Before babies crawl and walk, they have other important physical milestones to meet like rolling over, sitting up, and lifting up their heads and necks. In fact, nearly all of babies “moves” are predicated by his or her regular practice of tummy time.
What is tummy time and why is it important?
Tummy time is exactly what it sounds like, that is, any amount of time your baby spends in a prone (belly-down) position while awake and supervised.
Babies who don’t spend any time on their tummies can miss out on the important practice of lifting their heads against gravity and bearing weight with their arms—activities that strengthen the muscles of the neck, shoulders, arms, and belly. This physical development will eventually become crucial for babies to sit, roll, push up, and crawl.
Additionally, placing your baby on her belly for play will provide her with the opportunity to move from side-to-side, which can help with coordination, balance and postural control. As she gains these new motor skills and perspectives, she’ll become more confident and curious, which will encourage her to move and explore the world around her not to mention, prepare herself for crawling.
Like adults, infants need to experience a variety of positions throughout the day in order to maintain and develop healthy, functional bodies. Newborns who spend the majority of their time in car seats and lying on their backs can develop a misshapen or flattened head. This has only worsened in recent years due to the “Back to Sleep” campaign of the early 1990s, which recommended placing all sleeping babies on their backs. While this important practice significantly reduced the prevalence of sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS, (YAY!) it has introduced new concerns about infants’ head shape, not to mention early physical and motor development.
You can balance out the nighttime back sleeping with tummy time as well as baby wearing.
When do you start tummy time?
Tummy time can be started with healthy newborns on their first full day out of the womb, even before the umbilical cord has fallen off. The sooner you begin encouraging your baby to lie on her tummy, the more likely it is that she’ll accept this position as natural. An easy (and instinctual!) way to practice tummy time is by laying belly-to-belly as you do skin-to-skin bonding.
To get started, lie down on your back and place your newborn tummy-down on top of your soft belly, with your heads pointing in the same direction. Place your head on a pillow so that you’re able to easily gaze at your baby. Smile and speak softly. Your newborn will already have the reflex to lift her head slightly, and she will enjoy looking at your face and hearing the sound of your voice in this position. It’s a wonderful way to bond.
If your baby enjoys belly to belly tummy time, then try to lie her across your lap for a few minutes, patting and stroking her back or lifting your legs slowly up and down or side-to-side to soothe and calm her.
Eventually, place your baby belly-down on the floor for a few minutes at a time. This is best practiced on a clean floor, with a soft rug or blanket covering it.
How much tummy time is recommended?
Pediatricians recommend that parents or childcare providers start by placing alert infants to play on their tummies 2-3 times a day, for 3-5 minutes each time.
In early infancy, tummy time might only last a few minutes before your baby becomes sleepy or begins to fuss. Don’t force a fussy baby to endure time on their tummy. Instead, provide her with more frequent, shorter sessions on her tummy. If your baby becomes sleepy, always place her on her back to nap.
Increase the amount of time and the frequency of tummy time as your baby shows more interest in playing belly-down. By 3-4 months, try for around 20 minutes of tummy time a day. If your baby is content and alert, allow her to stay on her tummy as long as she likes, working up to 40-60 total daily minutes.
By the time your baby has the strength and coordination to roll over (at 4-6 months), she’ll be trying out tummy time all on her own.
What if my baby hates it?
Many babies are initially resistant to the new position and perspective of being belly-down on the floor. If your baby fusses when you start tummy time on the floor, try comforting her by returning to a position on your belly or lap, reminding him that he’s safe and secure on his tummy.
Remember, more than anything, babies crave emotional connection and interaction with their parents, so be sure to help your baby along during tummy time by getting down on her level and interacting with her in a loving, stimulating way.
Avoid putting babies on their tummies if they’ve just eaten or if they are gassy or irritable.The pressure on their belly will, understandably, be uncomfortable. This is especially true for babies who have colic or acid reflux. Be especially sensitive to their unique needs. Do tummy time just after your baby wakes from a nap or directly after a diaper change. You also want to avoid at the end of the day or during the witching hour time.
How to make tummy time fun
Toys and play mats designed for tummy time make it more fun for the baby, with patterns, colors, textures, and mirrors for her to look at, reach for, and interact with.
