from stitches and other physical trauma.
So let’s make taking care of you and your baby the priority and that will support your baby’s development by simply connecting and soothing your baby’s transition into this crazy world.
What Does That Mean For a Developmental Routine?
That means prioritizing basic needs for you – nourishment, sleep, and gentle movement.
…And basic needs for baby – nourishment, sleep and gentle movement.
In these early days of getting to know each other, these basic activities will provide many opportunities for the baby’s nervous system to be calm and therefore open to engaging with their world (ie you, your partner, and siblings) without adding extra anxiety.
Newborn Motor Activities
The Earliest Days: Between Birth and 3 Months
The first 3 months your baby is working on engaging their muscles, moving their muscles against gravity and all different positions of play. Here are a few basic activities or positions you can use during “wake windows” to promote motor development:
Baby Nest: Create a semi-circle or circle that is similar to the womb with a rolled blanket to encourage flexor muscles to work against gravity (ie hands to the middle of the body, feet up towards belly button, and then eventually their hands)
Tracking practice: Using high contrast (black/white etc) toys to encourage reaching/swatting and tracking with their eyes. Start in the middle with their eyes locked on the toy, slowly move to one side and then if they lose track start back at the middle.
Pro Toy Tip: Go slow and low – remember at this age baby’s vision is still developing so quick and far away movements will make it very tough for baby to try to engage.
General Skills: General skills that you’re looking for will be discussed with your pediatrician or midwife but many times this can be rushed through at an appointment. It’s worth keeping these skills in mind:
Hands to the middle of the body, hands to mouth often
Independently keeps head in the middle during play for at least 5 sec on the belly and on back
Tracking objects symmetrically + equally to both sides during play
Lift head off floor briefly, turn head to either side and rest check on the floor
Handles paced feeding without loss of liquid, choking, spitting up excessively, gulping, clicking/popping
Can latch on either breast if nursing
This early time with your baby continues to be focused on recovery for you and adjustment to new routines in your family. If you need help then ask!
Getting to know each other: Between 3 months and 6 months
The next 3 months your baby is changing and growing into their little personality. Moving becomes more consistent and they surprise you every day!
Here are a few basic activities or positions to foster coordination and you can continue to use during “wake windows” to promote motor development:
Rolling: this skill is involved and will look different for every baby so if you need help – ask your pediatrician for a referral or ask your pediatric PT! But it’s likely at first rolling will be an accident and look like they are falling over from when they are all the way up on outstretched hands on their belly. Be sure when practicing tummy time they are on padded surfaces since their giant head will move with gravity and they will end up rolling onto their side/back.
Baby Laying on Their Side: this is where baby is laying on their side and it may seem like they are stuck. But this is actually a power position and super helpful for
Rolling and midline practice: There are lots of ways to provide some support if baby seems to get frustrated – my favorite being a folded towel under their head (cushion) and a small towel roll at their low back just above their butt (keep them in the position so they can play).
Supervised Safe Sitting: using a c-shaped pillow or combo of pillows on top of a padded mat is my favorite way to build sitting strength for babies at this age – they do not need to be in a molded seat unless they are eating or practicing a specific fine motor skill.
Reaching New Heights: if your baby starts with being excited they’re sitting like a big kid then pushes backward which can be typical. Try encouraging them to reach forward for a toy on the floor or reach forward for a toy at shoulder level height (supervision is key for this skill but it’s so worthwhile!)
A Note on Tummy Time
We hear so much about this activity and it truly is important. But it has become such an area of worry and frustration for parents. Here are some basic strategies to help you and your baby be comfortable with integrating tummy time play into their day:
the easiest way to be comfortable with tummy time as a parent and introduce the activity to the baby is to start from day 1 (even in the hospital or birthing center).
Time (how long)
Aim for 3-5 min in any tummy time position 3-5 times a day – quality is better than quantity.
Moving from laying on you on their tummy to propped up on a pillow/rolled blanket to lay on the floor is normal and may feel like it takes lots of trial and error – that’s ok!
It All Counts
Burping your baby while you are slightly reclined, laying on your chest looking up at you, “football” carry where the baby’s belly button is pointing to the floor, over your lap, or on a wedge.
Find Your Groove:
Every baby is different and after giving birth or supporting your birthing partner it may make adjustments to figure out the new routine (that could change from day to day or week to week).
You’re doing a great job and the key is…
Newborn milestones are important but so is your sanity as a mother. The best piece of advice is to ask for support because that will allow your questions to be answered. Then you can move past fear, frustration, or feeling like you are missing out on these moments.
Because that is the key: understanding what you need as a mom to truly enjoy more time with these tiny human beings.
Before You Go
Your newborn’s development is already making positive strides because you’re here, reading this and wanting the best opportunities for your baby. Taking guidance and trying to challenge your baby with open-ended play, floor time and engaging with their sweet coo’s and giggles are all ways to support your baby’s milestones. We hope you find these newborn motor activities helpful in your journey!
Kelsey Daniels is a mama of two, wife, and physical therapist who works with pregnant/postpartum mamas and babies in their homes. She loves to share information that supports parents in the early years and especially supports mama’s as they navigate self-advocacy. After their first baby, Kelsey and her husband realized they wanted to try out the desert life and moved from the Pacific Northwest to the Las Vegas valley. Kelsey and her family are always in search of adventure but also value relaxing time at home. A passion for her family, movement opportunities for all as a physical therapist, and easy beauty hacks helped shape her blog as it looks today.