Play & Sleep

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

In episode 11 we look at how much playtime and sleep are linked. And how to play through baby’s first year (and beyond) - without being Mr Tumble!

Finding ways to keep your baby awake is just as important as helping them learn how to sleep. Your baby needs sleep to process the world and milk to fuel them, but they learn language, creativity and intellectual skills through play. So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal!

We'll also answer our listener Louise’s question about tummy time for her daughter.

1 – Why play? 2 – Do I need to be a children’s entertainer? 3 – Best toys? 4 – Play through the first year and beyond 5 – Too much play?

[ EP11 Play and Sleep Transcript ]

Cat: [00:00:00] This is a baby sleep podcast for parents by parents, mostly functioning coffee-fuelled humans who really miss a good night's sleep. I'm Cat Cubie, parenting broadcaster and journalist and together with Sarah Carpenter, pediatric sleep consultant and expert, we are The Sleep Mums. This is, of course, a podcast about sleep because we really love the snooze stuff. But what you'll know if you've listened to our other episodes - and if you've not yet you totally should - is that while sleep might be the big deal, the stuff around it is what makes it happen and happen well. I like to think of sleep like Beyonce and all the other stuff as her entourage. So, one of the key players in sleep's entourage is play. I think Bey would totally appreciate that, because finding ways to keep your baby awake is also an important part of getting them to sleep. As always, we'll look at five things about play and sleep, and we'll also look at play through the first year and beyond and answer one of your questions. First, though, let's start at the beginning, why is play important?

Sarah: [00:01:06] You've got to think of your baby as a bit of a blank canvas, so you know, you're responsible for teaching them everything. You're really going to be using play to do that, so play is there for all they're learning, it's there to stimulate them. It's there for you to communicate with them. It doesn't need to be 24/7. It doesn't need to be hard. It's just getting the right kinds of play in your schedule so that you're stimulating - but not overstimulating and not under stimulating - your baby.

Cat: [00:01:38] It is amazing, actually, because babies and kids learn so much through play. And how awesome is that? I mean, I actually kind of wish we would keep that idea as we go into adulthood because it's a much better way of learning.

Sarah: [00:01:54] Absolutely. I mean, babies and children are going to learn so much more when they're doing it through play.

Cat: [00:01:59] I mean, essentially, you need sleep (that's the thing we love!) to process the world, and milk and food to fuel them but everything else, language, creativity, intellectual skills, that is all learnt through play. So it's amazing. And it's also quite a useful tool as well, isn't it?

Sarah: [00:02:18] Yes, it is a useful tool. Because, you know, coming back to the stimulation, you know, as long as you have got the right level of stimulation, then your baby is going to be ready for their naps and that's what you're really aiming for.

Cat: [00:02:35] When a baby is small, you're basically their first toy, and that can be a wee bit overwhelming at first, you're left feeling like you need to be Mr Tumble (shudder!) or something and suddenly have your hankies up your sleeve or something like that. Knowing how to play with babies is not necessarily something a parent is born with when their little one arrives. So our second thing is, do I need to become a children's entertainer?

Sarah: [00:03:01] Absolutely not. This is something that I talk to parents about all the time. You know, you've got a tiny little baby. Keep it simple. You are entertaining enough for them. You know, your face, changing your expressions, hiding your face, popping back out, usingsharves, using different textures through play. But just keep it simple. And your main tool is your voice, you know, speak to your baby about anything and everything. It doesn't need to be anything around children, you don't need to be singing nursery rhymes, you can be singing whatever your favorite song is at that time. You can be reading whatever book you're reading or whichever newspaper or article on the Internet; it really does not need to be baby or child focused. It can just be you being you.

Cat: [00:03:48] And you I think that's quite important. When Indy was really small, like really, really small, I would put on CBebbies, I mean, we're talking six months or something, because it felt like it was age appropriate and that somehow that might make things calmer. But obviously it kind of drove me insane. And really I could have just been playing like music that I like and I probably would have made me feel more comfortable and more relaxed rather than like being this slightly crazy, must be a great parent and inform my child from six months or something like, I dunno.

Sarah: [00:04:23] Absolutely. As parents, the relaxed version of you is going to be the most entertaining version. You know, and for little ones as well, just seeing their parents and to act as a huge thing, you know, that's when you're going to get massive giggles and, you know, all that interaction that you do with them; blowing raspberries, clapping your hands, all these simple little things that you can just be doing as you go, they're the things that are going to stimulate and educate.

