You can call it an activity mat or a play mat but either way it is one of the must-have essentials for your little one. There are so many different types, you will not find it hard to find one to suit your family and your home.
Play mats provide a portable, safe and stimulating environment for a young child that is much less hazardous than the floor. With the latest non toxic and eco friendly activity mats, you can even provide an organic and hypoallergenic environment for your little baby. Our guide sets out everything you need to know to get the most out of your baby play mat.
What is a play mat?
Play mats are essentially flat foam or padded fabric surfaces where it is safe for a baby to play. Activity mats are available in a range of designs. Some can be washed in a washing machine and others can be wiped clean. Many parents couple the mat with an activity gym for their baby. This is a wooden or plastic arch structure with toys suspended from it. You could also purchase a baby play gym that combines the dangling toys with the play mat.
What are the benefits of using a play mat for babies?
A baby play gym is not just about having fun. Here are the main benefits that they bring.
They are a safe and hygienic place to play
Floors are never going to be the cleanest place in the house. Babies are very vulnerable to household germs because their immune system has not yet developed. A play mat provides an area that you can keep free from dust, germs and dirt. They also provide a soft and supportive surface for your baby to practice moving around.
They are portable
If you are planning on visiting a friend's house or even the park, taking your baby with you is no problem because you can take the mat as well. It's a portable play area that's easy to fold up and lightweight enough to carry around.
They encourage hand eye coordination
A play mat can help with developing hand eye coordination by encouraging your baby to reach, grab and point. This helps to train the brain to use visual information from the eyes to guide the actions of the hands. The process starts at about one or two months as a baby realises that their hands are part of their body.
They encourage motor skills
Grasping is one of the fine motor skills and one of the important development milestones that babies reach. At between three and five months, the dangling toys in a play gym encourage babies to try to reach out and grasp them.
They help cognitive development
The best way to help with cognitive development is to keep your baby busy. A play mat is perfect for this because it has plenty of lights, colours, textures and sounds for your baby to interact with.
They are useful for muscle development
When you first place a baby on their tummy on the mat, they start to use their neck and shoulder muscles which makes them stronger. Your baby needs muscle strength to enable them to roll over and eventually crawl and sit up. A mat encourages movement and this strengthens the muscles.
From what age can babies use play mats?
Because these are some of the most versatile baby products you can get, they provide different benefits at different ages. You can start using play gyms as soon as your little baby is happy to lie flat without being held.
- Newborn babies. From day one, your play mat is a safe area for your baby to chill out for short periods of time whilst your arms have a break! Your baby will enjoy the movement of dangling toys from the baby gym. Because babies cannot see too far in the distance, the toys need to be quite close to their face.
- 3 months. This is when your baby will get the most from the play mat. You can place them on their tummy on the mat for short periods and they will start to explore.
- 4 months. Around this age, your baby will start to roll over and the play mat is a safe place for them to practice this new skill!
- 6 months. Your baby will be moving around the mat and reaching for toys. They will probably pull themselves onto all fours in readiness for crawling.
- 9 months and above. By this age, your baby will probably be crawling off the mat! They will think that the play gym is boring and they will be off to explore the rest of the house. However, by introducing new toys and activities onto the mat, you should be able to retain their interest for a few more months.
Ideas for baby play mat activities
Are you running out of ideas for baby play time on the mat? We've got some great ideas for parents to try with their little ones.
Tummy time simply involves placing your baby on their tummy on the mat. Do this for short periods to start with (just a minute or so) because not all babies like it at first. Put some toys within easy reach or try singing or interacting with your baby.
Interactive baby play gym
Play gyms have dangling toys that often make sounds and have different colours and shapes. Encourage your baby to interact with the toys by moving them around yourself. Sing and talk to your baby and try taking off one of the toys and putting it in their hand.
Once your baby learns to roll, there are loads of movement games that you can try that are a fun way to encourage movement. Move toys from one side to another. Put them close to your baby, then move them away and back again. Give your baby a round of applause when they roll over.
Give your baby some time on their side and on their back too because once they start to move, they could find themselves in any of these positions and this can come as quite a surprise!
Baby moves - NHS