My two babies have one thing in common that they don't share with me. Some of their first toys were software apps on mobile devices that are more powerful than the computers that took Neil Armstrong to the moon.
When I was born, about the cleverest digital object that fit in your pocket was a calculator. Though I was smart, there's not much math to be done while you're still toddling.
If you like to sit with your baby and use your phone or tablet for a little educational play, then you'll enjoy Sparkabilities Babies 1 HD. It's a $5.49 app aimed at babies from 3 months up, and the interface is simple enough that older babies will be able to play by themselves.
The app is split into two parts. The Movies part has a set of prearranged clips about a minute long, each with a rough theme like "dog" or "circles." Each movie contains colourful graphics, sound effects and video inserts of things like babies laughing. There's repetition, and dynamic use of colours, shapes, numbers, music and noises.
Younger babies will like the rapid-fire scene changes, and older babies can be told what the colours are and how to count. That's where the second half of the app, Slides, comes in. It takes the elements of each movie and makes them a bit interactive, so you have to touch the screen for the next event to happen. This part may help you teach your children in a fun way, if you take the time to work with the app.
Sometimes you just need five minutes of calm while your baby settles down, so try Talking Tom Cat (free on iOS and Android). It's a simple animated cat that reacts to screen touches by yowling, making silly noises, falling over and so on. It's noisy, cute and teaches your babies about interactive graphics — certain to be a big part of their lives. Both my children loved it for the sound effects even before they could really understand what was happening. The touch areas are large enough to react to clumsy baby fingers, too.
The maker of this app, Outfit7, has a whole range of similar ones, including a dancing robot and a tweeting bird, whose special effect is being zapped by lightning. Though these apps have given my home many calm-baby hours, the one nuisance is the repeated "upgrade" prompt that encourages you to buy the full app. It annoyed the children, too, until they worked out how to press cancel. I did eventually buy several of the apps, which stopped the prompts.
For a more sophisticated app with more complex interactivity for older babies, the Moogies ($0.99 on iOS) is a great option. It's largely for fun, though it does have a number-based start page to help teach numbers. Pressing on a number takes you to a different room in the Moogies' "house" and each has an interactive scene to play with.
Think of it as a children's cartoon that reacts to finger taps on the screen. Touching the trumpeting chicken's trumpet elicits a toot, tapping the pig in the bathtub makes him dive or giggle, swiping the rubber duck produces a squeak, and so on.
It contains enough surprises and hidden features that your children will keep going back to it. The app says it's aimed at 2- to 4-year-olds, but my son has loved it since he was just more than 1.
Apps can even replace a baby rattle. While it may sound crazy to give a tiny, dribbling tot a smartphone worth hundreds of dollars, you never know when you'll need to pacify a child with no toys at hand. Try Baby Rattle Toy ($1.99) – it's got colours and tappable shapes on screen, and it reacts to shakes as it should. It also has a child lock so your baby can't accidentally make calls or easily exit the app.
For bedtime, there are many options out there. Lullaby!, a $0.99 iOS app, is a great bet. It's all about soothing your child to sleep with quiet versions of classic songs, and it includes a sleep timer and an alarm clock. It also has a soundboard, great for amusing babies with calming noises before bed — older babies can probably enjoy this alone.
If your baby's not into music, try the pink or white noise generator on the board. It sounds odd, but noises like this have done wonders in my home. Lullaby for Babies is a similar Android app, but it's free and thus much simpler, with only a handful of songs. It's still pretty soothing, though.
I've found it best to think of the hundreds of baby-centric apps as sophisticated tactile toys for the 21st century. I'll also add one bit of advice: move your TV. As soon as they could walk, my babies, familiar with touch screens, tried to jab at its screen to get it to do things for them.
The New York Times