The toy aisle of the average American retailer is a carnival of lights, color, and sound. Every shelf overflows with gadgets that flash, twirl, beep, spin, and play a symphony of kid-friendly tunes.
But before you plunk down $29.99 for a baby light-up cell phone or electric guitar, consider this: Does your child really need all those bells and whistles?
"No kid needs fancy electronic toys," says Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, with the University of Delaware School of Education. "Babies need sensory experiences where they can make things happen. And they like to do things over and over again."
Which means the pot and spoon from your kitchen cabinet will please your little one just as much as an expensive toy with flashing lights. In fact, the single greatest toy you can give your baby doesn't cost a thing, because it's you.
"Babies love interacting with humans," Golinkoff says. "Toys for the youngest kids really should be thought about as a platform for interaction with the adults in their lives."
Talk to your child. Sing songs, read books, and go for walks. Simply having fun together can do wonders for your baby's emotional, cognitive, and social development, research shows.
Play It Safe
Any toy you buy should be 100% safe. Some tips:
- Read the label to make sure it's age-appropriate.
- Look for sharp edges and loose parts.
- Watch for choking hazards -- small parts that could get stuck in a baby's windpipe. Use a small-parts tester or toilet paper tube to check that pieces are big enough.
- Be sure any electronic toy you buy isn't too loud. Some toys can reach 90 decibels. That's as loud as a lawnmower and equally capable of damaging a child's hearing.
When you do buy toys, they should reflect your baby's developmental stage. In the first few months, infants are too young to grasp anything, but they love to look, Golinkoff says. Hang a brightly colored mobile over the crib, or a mirror for your child to gaze at his reflection.
By around 4 months, babies can grip toys. They also realize they can make things happen. Rattles, large colorful plastic keys, and other toys that are easy to grab and shake are lots of fun. When your little one shakes the toy around, mimic her movements. "Babies love it when you imitate them," Golinkoff says.
Near the end of the first year, as her agility and mobility improve, look for toys that stack (like blocks or rings), pull, or have buttons to push. The simpler the toy the better, because the more your child has to do herself, the more it will stimulate her imagination.
During your visit to the toy store, don't forget the book aisle. Interactive stories entertain little fingers -- and minds.
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