We asked parents and experts for advice on what to wrap up for babies this year. Here are their favorite ideas and things to avoid.
What are the characteristics of a good toy for babies? “They’re safe with no small parts or pieces that can be easily broken off. They’re age-appropriate—too complicated may frustrate Baby, and those that are too simple may bore her. And last, choose educational toys that require active involvement so babies can learn from playing and experimenting with them,” says Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. With that said, here we go…
The Best Gifts for Babies
Photos: Babies love pictures of people, especially those they know. For a great gift, put together a small photo album with pictures of family and friends to flip through before bedtime. Or get more creative. “Here’s an idea for grandparents or other relatives living far away. Make a book with photos of their home, pets, and themselves doing their favorite activities,” suggests Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, of the Becoming Babywise series. “Include photos of themselves with the child and if possible, even add a few shots of the child’s parent as a baby.”
Blocks: There are tons of blocks available these days but we especially like wooden blocks, soft fabric nesting blocks, or the BPA-free plastic versions. And we’re not alone. “Soft blocks, those made of sturdy cardboard like material, or nesting blocks, were used over and over and over again in our house,” says Kate, a mother of three boys in Ohio. “They were counted, sorted, and repurposed a thousand times over. Your baby can also learn his or her colors, numbers, and alphabet with a good set of blocks.”
Clothes: “To me, the best gifts for babies are clothes,” says Kate, a mother of two from New York. “Also you tend to get a lot of newborn sizes when you have a baby, but then don’t have much for later in the year. It’s best to ask the parents what size the babies are or what size they think they’ll be next season because those that are bigger or smaller than average might wear a different size than you think, for example my 5-month-old practically fits in 12 month clothing. I’ve gotten lots of clothes from well-meaning relatives that my kids won’t be able to wear for years, or won’t fit during the appropriate season.” Emily, mother of Maris in Massachusetts adds, “I liked getting simple clothes, specifically layering pieces in bigger-than-needed sizes … it’s always nice to be prepared! Well-made shoes in bigger sizes are great to have on hand, too.”
Music: “From a very early age my kids received CDs to listen too,” says Kate. “Some were accompanied by books about the orchestra or instruments that we were able to read to them later, but my oldest was listening to ‘Peter and the Wolf’ by 6 months. Good music is incredibly stimulating for kids.” Just make sure it doesn’t drive adults crazy. Lots of popular bands have introduced children’s albums and a few we’d recommend are Bare Naked Ladies, Jack Johnson, and the Rockabye Baby! Lullaby series. Music can come in other forms too. Cori, mother of two with another on the way in Rome, Italy, suggests musical toys such as books, animals, or objects that include music, but cautions against anything too loud for baby’s sensitive ears.
Cash or a Savings Contribution: Clothes and toys may come and go but an investment for the future is always a winner. Great choices are cash, contributions to a custodian account or a 529 college savings plan. Narissa, mother of two with another on the way in New York, also suggests stocks. “We bought our kids Disney stock and add to it each year (grandparents could do that too),” she says. “It’s not like kids are ever short on gifts. It doesn’t sound too romantic or cute but when it’s time for college they will be glad for them!”
Books: It’s hard to go wrong with reading to a child, so we recommend books every time. “There are so many spectacular classics out there and now that they come in sturdy board book versions they can be used over and over again for the same child and then subsequent siblings,” says Kate from Ohio. Looking for a place to start? The highest rated books for kids under 2 years on Amazon.com are: Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, and The Monster at the End of This Book (Big Bird’s Favorites Board Books) by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin. Just be sure to include a gift receipt in case your selection is already a family favorite. (Here are 14 more great books for Baby.)
Cultural Cues and Special Experiences: “I love gifts that give a nod to the child’s culture,” says Marie, mother of Lex with another on the way in Massachusetts. “For example, my son is half Italian and more Italian language CDs or books for kids would be great.” Instead of tangible gifts, an outing is often appreciated instead. Marie adds that playground or pool passes are fabulous. And the Ezzos have another suggestion for grandparents or other family members in the area. “For those who live close by, establish a ‘Grandparent Day’ or morning that includes regularly planned special time with the baby such as going to the park, for a walk, to the zoo or a children’s museum,” she adds.
Strategic Entertainment: This works as well for babies as it does for parents. Heather, mother of three boys in Washington, suggests toys with the ability to keep babies busy. “As my babies grew, I always loved portable toys that would keep them entertained in the car as I ran errands, those that were not too loud!” she says. “As they were getting more mobile, I liked the toys that they could sit in while I was cooking dinner that would entertain them, but not let them walk around the house and get into trouble while I was distracted with my chores.”
