During your baby's first two months, she doesn't need or want any toys. Your baby won't even discover her own hands until she's about two months old. Your baby may instinctively clutch a toy that you put in her hand, but she can't really play with it. She may enjoy looking at a plaything or listening to it, but she'd much rather look at and listen to you.
From two to three months, however, when your baby's hands open up and she first discovers them-and all the things she can do with them-toys become much more valuable as learning tools. Noisy toys are great at this age. (Just make sure they're soft, because your baby will probably hit herself in the head with them.)
Soft rubber squeak toys, lightweight rattles, rattling bracelets, and easy-to-hold plastic keys do more than entertain your baby. They focus her attention on what her hands are doing. You can almost see the connections forming in your baby's brain:
noise=hands -> hands=moving -> moving=me
my hands=moving=noise> look what I can do!
From about 10 to 14 weeks, your baby will enjoy taking a kitten-like swipe at toys. Hang toys of various shapes, textures, and sounds (a rattle, a fuzzy ball, a plastic or rubber ring, a small doll or stuffed animal, and so on) above your baby's crib. Or tie a string to them and hold them above her while she lies on the floor. When she connects with the toy, your baby will be delighted at the way it swings and the sounds it makes, if any. This activity also helps your baby make connections between what she does with her hands and what happens.
Not all your baby's playthings need to be store-bought toys. You can find dozens of suitable playthings throughout your house. Look in the kitchen. Your infant will love playing with wooden and plastic spoons, measuring spoons, spatulas, pots, pans, lids, plastic colanders, funnels, plastic bottles, plastic jars, plastic cups, and plastic plates. Your baby will also love the sound he makes if you lay him on his back and hold a cookie sheet where he can kick it. Fruits and vegetables can be fun to play with, too.
Look in a desk drawer. You'll find delightful plastic rulers, pieces of paper (crumpled or flat), and transparent tape that you can wad up into a big, sticky ball.
If your baby is playing with something you need-a spatula or other cooking utensil, for example-give him another plaything. By offering your baby a trade, you can retrieve the object you need with little or no fuss.
When you pick out toys for an infant, keep in mind what he will be doing with them. From the third month on, your baby will take any toy-or anything he can reach-and explore it. How does your baby explore an object? He grasps it, feels it, looks at it, perhaps bangs it against the floor (or himself), and invariably brings it to his mouth and sucks on it. Yum.
Until he can move on his own, you are the filter through which your baby explores the world. He cannot explore anything unless you bring it to him. To encourage your baby's exploration, give him toys and other objects that have varying textures, shapes, weights, colors, sounds, and even smells. Textured activity blankets, activity boxes with sounds and movement, soft blocks, balls, plastic cars, trucks, and trains, and pop-up books are all great fun to explore.
Because everything is new to him, your baby will have fun with almost anything you give him. Just make sure that what you give your baby is safe. This means no sharp edges, no glass objects, and nothing toxic. Don't give your baby anything so heavy that it will hurt when he drops it (as he soon will). Finally, make sure that what you offer your baby is too big (at least 2" in diameter) for your baby to swallow or choke on.
Introduce new objects for your baby to play with one at a time. Your baby can only focus attention on one thing at a time anyway. If you spread out a wide selection of toys, your baby won't know which to choose.
Different babies have different personalities, so a rattle that appeals to one baby might not interest another at all. Indeed, your own baby's mood may change from day to day-or even hour to hour. So just because your baby enjoyed playing with a fuzzy rattle yesterday doesn't mean it will capture his attention today. Even if your baby usually likes bouncing up and down on your knees, the game will lose its appeal whenever he's tired or hungry. You may therefore need to adjust your play to your baby's changing moods.
From about three months on, keep those toys coming. Your baby will appreciate a variety of objects as long as he knows basically what to do with them. If you give your baby the same toy again and again, you deny him the opportunity to explore the world in all its diversity. But if you give him a series of soft rattles, hard rattles, wrist rattles, key rings, rattles with beads, rattles with bells, and so on, your baby can explore and discover new shapes, textures, and sounds. So try rotating toys every few days or so. You can help expand your baby's horizons by occasionally changing the objects hanging from his crib or changing-table mobile, too.
Whenever you introduce a new toy or game, carefully watch the way your baby responds to it. Let him help you get to know him better and recognize and appreciate his likes and dislikes. By tuning in to his reactions, you will know whether your baby enjoys a particular toy, game, or kind of play.
If your baby likes it, he will focus his attention on it and, if he's old enough, reach for it. When your baby starts to get bored with a toy or game or just tired of playing, he will turn his head away or start to fuss or cry. (This might be from the very instant you offer the toy.) These signals are fairly obvious, but many parents overlook them in their enthusiasm to entertain and enlighten their babies.
Your baby has the attention span of a baby. Even the most fascinating of toys and games will not likely hold his interest for more than a couple of minutes. So try to provide variety in activities, toys, textures, sounds, and every new thing you introduce to your baby.
Remain flexible; let your baby make up the rules of play. If he seems bored with a particular toy or game, try something else. Let your child know from his first months on that his interests are important to you and that he can play, or not play, with whatever he chooses (as long as it's safe, of course).