By Marianne M. Szymanski, founder of Toy Tips Research Institute
When you’re on the nest, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying mounds of stuffed animals and new toys to fill the nursery. Instead, keep your own shopping list simple—leave the expensive giant teddy and motorized choo-choo to your rich Aunt Matilda.
After all, a child’s first (and best) plaything is you! Infants need love and affection through eye contact, smiles, and touch. It is your eyes, voice, and hugs that will allow baby to explore life for the first time. So fill his days with textures and sounds that enhance the senses, and when your baby starts to interact with you—with just a smile—this is the time to introduce playthings.
Aside from being just plain fun, play fosters intellectual, social, cognitive, and physical development. And toys are learning tools that build life skills, including reasoning, fine- and gross-motor movement, character, social skills, and self-esteem. When choosing toys for your holiday list or baby–shower registry, get the best by following these guidelines.
Birth to 3 Months
Despite appearances, there’s a lot going on in this stage of a baby’s life. Introduce your infant to toys that help teach about her new environment through textures, tastes, smells, and sight with sensory activities. Be careful with toys that attach to the crib for baby to play with while drifting off to sleep. When left unattended, a child could get injured, so check often that these are securely attached and not in reach of baby to pull on. In fact, return any crib toy that cannot be secured to the rail.
Vulli Sophie the Giraffe
3 months and up
The soft feel and texture of this squeaky 7-inch giraffe teether attracts touch, stimulates sensory development, and provides opportunity for parent-child interaction. As a baby learns to squeak the toy, he gains a sense of accomplishment. It is handmade in the French Alps out of natural rubber and non-toxic paint. $20
Sassy Cuddle Doll
Birth and up
This lightweight, handcrafted grasping toy is made of selected hardwoods with brightly colored textured fabrics of cotton, satin, and corduroy to enhance tactile stimulation. The wooden rings clap together for click-clack noises and easy grasping. The light lavender scent will calm baby and enhance her sense of smell. $8
3 to 6 Months
This age is all about self-discovery. Toys that baby can play with alone—things that squish, squash, roll, rock, and move—encourage learning about cause and effect. Look for toys that open, close, drop, and move up and down. As baby grows, support open-ended play that allows free expression. Bright colors and different sizes and shapes stimulate thinking skills.
Tummy time is when an infant lies on her stomach and practices lifting her head, encourages fine-motor support and body strength. The best tummy-time toys are textured play-mats made of soft, washable (there will be lots of drool) material with attached teethers for sensory stimulation and a mirror (that is not glass) for self-reflection and discovery. These mats can be placed on a floor, in a crib during awake time only, and they travel well, too.
Do not purchase any toys that have strings or attached pieces that could become possible choking hazards. And whether you are shaking a rattle for her, talking to her, or baby is interacting the play-mat, tummy time must always be a supervised activity.
Kushies Zolo Linki Uni Clip
3 months and up
This teether is ideal for grasping, holding, and shaking, and it strengthens motor skills. A clip is included for easy attachment to a stroller or car seat. $16
Tiny Love Gymini Monkey Island
Birth and up
This baby-activated set features a monkey that plays nursery tunes, sounds, and lights when touched. When baby is placed on her back, she can play with the pull-toys hanging from soft, bendable arches, helping to strengthening arm muscles. It comes with its own carrying case and is machine-washable. $65
Little Taggies Naturals
1 month and up
A new baby learns through the senses. Tags and textures stimulate sensory, visual, and tactile play. This soft cloth lovie features satiny little tags for grasping and exploring. $29
6 to 9 months
It’s time to get grabby—hand/eye coordination and fine-motor activities require grasping, twisting, pinching, and reaching. Smart choices include chunky blocks, stacking games, shape sorters, nesting cups, and toys of various sizes.
Gross-motor activities help kids develop balance, and toys that encourage crawling, climbing, and sitting foster the use of large-muscle groups. A baby of this age likes to watch, follow, and try. Look for toys that require baby to interact, which will help her learn how important her actions are to the outside world.
Once she is able to hold her head up, you can start to encourage toys that will help her gain balance while sitting. It’s best to work with baby as she tries to sit and have her reach for toys that she can hold in both hands such as a soft toy or round ball. This will help her understand and learn balance.
Kicky Pants Soft Toys Orchard Collection
4 months and up
As a baby starts to develop muscle, introduce toys to foster fine-motor control. These oversized, smushy, and squeezable hug toys are perfect to toss, roll, and throw. They are filled with non-toxic micro beads. $10 each, available at The Right Start stores.