More quick but great ideas include:
- Gift certificate for photo shoots of kids
- Walkers or sturdy mini-strollers
- Wagon to teach the baby to walk and that she can use to pile all her toys
- Cookbooks for healthy baby food
- Personalized presents. Even though Baby won’t appreciate it now, it’s good for him to hear or see his own name as often as possible. And as he grows he’ll learn how special this gift is.
The Worst Gifts for Babies
Anything Too Easy or Too Difficult: “Avoid the wrong toy for the age of a child”, says Dr. Ari Brown, author of Baby 411. “Even if your child is a prodigy, it’s a good idea to follow the intended-age use for a product. Otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for potential injury.” Plus it’s plain frustrating for kids to get excited about a toy then not be able to enjoy it because it’s just too hard.
DVDs: “TV is not a universal thing, and it’s a little political,” says Emily, a mom in Boston. “Some parents try to abide by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of ‘no TV before 2.’ So this is like sending steaks to someone who might just be a vegetarian.”
Messy Toys: At this age paint sets, for example, might not be welcome by parents or appreciated by babies. Most young children under 12 months lack the attention span and dexterity needed to complete a project, especially on the surface where you’d like them to paint, instead of your walls. “Anything messy including art stuff is to be avoided,” says Tami, mother of two in New York. “If you want a creative gift, stick with crayons (not markers), doodle pads, and stuff like that.”
Fill-in-the-Blank Baby Books: Sometimes a great idea can turn into a nagging, I-should-get-to-that sensation for even the most well-intending parents. Instead of letting these pile up on the shelves, says Cori in Italy, let parents choose these kinds of keepsakes on their own.
Bargain Brands: Everyone loves a good deal but if something falls to pieces immediately, it’s hardly a great value. From stacking blocks to strollers, savvy parents will appreciate an investment in equipment that will not only last but be helpful along the way. Plus, these days many parents are picky about the materials used and even where the item is made, says Emily. When in doubt, it’s best to go with non-toxic materials from reputable brands produced locally.
Loud Toys: “Plastic toys that make a lot of noise are the worst,” says Cori. “Even though the children tend to like these, they drive parents crazy. Also, they could be over-stimulating for the baby.” It’s even more dangerous when you consider that babies play with things close to their faces, points out Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution.
Denise and Alan Fields, authors of Baby Bargains, add another factor. “Some toys are intended for ‘outdoor use only.’ This is the secret code that means, this toy is really loud. Prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 decibels or higher can cause hearing damage.” When in doubt, skip anything that seems to overdo it.
Small Pieces: Not only are small pieces a safety hazard, they can really be a pain. Marie in Massachusetts says she dreads toys with lots of small pieces to pick up. At the end of the day, it’s the last thing a parent wants to deal with.
Anything Huge: On the other hand, many families, especially urban dwellers, live in small spaces. This means anything oversized might be out. “We live in New York City and my father in-law bought my daughter a rocking horse, a huge rocking horse,” says Tami. “And she doesn’t even like it because it scares her.” If you have a big gift in mind for a baby, just touch with the parents ahead of time.
Stuffed Animals: It’s the most mentioned item on our what-not-to-do list. “I was always leery of giving or receiving stuffed animals,” says Kate in Cleveland. “While a few are great and the boys loved to cuddle with them, after they had run their course you couldn’t do anything but throw them out. I have yet to hear of a charitable organization that will accept a donation of stuffed animals.”
What to Look for in Baby Toys
Instead of wasting money on things that won’t work out, says Pantley, look for these qualities as you shop for your baby:
- Long-term play value: Will this hold your little one’s attention for more than a few weeks?
- Durability: Will it hold up when sat on, thrown, jumped on, mouthed, or banged?
- Solid simplicity: Babies don’t need complicated toys.
- Challenge: Look for toys that teach but do not frustrate.
- Appropriateness. Does it match your baby’s thinking, language, and motor skills?
- Interest: Will it encourage your baby to think?
- Stimulation: How does this toy foster creativity and imagination?
- Interactiveness: Does it engage your child or just entertain him as he watches passively?
- Versatility: Can your baby play with this in more than one way?
- Washability: Well-loved toys tend to get very dirty!
- Fit with your family value system: Does this toy reflect your family’s values? For example, is the toy friendly to the environment? Does it promote diversity? Are you comfortable with what the toy represents?
- Novelty: Is this toy different from others your baby already has? You don’t want a toy box filled with 30 different kinds of rattles!
- Fun appeal: Is it something that you will enjoy playing with, too? Toys that encourage you to play along with your baby are ideal.