Essential Toy Guide: Baby’s First Year

The best toy is still a cardboard box, but if you insist on having something in that box, here are some suggestions.

I will be updating these guides with additional toys over the next week based on your suggestions and a few more toys I have in mind (putting all this together takes a lot of time).

These are essential toys, the high value gender-neutral toys that your kids will enjoy and then later you’ll hand down to friends’ kids. These are not posh. They’re reality toys that you don’t have to mortgage your home to buy. Be sure to weigh in below with your opinion about other essential toys.

From Birth

Photo of Garden Bug Wrist Rattle and Foot Finder Set

Garden Bug Wrist Rattle/Foot Finder Set by Lamaze — Newborns don’t need toys, but you can placate your spouse by buying inexpensive rattles. This set gives you one for each limb. [review] $13.

Photo of the Dolphin & Fishes Activity Baby Gym Playmat

Dolphin and Fishes Activity Gym Mat by SoHo Designs — Any play mat will do, but I favor subdued tones over attention deficit color explosions. A newborn is learning to process all visual information, not just the artificial world of specific colors we try placing them into. An even better, but more time consuming option, is to use a textured blanket (ours has ridges like a Ruffles potato chip) and personally interact with your baby. $25.

Photo of the Rainbow Zebra cloth book.

Cloth books — You can’t start too early with reading to your baby. If your kid chews books, cloth is the way to go. It’s best to inspect these books in person at a physical store so you can assess whether they’re machine washable. Some books contain cardboard sewn inside or other elements not meant to be washed.

Many cloth books have counting or alphabet activities and not real stories. Our family’s favorite cloth stories are Rainbow Zebra, about accepting differences (sewn from fabric panels found at a cloth store), and Amadeus is Happy, about feelings (a fold-out pillow). Both are difficult to find online.

Six months

Photo of the LeapFrog Learn & Groove Musical Table

Learn & Groove Musical Table by LeapFrog — Activity tables primarily exist to occupy a baby’s attention (better than TV) and give the baby time practicing standing and balancing in place. With various buttons and switches, this one alternates between spoken words and musical notes, and has a switch for English or Spanish-only operation. There are two volume settings with the lower one being reasonably quiet. The legs can be removed for ground-level play.

If you’re familiar with previous incarnations of this table, know that the legs have been redesigned to be more tip-resistant, but every table is tippable. $40.

Photo of the Infantino Spiral Spin Top

Spiral Spin Top by Infantino — Babies love to Bam! Bam! and this one has a big payoff for pounding hands. $11.

Photo of Tupperware's Shape-O Toy.

Shape-O Toy by Tupperware — It’s a classic shape sorter, but at 6 months it’s a pick-up-and-bang ball. Opening the ball is difficult for a baby, but about the time he’s mastered fitting all 12 shapes into the ball, he’ll know how to open the ball himself. $12.50. The linked merchant is significantly less expensive than other retailers such as Amazon’s $27. As with any incredibly good deal, determine shipping costs before forking over your credit card.

9 months

Photo of the Sit-to-Stand Giraffe.

Sit-to-Stand Giraffe by Fisher-Price — A few years ago this toy was the Stand-up Ball Blast and my daughter loved it. She went crazy for it again at 4.5-years when we pulled it out for our 9-month-old son, although at 4.5 years it’s more of an adrenaline speed game.

The new version is redesigned as a giraffe, encouraging more independent standing and less leaning, although it can also be used in a seated position. Insert the three balls in the giraffe’s mouth, watch and hear them roll down the ramp and out the four holes at the base. Walk around the base to find the balls and start over again. A button on the giraffe’s head makes an appropriately annoying sound; just don’t insert batteries if it’s an issue. $13 at Toys R Us. Avoid Amazon’s independent merchant with its $53 price tag on this one.

Photo of Fisher Price Brilliant Basics Stacking Action Blocks

Brilliant Basics Stacking Action Blocks by Fisher Price — Each of these three blocks have things to turn or interact with, and then you push the top for automated movement. Stack the blocks and push the top and all of the blocks come alive. $16.50.

This toy guide is not finished! We need your expertise! Help other parents by posting a comment below with your suggestions for must-have toys that your child(ren) have loved. And if you have strong feelings about toys in this guide, or similar ones, share those thoughts too. Thank you!

And be sure to check out all of our toy guides:


9 Responses to “Essential Toy Guide: Baby’s First Year”

  1. lara says:

    Great suggestions. How about some wooden rattles such as the haba rattles.

    November 28th, 2008 at 6:27 am

  2. MIdge says:

    Are these your suggestions? They surprise me. Lots of plastic! We are trying to tend more toward the wooden and cloth toys. We’re LOVING the Oompa site you recommended in your cloth food post.

    November 28th, 2008 at 9:40 am

  3. AJ says:

    True observation Midge. I thought it might be an issue. Here are my thoughts about plastic:

    November 28th, 2008 at 10:42 am

  4. Jen says:

    big bouncy ball… the kind you can get at the store for $1 or 2… best toy ever for a baby!!!

    November 29th, 2008 at 3:26 pm

  5. MIdge says:

    Thanks for you thoughtful response regarding plastic. I always enjoy your reasoned posts on your blog!

    November 30th, 2008 at 7:31 am

  6. Andrew says:

    this is a really good guide/idea.

    as a possible addition, i would recommend the “symphony in motion” mobile. my 1-month old absolutely loves it. the mobile won “Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award and Parenting magazine’s Best Toy of the Year,”

    December 1st, 2008 at 12:09 am

  7. Andrew says:

    i realize retrospectively that the mobile may not fit into the theme of economical items…

    December 1st, 2008 at 1:00 am

  8. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    I highly recommend a Fisher-Price jumperoo. This was my son’s favorite toy (and a muscle builder) as long as he had it. He kept going over there and playing with the toys even when we would not let him inside.

    December 1st, 2008 at 9:42 am

  9. Nancy says:

    Similar to the giraffe, my boys love the Busy Ball Popper. My youngest is now 2, and just today he pushed the plunger and squealed with glee when a ball popped up. I think it’s rated for 9 months and up, though he was at least 1 before he really started to appreciate it.

    December 3rd, 2008 at 7:22 pm

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