When my son was born in 2012, his doctors and nurses gave very clear instructions for him to sleep on his back to prevent SIDS. These instructions are, of course, entirely appropriate. I never received any information, however, on the importance of my son spending awaken time on his tummy—i.e., “tummy time.”
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I felt fortunate that I knew enough about infant motor development to start tummy time on the first day of my son’s life. I also knew, from my work, that many parents wait to start tummy time until one-three months of age, only to realize that their babies HATE tummy time…and thus, the tummy time saga begins.
I’m here to tell you 1) that tummy time is worth the effort, and 2) how to get the most out of it.
Why Your Baby Needs Tummy Time
Each baby develops motor skills at her own rate, but allowing ample opportunity for tummy time is key for a baby to develop age-appropriate motor skills. Tummy time develops upper body, neck and trunk muscles, which build the foundation for the milestones of rolling over, sitting, crawling, pulling to stand and the ability to get into and out of these positions. It also develops the arches of the hands, which is helpful for later fine motor skill development. For example, development of the arches of the hands is essential for a young child to hold a pencil correctly and manipulate objects in her hands. And tummy time helps to prevent a flat spot on the back of a baby’s head.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that tummy time is unquestionably good for your baby on many levels.
When and How To Provide Tummy Time
So, you say, tummy time sounds great, but when and how do I do it? Quick answer: early, often and with lots of variety.
Babies can begin tummy time as soon as they are born and continue to benefit from it until they are independent movers. Some therapists recommend that infants spend half of their awaken time on their tummy. When considering the time an infant spends feeding, bathing, sitting in a car seat, and held by adults, that is probably an unreasonable goal, but the idea is legitimate—with tummy time you’re not likely to over do it. At any time your infant is awake, feel free to take her out of her swing or bouncy seat and do some tummy time.
There’s really no secret rule for tummy time best practices. The best rule of thumb is variety. But here’s one secret: tummy time doesn’t necessarily mean leaving your baby on the floor to flail on her stomach. Tummy time can be a very interactive (and fun!) activity between an infant and a caregiver. Try starting with your baby on your chest while you are lying on the floor or a bed (hold your baby on her back or bottom so she is secure) and enjoy some bonding time. Or try starting with your baby on her back and help her transition into a side-lying position and then onto her stomach. Side-lying is a great position for a baby who does not tolerate tummy time yet. It is also a great position for babies to interact with toys because the baby’s head and body are supported, and the baby’s hands are free to reach for toys.
Babies are most interested in interacting with faces. Take advantage of this by getting on the floor with your baby. If your baby cries when she is on her belly, instead of picking her up, try rolling her to her side to take a short break from tummy time. Babies also love movement and hearing your voice. Try walking around your home with your baby in a supported airplane position while talking or singing to her. You can also put your baby across your lap with one of your legs higher than the other and bounce your legs gently up and down while holding your baby securely on her bottom.
One of the reasons that a baby is uncomfortable on her belly is that she may not yet be able to lift her head and may feel stuck. In response, you can help her learn to shift her weight back by putting your hand firmly on her bottom, which will take some of the weight off of her head. With more practice, she will eventually learn to do this on her own.
Some important things to remember: 1) make sure the floor-surface is firm without extra cushioning or blankets under your baby, and 2) during tummy time, your baby needs to be awake and directly supervised at all times.
I hope you can begin to think of tummy time as a special experience with your baby and learn to make it enjoyable. Getting on the floor and playing with your baby can be one of the most valuable and beneficial activities of your baby’s day!
Rachel Fleming is a pediatric occupational therapist and owner of The Therapy Nest, a private, full-service occupational therapy clinic and sensory gym. Rachel is passionate about helping children of all ages be successful in their daily occupations. She is also passionate about teaching parents how to have fun on the floor with their baby and build success with tummy time. Rachel lives in Rye with her husband and 2 young children.