Healthy living

Baby play: birth to 18 months

You are your baby’s first teacher and playmate.

The first years of life are the most important time for your child’s brain development. 

Babies learn best when they are actively involved and having fun with you during everyday activities, so spend time each day playing, learning and having fun with your baby. 

Keep baby with you – talk and sing as you do your daily activities. Your baby needs your love, warmth, and comfort to grow and develop. 

Watch what your baby is interested in. Join in and copy baby’s actions, facial expressions, and the sounds they make. Later, add your own actions and sounds for your baby to copy.

When it comes to play, babies:

  • learn through exploring – looking, listening, touching, sucking, smelling, shaking, banging, dropping
  • communicate from birth – listening and responding when you speak to them, imitating sounds, babbling, smiling, laughing and crying. Lots of single words start to appear between 12 to 18 months (most 18-month-olds have at least 20 to 24 words). These early words may not sound exactly like they should, for example, ‘wawa’ for ‘water’.
  • learn to use their hands by reaching for, then holding onto things, and passing them from hand to hand – later, shaking, squeezing and banging toys together. By 12 months, most babies can finger feed, and pick up small things with their thumb and index finger.
  • start by pushing themselves up from their tummies, then go on to rolling, sitting, crawling, and standing, usually taking first steps at around 12 to 15 months.

What you can do

Screen time – babies learn best through doing things with you. Screen time is not recommended for children younger than 2 years. Make the most of playtime – turn off all screens including phones, TVs and computers.

Some activities to try

  • Talk, read and sing to your baby – encourage your baby to look at your face when you talk with them. Enjoy picture books together, sing rhymes and action songs. As your baby grows, help them to join in with you.
  • Bath time play – with sponges, funnels, floating toys, bubbles, cups, and strainers. Always supervise baby closely at bath time.
  • Move to music – babies find being rocked and swayed slowly to music soothing. Gentle jiggling and bouncing can also be fun. Never shake or throw babies in the air. Shaking can damage their brains.
  • Active play – young babies need lots of tummy time. When your baby starts to move, provide opportunities for them to move their body – a large cardboard box to crawl through; sit and ride on toys, and push and pull-along toys; playing with toys standing at a sofa or coffee table; balls to throw and kick; toys that roll and move. When your baby starts moving they need close supervision as they may fall over, fall off furniture or bump into things.
  • Thinking play – babies are learning ‘if I do this – that happens’. Show them how to pull a string or push a button to make a toy light up or make a sound, drop a ball and watch where it goes, pull away a cloth or look under a cup to find a toy. Other thinking toys include shape sorters, chunky blocks or rings to stack, nesting cups or barrels, pegboards with a few large pegs, simple posting boxes and early puzzles.

Homemade toys for babies

Homemade toys are fun, easy to make, cheap, and help to develop your child’s creativity.

  • Scrunch bag – put cellophane or tissue paper into a mesh fruit or onion bag (make sure the mesh is small enough that little fingers can’t get caught). Tie a strong knot at each end.
  • Shakers and rolling toys – turn small plastic bottles into shakers by filling them with lentils, rice or pasta. 
  • You can also use water, food colouring, straws and glitter to make a rolling toy. Use glue or nail polish to make sure the lid stays on.
  • Boats – plastic containers make great boats in the bath.
  • Scoops – cut down a plastic milk bottle to make a scoop. Punch holes in it to make a sieve, or take off the lid to make a funnel (make sure there are no sharp or rough edges).
  • Blocks – cut two cardboard (1 litre) milk cartons and slip one into the other to make a cube. Secure with tape and decorate.

Keeping your child safe

  • Supervise your child closely at all times, especially around water, play equipment, or when using objects such as scissors, pencils, glue or paint. Avoid flammable or toxic materials.
  • Babies, toddlers and young children can choke on small toys and objects.
  • Check toys regularly to make sure they are safe. Strings on toys should be less than 20 centimetres long.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book
  • Look in the service finder for child health centres
  • Visit your nearest child health centre

Local family doctor

Ngala Parenting Line 

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: (08) 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network

Last reviewed: 29-05-2019

Child and Adolescent Health Service – Community Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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