Sarah: [00:04:52] And, like you're saying, it's also really important as a parent to be you. And if peekaboo is not your own, don't do it. You know, if it's not going to make you feel happy, you find other things that will entertain you and entertain your baby because pretty much anything will entertain baby. As we've said before, even a nappy change could feel like a binge on Netflix for baby.

Sarah: [00:05:16] Yeah, that's the thing,people think that they need to go all out with entertainment. But actually, you're totally right. You know, a nappy change, which can last a couple of minutes. That's a huge amount of stimulation for a baby. Walking up and down the stairs, looking at the black and white photos hanging on the walls. That's a huge amount of stimulation and being parked in front of a window for a while, just seeing the shadows outside. All these things are little bursts of stimulation for a baby are huge.

Cat: [00:05:46] I knew there was a reason I put those artsy farty photos on the wall! [laughter]

Cat: [00:05:51] And that's also another reason why we make quite a big deal of the bedtime routine, not just as a kind of process for getting baby to sleep, but bath time is a really lovely play-time, that also sets up for sleep.

Sarah: [00:06:05] Definitely. Actually, although bathtime is extremely good, stimulating and fantastic - and does set them up for sleep - you can also very quickly go the other way with bath time. It can get overstimulating and go on for too long. So, you know, a lot of people will allocate half an hour to bathtime when actually five or ten minutes is more than long enough. You know, five or ten minutes for a very small baby is absolutely exhausting. And what you don't want to do is for them to slip into that over tiredness. So it's just getting that balance of a nice bathtime without completely over stimulating and exhausting them.

Cat: [00:06:41] And that's that's true throughout in terms of talking about play, it's about getting that balance. And that's maybe the harder thing, rather than worrying about being an entertainer, it's just trying to be aware of how much play versus how much feeds and sleep...

Cat: [00:06:58] Now, I feel a bit like I'm writing a birthday wish list,like 'Here are a festive top 10 of presents...' But since you have worked with thousands of families so you must know what the best toy for a baby of all time is?

Sarah: [00:07:11] The best toy for a very small baby is your face...

Cat: [00:07:17] Try selling that on Amazon! [laughter]

Sarah: [00:07:17] And as your baby grows as a wooden spoon and pan from the kitchen. You don't need all the flashing lights and plastic toys. You know, those are very short lived because once a musical flashing toy has done its thing, that's it, that toy's done for a baby or child. Whereas the things that they have to use their imagination for, they're the toys that keep on going. So, you know, scarves and balloons, things that move, they're fantastic for little babies. Now, actual toys that you can buy; Sophie the giraffe, which initially is something that gets shoved in the mouth and then you move on to them actually being able to use it as an interactive animal in games. Then as they get that little bit older, the stacking cups are fantastic, as are building blocks. All the things that actually engage a child and have no end. You want toys that are going to just keep progressing rather than toys that you push a button, it does it's thing and then it gets pushed to the side.

Cat: [00:08:23] Talking about musical, beeping toys and the fact that earlier on we were talking about being the most relaxed, happy parent you can be is the best toy. That is also important to remember, because I have to say, there's quite a well known kids toy that you pop kids in and rhymes with Humperoo [laughter] and the song that it played, literally drove me insane. To the point that, I was like, why have we got this toy? Although I have to say probably banging on pans would do the same thing.

Sarah: [00:09:03] Well, yeah. I mean, everything does get a little bit annoying after time, but, you know, things like that, the toy that you're just referring to can always take the batteries of of it and baby will still get the same amount of stimulation through the bouncing and textures on the toy. You don't actually need the music to be playing.

Cat: [00:09:21] I wish we could rewind five years and tell my early parenthood self! So, it is basically the most basic things that entertain kids the longest... And plus when there are no batteries required (no giggling at the back) it's even better, because they don't play annoying tunes!

Cat: [00:09:42] So we've been talking about the simplest things being best, but as we've touched on briefly, something that simple for a six month old is a full on party after party and pancakes the next day for a two week old. So our third thing should be chatting very briefly about play through the ages. So let's start with birth to six weeks.

