Good news: The 6 best brain-boosting activities for toddlers are free!

A developmental psychologist’s 6 easy ways to engage your busy baby.

Good news: The 6 best brain-boosting activities for  toddlers are free!

When babies are new to this world, it isn’t very difficult to pique their interest. Tummy time, toys with textures and contrasting colors, and a few good books are all a Mama really needs to keep baby engaged. I even kept my newborn’s attention long enough to read Dr. Seuss’ entire Horton Hears a Who! complete with over-the-top character voices.

As my infant grows closer to toddler status, squeezing in structured playtime for cognitive development becomes more challenging every day. Once baby becomes mobile, it can be difficult to hold that attention for mere seconds, let alone enough time to read what now feels like a Dr. Seuss novella. Providing an active baby with meaningful stimulation can be a daunting task. If you find yourself facing the toughest audience of all (a toddler), try the following ideas for keeping baby engaged:

  • Let your little one take the lead. If your tot would prefer to bang blocks together than read a board book, go with the flow! What seems like a simple activity can develop hand-eye coordination and might even turn into a rhythmic concert for baby’s audience of stuffed animals. If baby is engrossed in an activity, it is a fool’s errand to turn that attention elsewhere. Instead, try to squeeze every last drop of cognitive stimulation from the activity that baby is relishing. For instance, if baby is playing with blocks and balls, try sorting them by color and talking about the colors of the rainbow—or the electromagnetic spectrum for you nerds out there.
  • Provide necessary structure. Once open to a new suggestion, try focusing baby’s attention on a structured activity for a few minutes. This is a great opportunity to read a book together, put on a puppet show, work on a puzzle, or play hand games (Patty-Cake or Itsy-Bitsy Spider, anyone?). It is important for children to learn how to follow along with cooperative activities. Pity the Kindergarten teacher with a classroom of children who refuse to sit still for any organized activities.
  • Let playtime happen organically. A baby can find magic in almost any household item. Take advantage of this during seemingly humdrum activities. If you are changing baby’s diaper, play Peek-a-Boo with a (preferably clean) diaper. If you are folding laundry while baby is busy unfolding laundry, turn over the laundry basket and use it as a drum. If you are cleaning the kitchen, designate a cabinet with baby-safe pots and pans and let baby explore (always with a watchful eye, of course). If you find fascination in the everyday things, baby will too!
  • Talk to your child. Ad nauseam. Label everything baby sees and ask tons of questions. Don’t forget to give baby a chance to respond—they will start very soon! What would you like for lunch? When should we go for a walk? Do you see the puppy outside your window? In addition to asking questions, ask baby to make choices when possible. Would you rather play with the train or the stacking rings? Would you prefer spinach or bell pepper? What color shoes do you want to wear today? Respect baby’s answer, even if it’s the mustard yellow shoes gifted by Aunt Gladys. By giving weight to baby’s opinions, you are fostering the self-confidence baby needs to develop cognitively, socially, and physically. Plus, recent research explains that exposing your little one to as many spoken words as possible is one of the crucial elements in developing the brain in early childhood. Keep talking!
  • Give baby independent playtime. Even if it seems like little one is staring blankly out the window, that mind is working at the speed of light—if morning coffee is still brewing, I bet baby’s mind is working faster than yours! Perhaps your tot is listening to the birds chirping outside and beginning to connect that sound to the “tweet tweet” in a favorite animal book. This might be a good time to fold laundry or take a much needed breather. Feel free to start a dialogue with baby during independent playtime (even if it is still mostly a monologue).
  • Keep your child active. If your tot’s energy seems to be bursting at the seams, play games that will exhaust some of that exuberance. If baby wants to dance, Ring Around the Rosies is always a good choice (and can teach the concepts of up and down). If baby would rather play with toys, build towers with blocks and let baby play demolition (a fun way to teach cause and effect).

By the time you are both tired of playtime, it will undoubtedly be time for a grocery run, baby’s next nap, or dinner. Just remember to keep playtime fun and pressure-free for everyone. You are the perfect Mama for your baby, and you will provide the ideal environment for your baby’s unique development!

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

Every week, we stock the Motherly Shop with innovative and fresh products from brands we feel good about. We want to be certain you don't miss anything, so to keep you in the loop, we're providing a cheat sheet.

So, what's new this week?

Earth Mama: Effective, natural herbal care for mamas and babies

Founded and grown in her own garage in 2002, Earth Mama started as an operation of one, creating salves, tinctures, teas and soaps with homegrown herbs. With a deep desire to bring the healing powers of nature that have been relied on for thousands of years to as many mamas as possible, Melinda Olson's formulas quickly grew into Earth Mama Organics. Since then, the brand has remained committed to manufacturing clean, safe and effective herbal solutions for the entire journey of motherhood, including pregnancy, breastfeeding and baby care, and even the loss of a baby.

Bravado Designs: Soothing sounds for a good night's sleep

With 28 years of serving pregnant and postpartum mamas under their belt, Bravado Designs is a true authority on the needs of changing bodies. It's true that we have them to thank for rescuing us from the uncomfortable and frumpy designs our own moms had to live with. Launched in Canada by two young mamas, they designed the first prototypes with extra leopard print fabric certain that a better bra was possible. Throughout the years they've maintained their commitment to ethical manufacturing while creating long-lasting products that truly work.

The Sill: Instagram-ready potted plants

We've long admired this female-founded brand and the brilliant mind behind it, Eliza Blank. (She even joined Motherly co-founder Liz Tenety on and episode of The Motherly Podcast!) The mission behind the business was simple: To make the process of bringing plants into your home as easy as possible, and as wonderful as the plant themselves. With their in-house, exclusively designed minimalist planters, the end result makes plant parenthood just a few clicks away.

Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

Keep reading Show less

10 photos to take on baby’s first day that you'll cherish forever

You'll obsess over these newborn baby pictures.

Bethany Menzel: Instagram + Blog

As you're preparing for baby's birth, we bet you're dreaming of all of the amazing photos you'll take of your precious new babe. As a professional photographer and mama, I have some tips for newborn photos you'll want to capture.

Here are the 10 photos you will want to take on baby's first day.

Keep reading Show less