Supporting your Baby’s Early Learning Development at Home

No two babies are affected in the same way by hydrocephalus and spina bifida and each one is unique and individual. With this in mind, new parents need to give their baby all the experiences that will help them to become the best that they can be with their unique condition.

Learning through Play

It’s never too early to play… unless it’s at 5am!

When you are a new parent, your baby is getting to know you and you are learning about them.

As you get to know your baby you will find out about their individual qualities, what they enjoy, what soothes them and what helps them to develop and to learn.

Remember to use lots of verbal communication and singing when caring for and playing with your baby. At first, it will seem like a one-way conversation but soon your baby will vocalise in response. Playing noisy and facial expression copying games with your baby develops communication skills. Then the interaction really gets going.

The Communication Trust provides a help sheet called Talking to Parents about Talk with ideas and advice for parents to encourage communication.

Words for Life is a good website to get communication ideas, along with songs, rhymes and books to read with your baby. Follow the links listed below for a wide range of lively ideas.

Link to film:

Link to songs:

Link to Words for Life – Talk to your baby: 

It’s Playtime!

Giving your child the building blocks for learning and independence

Like all children, our babies with spina bifida or hydrocephalus need to develop, learn and practise skills through play. Babies and children learn through experience and the stimulation of their senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell and movement.

It is through play that babies and small children ‘learn how to learn’ so they can build up the skills needed for independent life. The important abilities learnt as a baby or small child are transferable skills for use throughout the rest of a person’s life. Once these abilities are learned, they are in a child’s skills bank for later on in life.

When your child has additional needs, the time to play can be difficult to find. Play is often squashed between hospital appointments and medical treatment but play can be just as important as therapies and procedures for a child’s cognitive development.

Play nourishes every aspect of your child’s development and forms the foundation of cognitive, physical, sensory, social and emotional skills that are vital for success in school and in life.

Learning to Think, the first 6 months: Follow the link here for play ideas. 

Play is more important than you might think - play activities, which provide positive challenge, can minimize the possible effects of hydrocephalus.

Play paves the way for learning by building up social and emotional skills too.

  • Communication and social skills
  • Understanding of social rules and friendship
  • Developing a sense of ‘give and take’, partnership and teamwork
  • Gaining patience and perseverance
  • Empathy and understanding of others
  • Initiating and taking a lead rather than being passive, as some children with spina bifida can be.

Quick tips for play

Play takes many forms:

Physical play

such as exploring, climbing, rolling, ball games

Sensory play

like experimenting with water, sand and clay

Social play

games and turn-taking, like Peek-a-boo and ‘What time is it, Mr Wolf?’

Communication play

like singing, looking at books, rhymes and stories

Creative play

painting, colouring and sticking

Imaginative play

dressing up and ‘being’ a character, making up stories with toys

Construction play

building and making models with construction toys


Make sure your child has all these play experiences during the week.

A weekly play timetable

Helps you and your child get into a routine of play activities.

A range of play activities

Helps you to find out what type of play your child enjoys and what they don’t like.

Encourage your child to try play activities

They find less interesting in order to build their skills in play activities that they find less attractive.

Learning how to play

Children with spina bifida or hydrocephalus may take longer to learn how to play, due to issues around initiating and deciding. If you notice that your child may not 'just play' they may need more encouragement than a child unaffected by the condition to engage in play.

Parents and carers are advised to play alongside their child and to model the type of play that they would expect when playing with toys. If a child has a shape sorter toy then they will need to be shown repeatedly how to play with the components, receiving praise whenever they are successful.

Talking through the activity will give your child a language model as well as a physical model of how to play.

Tummy time


It is important for all babies to experience different positions for play, such as on the floor, on your knee or on their tummy. Babies, especially if they have additional needs, should experience the world from more than just a sitting position

Bouncing cradles, car seats and high chairs put babies in the same seated position for most of the day so it is vital that babies move around freely as much as possible.

If your baby has difficulty holding up their head, you can place a wedge or rolled up towel under them for Tummy Time. 

Encourage rolling by putting their favourite toy just out of reach at the side so your baby turns their head and brings their arm across. Ensure you encourage rolling towards both sides in a safe area. 