Sarah: [00:10:01] So starting at the beginning with birth, you're getting very little awake time from your baby, or at least happy awake time. So really, you are just using your face. You know, you want to get up close, you want to be changing your expressions. Lots of smiles. Chat. Really for those first six weeks is all about facial expressions and the chat. We all know that we should be doing tummy time from birth. But, realistically, the first six weeks, you're just getting to grips with life. So it's not necessarily going to be fitted in at that point. If you've managed that, then high five to you. But don't worry if you don't get round to that until a little bit later. So by the time you've hit your six week mark, then you definitely want to be then having a little bit of tummy time each day. You know, it doesn't need to be for a long period of time, just pop them on their tummy for a little while each day. And that can be done at nappy change time as well. You know, you can just either take the nappy off and roll them on to their tummy or just after you put a clean nappy, pop them on their tummy while you get them dressed again

Cat: [00:11:15] Yeah, just make sure there are nappies involved in that, because it can get messy! And also just because we always love to bring it back to sleep, tummy time is really important for sleep, too, because actually it helps to stretch things out, move wind around... So you might be surprised to know that tummy time is a useful thing for getting baby to sleep better at night and it might encourage you to do it.

Sarah: [00:11:39] Yeah, absolutely. You know, if you can put baby down on their tummy for a little stretch out before they're going for a nap or before they're going to bed at night, then it certainly can squeeze some of the wind out. And, ultimately, you know, from six months, a lot of babies will choose to sleep on their tummy. So you want to know that they are confident on their tummy from as young as possible. So they are prepared for that developmental change when it comes.

Cat: [00:12:04] Absolutely. And by the time babies are reaching out and grasping for things, you've kind of reached a whole new level of play. And you can generally say goodbye to your hot cup of tea, so that's usually around 12 to 17 weeks. So, what's the best play for then?

Sarah: [00:12:21] So any sort of little rattles that are small enough for them to hold are fine, as I said earlier on, The Sophie giuraffe, where they can hold the back legs. Turn it upside down and actually give them a leg to hold, because that's a more comfortable size for them. And the little tiny plastic rattles that have got the very, very small handle and the ball with the rattly bits on the end. They are very good because again, it's that shape, most playmats will have toys that hang down. So if your baby doesn't like lying on their back, you can always pop them into a bouncy chair and push them under and into the playmat so that they can still reach forward and grab things or have an activity bar over the bouncy chair that they can reach forward and grab as well. Muslins are really good. You will use Muslins for everything. But they are great because you can get slightly different textures and they will start to play their own form of peekaboo by pulling the muslin up and pulling it back down.

Cat: [00:13:25] Which is the cutest...

Sarah: [00:13:25] The cutest. So, yeah, any of those sort of little things from this age are really good.

Cat: [00:13:34] And that kind of continues really when you get 17 to 24 weeks or four to six months when you might find you have a baby that's beginning to get on the move, with rolling and reaching. So what's good playtime for them?

Sarah: [00:13:49] So certainly that's actually important to start using their developmental movements as play. So if they are rolling over, that's great. A lot of them won't be, so you just want to start really encouraging that and encouraging them to roll over. So put toys away from them and roll them to that toy so that they start to get the developmental change and also start sitting them up, so you can set them in between your legs and just put a range of toys in front of them so that you're just supporting their back. So they're not flopping forwards too much or falling backwards. So you're really using between the four to six month age, you're really using them for their own play. So it's all about those big developmental gross motor movements and skills that they need to learn. And if they are sitting up inbetween your legs or in between cushions, using the little stacking boxes that are numbered. It's really good fun. You can stack them up, you can count them, you can show them the colours, you can knock them down and get a good giggle out of them. So that's a game that's very repetitive but they really enjoy. And you can incorporate so many areas of development into that one.

Cat: [00:14:56] The hoops that go in size order, are quite good as well. And actually, I find my son, who's now three, playing with those yesterday. So they also have longevity.

Sarah: [00:15:05] Definitely. Yes, most toys that you introduce to babies, children will come back to around about, you know, first of all, 18 months and then two and a half, threeish. And they'll play with them properly. You'll actually see that, as babies they would flap them around and yes, of course, they learn and they know how to stack them and things like that. But as they get older and they come back to toys, that's when the really interactive with them and really know what's expected. And that's when they do it and they will then count them and do their colours and things like that as well.

Cat: [00:15:38] Then you get to kind of six months plus and play tends to get a bit more complex. So what's what's best to do then?