Babies love texture, and by placing your baby on a simple soft surface, like this natural blanket, she’ll be able to enjoy its texture by moving her arms and legs over it. Try dressing your baby in a onesie with her legs uncovered so she can have a stimulating tactile experience.
Other play mats are specifically designed with tummy time in mind: This owl tummy time mat is colorful and textured with detachable toys to encourage your baby to reach and play while she’s on her belly. The U-shaped pillow is also detachable, and can be used to prop up your baby’s chest.
Consider placing a few interesting toys just out of reach of your baby while she’s on her tummy. Baby mirrors, like this one, can be easily stood up, allowing babies to gaze at themselves and interact as they learn to lift their heads with more strength and control.
10 best tips for tummy time success
- Start early – Newborns can seem so fragile in their early days that some first-time parents feel nervous to handle them too much 🙂 But you have the amazing opportunity to introduce your newborn to the wonders of her new life on land by giving them belly-to-belly tummy time with you in their first days of life.
- Make tummy time a bonding time – Especially while your baby is having tummy time on your body, sing to her, talk to her, make eye contact and enjoy this special moment of growing and learning together. She’ll love smelling your skin and the warmth of your body on hers. When she moves to the floor for tummy time, go with her.
- It’s for the whole family – Partners, dads, siblings, and grandparents can participate in the bonding, too by placing baby on their bodies or lying down on the floor while baby has tummy time there.
- Get on her level – Babies will be more interested in floor time on their tummies if their loved-ones are nearby. Your baby will naturally look for your face and turn her head toward the sound of your voice, thus encouraging her to build strength.
- Introduce texture – Textured mats, sheepskin rugs, or soft blankets will provide interesting tactile stimulation, something babies crave.
- Stimulate your baby’s senses – In addition to stimulating her sense of touch, engage your baby with colorful mats and toys, as well as by singing and talking to her throughout play.
- Take it slow – If your baby doesn’t like staying on her tummy for an extended time, give her very short experiences that introduce her to the activity. Build slowly from there.
- Timing is everything – Remember that lying belly-down with a gassy or full tummy would be uncomfortable for anyone. And if your baby is already sleepy or fussy, it’s best to hold off on tummy time until she’s rested. Try it just after a nap or a diaper change, and avoid classically fussy times of day. (Looking at you, witching hour.)
- Consider side lying – An alternative to tummy time (if your baby doesn’t tolerate being on her stomach) is placing your baby on a blanket on her side. Support her back with a rolled towel and her head (if needed) with a folded washcloth. Allow her arms and legs to be in front of her, and play with her in this position. While side lying may not give the same kind of strength training as belly-down play, it allows for important position changes and supports development and motor skills in other ways.
- Don’t stress it – You may be doing everything right, but your baby just doesn’t like being placed on her tummy. That’s okay, too. Babies who refuse tummy time still grow to sit up, crawl, and walk like their peers.
Is tummy time for every baby?
Some mothers may not like the idea of pushing their babies toward developmental goals with regimented daily tummy time. Recent evidence suggests that babies who get regular tummy time don’t necessarily reach developmental milestones, like rolling over, before their peers. Unless significantly hindered, all babies will move toward motor and physical development in their first year of life.
What’s essential is that your baby gets a variety of movement and perspectives throughout her day in order to grow and develop properly. Tummy time is a healthy component of this practice. Be mindful, however, of keeping your baby in any one position for too long, including in your arms or in a baby carrier.
Be assured that your loving encouragement and engagement will promote growth and development more than any single body position or exercise.
As always, special care should be given to babies with health concerns. Babies born premature, with reflux disease or colic may not be suited for tummy time. Always check with your pediatrician about what is right for your baby’s specific needs.
Changes you may notice from tummy time
You’ll be amazed at the leaps in development your baby experiences during the first year of her life as she learns to reach, develop better hand-eye coordination, roll over, and eventually crawl. Start slow, build your way up, and your baby will be a tummy time pro before you know it!
How about you?
What are your experiences with tummy time? Did your baby take to it immediately, or did they have to warm up to? What are your best tips for making tummy time fun?