Learning, Play, and Your Newborn

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What Is My Newborn Learning?

Play is the chief way that infants learn how to move, communicate, socialize, and understand their surroundings. And during the first month of life, your baby will learn by interacting with you.

The first thing your baby will learn is to associate the feel of your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face with getting his or her needs for comfort and food met. You can encourage your newborn to learn by stimulating your newborn's senses in positive ways — with smiles, smoothing sounds, and gentle caresses.

Even at this young age, newborns are ready to learn about the world around them. A newborn loves to look at faces, especially mom's. Likewise, in the first days and weeks of life, newborns can recognize their mother's voice. Your infant will respond to your voice (or other interesting sounds) by looking alert and becoming less active. The baby may try to find out where the sound is coming from by looking around and turning his or her head.

When you smile and talk to your infant, your face and the sound of your voice will become a familiar source of calm and comfort, and your little one will learn to associate you with getting nourishment, warmth, and soothing touch.

The "Rooting Reflex"

Babies are born with reflexes or programmed responses to certain stimuli, such as touch. These reflexes help ensure survival. But they also provide an opportunity for a baby to interact with the world. For example, the rooting reflex is elicited by gently stroking a newborn's cheek. The infant's response is to turn head and mouth to that side, ready to eat.

By the time they're 3 weeks old, babies will turn toward the breast or bottle not just out of a reflex, but because they've learned that it's a source of food.

Asleep, Active, or Alert?

During the first month of life, your newborn will spend much of the day sleeping or seeming drowsy. Over the next several weeks to months, your baby will mature and be awake or alert for longer periods of time.

It's important to recognize when your baby is alert and ready to learn and play and when your little one would rather be left alone:

  • A baby who is quiet and alert will be attentive and responsive and interested in surroundings.
  • A baby who is awake but active (squirming, flapping arms, or kicking legs) or fussing will be less able to focus on you. The baby may seem agitated or start to cry when you try to get his or her attention. These are signs that your baby may be getting overstimulated.

Over the coming weeks and months, you'll learn to recognize when your infant is ready to learn or overstimulated.

Encouraging Your Newborn to Learn

As you care for your newborn, he or she is learning to recognize your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face.

In the first few weeks you may want to introduce some simple, age-appropriate toys that appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, and touch, such as:

  • rattles
  • textured toys
  • musical toys
  • unbreakable crib mirrors

Try toys and mobiles with contrasting colors and patterns. Strong contrasts (such as red, white, and black), curves, and symmetry stimulate an infant's developing vision. As vision improves and babies gain more control over their movements, they'll interact more and more with their environment.

Some Other Ideas

Here are some other ideas for encouraging your newborn to learn and play:

  • Put on soothing music and hold your baby, gently swaying to the tune.
  • Pick a soothing song or lullaby and softly sing it often to your baby. The familiarity of the sound and words will have a soothing effect, particularly during fussy times.
  • Smile, stick out your tongue, and make other expressions for your infant to study, learn, and imitate.
  • Use a favorite toy for your newborn to focus on and follow, or shake a rattle for your infant to find.
  • Let your baby spend some awake time on his or her tummy to help strengthen the neck and shoulders. Always supervise your infant during "tummy time" and be ready to help if he or she gets tired or frustrated in this position. Never put an infant to sleep on his or her stomach — babies should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Talk to your baby.

Keep in mind that babies develop at different rates, and there is a wide range of normal development. If you have any concerns about your newborn's ability to see or hear, or your baby doesn't seem to be developing well in other ways, talk with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015



Related Resources

OrganizationMaternal and Child Health Bureau This U.S. government agency is charged with promoting and improving the health of mothers and children.
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.
Web SiteZero to Three Zero to Three is a national nonprofit organization that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers.


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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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