Sarah: [00:15:46] So, from six months you can really incorporate lots of different sort of toys. You know, your building blocks are really good. You can get softer ones, the sort of rubbery soft ones, if your baby's not quite there with sitting up. Things get a lot noisier, you know, that's when they are going to be really banging toys around. The blocks will get banged together. Whatever rattles they've got will get banged off different things. You can get all the musical instruments out and they just love that, you know, the tambourines that they can rattle and pat on. And then you can start to incorporate some messy play as well. So, you know, water play is fantastic. Literally, just a basin of water on a mat on the floor and let them just guddle around in that. Obviously, you're observing them all the time. You can do things like.. my absolute personal favourite is the spaghetti play. So cook up a big pop of spaghetti, put a little bit of food colouring in it and just whack it on the ground and let them go for it. Your baby is going to get dyed. There's no two ways about it. They'll will have a little bit of colour on them for a little bit of time. It's just one of those things that will wash off. But they just love it. Know you see them really progress with initially not really wanting to touch it and not really know what to do. And then after a few sessions, we'll be diving right in and think this is the best thing ever.

Cat: [00:17:04] I think I made a bit of an error when I introduced that because I said that they were like worms and we were playing it with my my daughter who is a bit older and she was completely freaked out by it! [laughter]

Cat: [00:17:16] Play is obviously super important, but I'm totally going to be the boring moooooom here, you can have too much play, especially where sleep is concerned. Hello, fun police! But too much play can make baby overtired, especially when they're wee. And as we've spoken about before, that can make them harder to put to bed.

Sarah: [00:17:36] Yeah, absolutely. So, to break it down, the nought to six week period, you really are not getting a lot of play time. Your proper stretches of play time are going to start really from about 12 weeks, but even then five, ten minutes at one activity is more than enough for a baby of that age. So it really is a short bursts of play that then stretch over time. You'll still find even for a six month old baby, their attention span is very, very short. So, 20 minutes in an activity at six months is going to be the absolute max. I'll have clients contact me saying 'My baby is really unsettled. I just can't seem to get them to interact and play at all.' And I'll ask for a run down of their routine and they'll say, 'Well, then we tried this and, you know, after ten minutes they were screaming and they were so unhappy.' And I say they're really just letting you know that they've had enough of that activity and it's time to move on. You do see month by month their attention span stretch out, but you know, it's stretching by two to five minutes at a time. It's not a big jump. You're not going to have a six month old who's going to be happy to play with something for an hour. It's just it's too much for them.

Cat: [00:19:00] And you've got a bear in mind, I guess as well, that there's a quite a lot to fit in, especially when they're really small. You've got nappy changes, you've got feeds, and there is a certain amount of time they can cope with being awake. So to get everything in, sometimes play needs to be the thing that is either reduced or just, as you say, a very short element of the day.

Sarah: [00:19:24] Or just incorporated into other things, so when you're winding you're baby, that can be playtime. And like we've already said, when you're changing baby's nappy, that can be playtime. When you're changing baby's clothes, that can be playtime. So, just don't don't feel like you have to have designated times of the day to do it when they're tiny. It really is just interacting with them as you go.

Cat: [00:19:50] Every week we answer one of your questions, our listeners, and you can send us a listener question, if you like, online at The Sleep Mums on Instagram or on Facebook or jump to our website. But this week, we have a question from Louise about tummy time...

Louise: [00:20:06] Hi Cat and Sarah, how do I help my baby do tummy time? She really just does not seem to like it. Thank you so much, Louise.

