I’d been a mum for six days when my sister in law walked through our front door, a one-year-old on her hip and her other hand full of garbage bags. Her husband followed her in, carrying a baby bath, a bumbo and a bouncer.
The bags and baby items were for us. It was all the things my nephew no longer needed.
We thanked them for their generosity. But after, when I tried to find room for the things in our cupboard, I felt anxious.
I’d anticipated that in the weeks after our baby was born, we’d be given cards, flowers and gifts. I knew that babies needed clothes, nappies, a cot and maybe a few toys. But the sheer amount of baby stuff accumulating in the tiny spare room of our house shocked me.
Australian families spend thousands in the first year of their baby’s life. Which means the market for baby products is big business.
And a lot of what is sold to new parents is for baby play. And the gear isn’t cheap. But it comes with the promise that it will support a child’s learning and development.
‘Captivate and cultivate your babies curiosity’ urges the description on the Baby Einstein Neighbourhood Friends Activity Jumper. A $189 contraption that promises to develop your child’s leg muscles, hand-eye coordination and even increase their ‘appreciation of music’.
But is this true? Do babies need noisy swings and a lounge room full of plastic toys to help them grow up clever and strong?
The answer is a resounding no.
Instead, babies need only four things for play, learning and development— and you likely have all of them already.
Here’s my list:
1. Somewhere to lie
Since the early 1990s health professionals across the world have recommended, babies sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS. The recommendations have been hugely successful in reducing the incidents of SIDS. However, to balance all the back sleeping, babies need to spend awake time playing on their tummies.
Tummy time develops the muscles in a babies shoulders, neck, back and arms. It promotes the kind of movements that support babies in becoming mobile. And it reduces the risk of babies developing plagiocephaly or flat head syndrome.
So babies need somewhere comfortable to lie. And in this case, simplicity is key. Many of the commercial baby mats hang toys from a frame above the baby, which encourages a baby to lie on their back looking up, the opposite of what they need.
A plain sheepskin or soft mat is better for tummy time. A picnic rug or beach towel means your baby can play outside too.
2. Someone to look at
Despite the catalogue claims, it isn’t fancy toys that help babies learn.
Babies do learn through play. But the best kind of play happens with a real-life human.
Like learning language, which is all about relationship, connection. It’s about inviting babies into the back and forth of communication. Something that can’t be replicated by any battery-operated toy.
3. Something to share
If you could buy only one item, to support your babies learning and development, it would be hard to go past a book.
Books are small, beautiful and inexpensive. And a 2015 study found that books facilitated more parent-to-child interaction than both electronic baby toys and traditional toys.
But books alone aren’t magic. Instead, it’s the sharing they facilitate. And that kind of sharing can be replicated across a whole range of activities.
If you love to surf, you can take your baby to the beach and dip her toes in the ocean. If you like to cook, you can set your baby on the kitchen floor with an upturned pot and a wooden spoon. A bowl of lemons from the garden make a wonderful toy, as does the washing basket and the pegs.
In the 1940s British Early Childhood educator Elinor Goldschmied pioneered the idea of giving babies who are sitting up a ‘treasure basket’ of everyday household items, a soft brush, a natural sponge, a rolling pin, to play with and explore. The idea being that simple, natural things provide the best opportunities for discovery. And babies don’t need flashy, plastic toys.
4. Somewhere to explore
Take a walk through a baby store, and you’ll notice that many of the products on sale are designed to do the same thing, contain your baby.
Bouncers, playpens, capsules, swings and activity centres all work to keep the baby in one spot.
However, for healthy growth and development, babies need the opposite. The best thing for babies is to move.
Kicking, rolling, crawling and cruising are essential activities. And time spent engaged in these activities builds the muscle strength and balance necessary for healthy development.
Babies can explore all the corners of your house, and they likely will. But they also like to go outside. Outdoors they can crawl on the grass, kick in the sand or pull themselves to standing with the help of a driftwood log. And it’s never to early to take your baby outside to explore.
It’s been six years since my sister in law gave me the bags of baby stuff. And three months ago we had our third baby, a little girl.
This time around, I’ve been confident to say no to the offers of baby swings, capsules and colourful toys.
Our baby gear is simple. We have a rug on the floor, a pram, an inward-facing baby carrier, a bassinet where she sleeps and one shelf of clothes and nappies.
For entertainment, she talks to her brother and sings with her sister. And when she’s had enough of being on the floor, she finds her way into our arms. Then we take her out and show her the magnolia tree that’s bursting with pale pink blooms, the chickens who scratch under our apple trees.
And I hope that she will grow up captivated by this wonderful earth, know the joy of spending time outside in it, and understand most of what truly matters in life—can’t be bought at a store.