Fisher-Price Brilliant Basics Rock-a-Stack
6 months and up
Ah, memories! This classic sort-and-stack toy features colored rings to chew on, play with, and roll. When baby bats at the base, it adds visual stimulation by rocking back and forth. As baby gets older, this toy helps develops motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and a sense of accomplishment when a child learns to stack the rings on the base in the correct order. $6
Alex ‘Round The Farm
6 months and up
Using roll toys with baby can enhance motor skills through catching, pushing, and grabbing. This plush toy features sounds of four farm animals. Roll it, then press the right ear of each animal and learn its sound—bark, meow, oink, ribbit! A bell chime inside adds play value and engages interest, while the sounds encourage listening skills. It’s washable but needs to be air-dried. $25
9 to 12 months
Get ready for action! By now, baby may be sitting up, crawling, and trying to walk. Look for toys that allow a child to play in a seated position. Toys that speak, either with sounds or words, may encourage babble or first words. Musical and voice–command toys engage interest and curiosity, and they strengthen listening and language skills with repetition of phonetic sounds. Many parents find that in this age group, babies start to notice their favorite toys. This is the time to gauge interest and play with these toys often.
A low table or a sofa in the living room enables baby to “cruise” or practice walking while holding on to something solid. Once this begins, this is the time to introduce walking toys to provide an opportunity for your child to pull up—but adults should always supervise.
Plush toys and dolls are “hugging toys” that serve as a security toy or playtime pal. Whether a child likes to tug one around or not, dolls that interact with baby foster laughter, imagination, fine-motor skills, and role-play. When choosing stuffed toys, give them a tug and a toss to make sure they’re sturdy, and then give them a good wash. Stuffed toys can be a suffocation hazard if not used properly in a crib. As cute as they are, never leave an infant alone with any toys in the crib. Wash plush items often, or put them in a zip-top bag in the freezer overnight to kill dust mites.
Goldberger Baby’s First Giggles Doll
9 months and up
Love ’em or hate ’em, playing with dolls encourages positive character-building skills. When this doll’s tummy is squeezed, she giggles and offers an interactive play experience. The face is made of vinyl, and the body is stuffed with non-allergenic polyester. This machine-washable doll stands 13 inches tall and is available in two skin tones. $10
• An older sibling’s toys are not appropriate for babies and should not be within reach of a younger child.
• As soon as toys start going in the mouth, keep them clean. Never let a child chew on string or toys with magnets, small pieces, or sharp edges.
• Don’t buy or borrow used toys unless they are free of broken pieces. Always check for recalls (go to recalls.gov) and clean toys with hot, soapy water before giving them to baby.
• Never let a child roll a toy near electrical outlets, furniture with sharp edges, stairs, or anywhere that may be dangerous to retrieve.
• An activity bar attached to a stroller or car seat provides entertainment. These kinds of toys should have different textures, and the child should not be able to pull up on the bar.
• Crib mobiles should be removed as soon as a child is able to reach up, so he won’t pull the toy down or use it as a means to stand up.
• Avoid anything with magnets, which can be easily swallowed. Ingesting magnets can be fatal.
• Ride-on toys should not be used until a child can hold her neck up strongly. And any riding toy must always include a seatbelt or strap.
• Bath toys for infants are only appropriate with parent supervision. (You should never leave an infant alone in a bathtub anyway!)
Transitioning Toys- From One Skill to the Next
Chicco Baby Jogging
9 months and up
Walking toys like this build large-muscle strength in the legs, encourage first steps, and give confidence for walking. This walker has six positions to adjust for correct posture. Lights and melodies speed up and down, depending on baby’s pace. $50
Once baby crawls, climbs, and stands, small climbing structures and ride-on toys foster use of large-muscle groups. Gross-motor activities help develop balance and exercise the whole body. Look for toys that will encourage a baby to build on -naturally occurring developmental skills, but buying more advanced toys to speed the process is not a good idea. A toy that is too complicated or too difficult to use will frustrate your little one. The concept of sticking to a task and learning a difficult new skill is one your baby won’t understand for many years.
In fact, babies are all about the present. As your baby learns something new, enhance that skill and choose toys that will allow her to practice it. This raises self-esteem and creativity, plus it provides your child with a sense of accomplishment.
For all children, the process of play is valuable in the development of physical, cognitive, social, and emotional skills. The toys your baby plays with today may shape the child he becomes tomorrow. Play with your baby often—into the toddler years and beyond.
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Marianne M. Szymanski is the founder and president of Toy Tips and the author of Toy Tips: A Parent’s Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices. All toys were independently tested through the Toy Tips Research Institute. Toy companies did not pay a fee to have them reviewed. For individual Toy Tips Reports Cards, or to sign up for a free daily toy tip to get more infant smart toy choices, go to toytips.com.