Knowing where your body is or having body awareness is proprioception, which is so important for learning gross motor and fine motor skills as well as establishing depth perception, sometimes a difficulty for children with hydrocephalus.

Play helps to develop your baby’s vestibular system, which tells a child about their head position related to gravity so they know which way is up. It has a vital role in allowing children to move safely, pay attention, sit still and maintain an appropriate level of alertness for daily play activities.

Playing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ singing game every day during nappy changing and bath times helps a baby to recognise their body. This is especially important if your baby has little or limited sensation in part of their body due to their neurological condition. This understanding of their own body is really important for independent self-care as a child grows up.

Education is Movement and Movement is Education

Independent mobility is an important factor in a child’s physical, cognitive, sensory, emotional and social development. Babies should be actively exploring their environment by 12 months.

If your baby has additional needs then being able to move independently and interact with their world can keep the effects of their neurological condition to a minimum.

Mobility is not just walking; rolling, crawling, using a mobility aid or self-propelled wheelchair are all ways of offering independence. Your therapist should provide advice on this.

For more information about Proprioception and Vestibular training follow the links to these websites and to the book ‘A Moving Child is a Learning Child’

Toys, toys, toys!

It is not necessary for children to be surrounded by expensive toys in order to play.

  • A large cardboard box can become an excellent playhouse, a pretend boat or a dolls house.
  • A bowl of water, plastic cups and a large clean paintbrush can encourage a child to pour water and to ‘paint’ outside on walls and paths.
  • Cooking and baking is a fantastic activity for practising counting, weighing and learning the concepts of ‘more’ and ‘less’.

Play routine

Avoid putting out all the toys a child has to play with. Instead, have a routine of different types of play, using a range of toys.

You may wish to have a timetable, calendar or diary to maintain your child’s play routine. Then you can see if your child is experiencing all types of play activities to minimise any risk of having gaps in their play development.

A play calendar is available to download here.

Choosing toys and games for a child with hydrocephalus or spina bifida

Pop-up toys, which demand 'cause and effect' play, are suitable for children who may have difficulties with Prospective memory, which is often described as ‘Remembering to Remember’.

Predicting or anticipating games like Peek-a-boo and Round and Round the Garden rhymes are all helpful for children with spina bifida or hydrocephalus, who often have difficulty with prospective memory.

Some children can be very passive in their play where they don't initiate, partly because they don't anticipate anything will happen. Opportunities to experience toys and games that enhance their prospective memory can be very useful.

Toys that develop and improve spatial skills are important for children with spina bifida or hydrocephalus. Some children with these conditions have difficulties with spatial skills so they need experience of handling, investigating and building with a range of objects.

See: Ten tips for improving spatial skills in children and young people.

Be gender-free in your choice of toys and activities

Traditional ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ toys can lead to children missing out on types of play which can enable them to overcome some difficulties associated with hydrocephalus.

Girls are often missing out on construction-type play, which can hinder their developing spatial, 3D planning and early maths skills.

Boys can miss out on imaginative play through having little experience of play house games with teddies or dolls. Boys benefit from play involving daily routine, which helps with sequencing skills and understanding the feelings of others.

Gender-neutral toys that support your child’s learning

  • has lists of recommended gender-free toys.
  • NDNA has Gender-neutral play opportunities. 


No Limits!

There are no limits to what your baby can learn to do. Given the right opportunities, your baby will amaze you. Your baby can achieve many things and reach many milestones given encouragement, adaptation, organisation and challenges.

Helpful Resources

Scope has play ideas for babies and children who may have mobility difficulties.

Cerebra’s postal toy lending library is free to parents who sign up.

Local Toy libraries – check on your Local Offer for your area

Free play resources and therapy pods for babies and children with disabilities can be borrowed from New Life Foundation.

Free equipment for children with complex needs to borrow or buy from New Life Foundation.

Disability Grants offers advice on toys for babies and children with additional needs.

Pre-school Play Postcards to download.

Top 10 Toys advice from I Can charity.

Sense charity has a series of booklets to download providing play advice for children with sensory impairments.

Need more help?

If you need to speak with one of Shine’s specialist advisers about spina bifida or hydrocephalus, call us on 01733 555988 or click here to email us.

Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. We aim to respond to all enquiries as quickly as possible!

Donate Become a member