Sarah: [00:20:13] So this is a question that I get asked all the time or not even really a question, but it's people saying, my baby just won't go on their tummy, they just don't like it. And I ask questions back, like, where do you try tummy time? How long are you trying it and what time of day are you trying it and we soon establish that actually their expectations of tummy time are far too high. So first of all, you want to think about your timing. Don't be trying to do it, straight after a feed. Don't be trying to do it when they're too hungry, don't be trying to do it when they're too tired. So you really do need to just find a little window in your day. And as I said earlier, you know, that could just be simply at nappy change time, either after you've changed they nappy or just before you're getting them dressed again. Lower your expectations on how long we're going to be on their tummy. Initially, if you get 30 seconds on their tummy, that's fantastic. You're not putting baby on their tummy to lie there for an hour. It's not going to happen. You're really building up slowly. So if you aim for maybe four times a day, popping them on their tummy and you just see how long we stay there, quite happily, that's brilliant. You know, it could be 30 seconds, a couple of days later that could build up to a minute, a few weeks later it could be a couple of minutes. But you're doing it regularly throughout the day. So that is the key thing, is actually doing it more often for less time. And also think about what you're doing. If you couldn't move and somebody lay you flat on your face, you're not going to be that happy about it either. So just roll up either a muslin or a cellular blanket and just pop it at the chest level so that their arms are coming over it. And that instantly helps them to raise their neck, strengthen those back and neck muscles, which is mainly why you're doing tummy time and obviously the head is then off the floor completely. So you're thinking about the flat head syndrome as well. So you're covering all your bases. But it just makes it a little bit easier for a new baby who is starting tummy time if you're just given them that wee helping hand and lifted them up slightly. And then as they get more confident and as they strengthen up their arms and they're able to lift their head more, you can just take that little blanket away and you are then popping them down but they will instantly push up because they're stronger.

Cat: [00:22:29] I definitely made a lot of mistakes, I think, within Indy in terms of what you're talking about. And we used to call the face she made when we tried to make her do tummy time, The Tummy Time Rage Face, and really when either of us were unhappy about something, we would bring our The Tummy Time Rage Face because it was so intense! I have some very funny photographs which I might share on social media - I'll ask her first - which is her looking very cross in tummy time. But I like to kind of think about it like, you know, if someone told me, particularly after I just had a baby, to get on the floor and do ten sit ups, I would be pretty angry about it, too. And that's kind of what you're saying, and in the same way that postpartum you sort of build up strength again, it's the same for babies, they're just building up strength in their neck to allow them to do tummy time. Some babies might have super strong necks to begin with, but most babies are going to need that time to build up.

Sarah: [00:23:28] And also think about where you're doing it too, it doesn't have to even be on the floor or anything like that. You can lie back and put baby on your chest and they can be doing tummy time on your chest, which instantly is a much more comfortable place for the baby to be doing tummy time.

Cat: [00:23:45] Yeah, I think they can feel a bit lost kind of on the floor there. And certainly with my daughter, I wasn't doing with a muslin or anything like that. So I think she did just feel like she'd been chucked in the middle of the floor and we were standing laughing at her... Of course she didn't like it!

Sarah: [00:24:04] Well, when you put it like that, yeah!

Cat: [00:24:05] And so do you just carry on with tummy time until they're rolling over and they can sort out themselves?

Sarah: [00:24:14] Absolutely. Just keep hitting them on their tummy for a few times a day until they are flipping around quite happily front to back, back to front.

Cat: [00:24:22] And then you don't have to do it because they'll be doing it naturally,

Sarah: [00:24:24] They'll be doing it themselves, yeah. And they will get to a point as well when they start reaching for toys. So, if they've been in sitting position, then they're stretching for a toy, they'll reach forward and they'll end up on their tummy. So although they're not aware that they're getting themselves into that position or haven't intended to get themselves into that position, they will be doing it. And they might get a bit of a fright, but they'll get used to that as well.

Cat: [00:24:47] It's like some awesome sort of breakdancing move, like the dolphin or something like that when they do that! Skills, the skills of a baby!

Cat: [00:24:56] I hope that helps, Louise. If you want to get in touch with us with your own question, you know what to do, head online and find us on social media and send us a message with listener question. It's so important to us that our advice makes sense in real life too.

Cat: [00:25:14] So, that's five things about play and sleep, we got the party started and we also called time on how much play is best for baby through their first year. Play and sleep are kind of like the yin and yang of your baby's day. Getting the balance can help with both the better and more stimulating, age appropriate play. You have can in turn help with better and more restful sleep. And then sleep helps baby process all the awesome stuff they've learned with you. I don't know if you have a kind of back history of Fleetwood Mac that you want to share with your kid. Who knows! As always, we hope it helped if you could help us so we can carry on helping parents, like you, it would be awesome. Please subscribe to our podcast. Like us on social media, we're on Instagram and Facebook @thesleepmums. And generally, if you just want to throw some love our way by sharing our stuff in your socials, that would be brilliant. We hope you enjoyed our playdate.

Cat: [00:26:09] Look after yourself and sleep in.

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