If you have an infant, you have surely heard of the importance of ‘tummy time’ over and over again. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends putting infants on their tummy a few times each day, beginning when they are discharged from the hospital, and steadily increasing the duration of tummy time so that your baby spends at least 15 to 30 minutes each day on their tummy by 7 weeks of age.
Why does my baby need tummy time? What are the benefits of doing tummy time? When should I begin doing tummy time?
Tummy time is very important for your baby’s development for a multitude of reasons including:
- the development of upper body and core strength,
- encouraging gross motor development to meet milestones such as rolling over, sitting up, and crawling,
- helping to prevent and reduce the risk of temporary skull deformities and positional conditions such as plagiocephaly and torticollis,
- encouraging the development of sensory integration and problem solving skills.
Some babies enjoy tummy time from the very beginning, while others really dislike being on their tummy, sometimes making it difficult to continue to do so. It’s never easy to hear our babies cry. There’s a lot of important development happening during tummy time though, and finding a way to encourage your baby to spend time on their tummies will really pay dividends when it comes to your child’s development and meeting appropriate gross motor milestones.
First things first, you should always closely supervise your baby during awake tummy time, and in the event your baby falls asleep, be sure to promptly turn them onto their backs and place them in their safe sleep space. It is best to try putting your baby on their tummy a couple times daily, even if they fuss during it, or will only tolerate it for brief periods of time at first.
Choose a time of day where the baby is well-rested and has the energy that tummy time practice requires. Try choosing a time that is at least 10 minutes after the baby wakes up from a nap, and at least 30 minutes prior to their next rest time. Make sure to also wait 15-20 minutes after feedings so milk has time to digest and does not come back up during tummy time. Creating a routine with your baby is a powerful tool and the repeated exposure of spending time each day on their tummy will help familiarize your baby with using those muscles. It will get easier and easier to tolerate as your baby practices each day. So pick a few times daily that you can build into your routine such as before each bottle, or after your first and last diaper changes of the day.
Set the baby down on the floor or other flat surface on their tummy. If your baby is really upset by being flat, you can try using a slightly inclined surface, or providing them with a bit of support. For example, roll up a small towel or receiving blanket and place it under your baby’s sternum. The blanket will do some of the work for the baby, while encouraging them to pick up their head a bit independently. You can also try doing this with a u-shaped pillow such as the Boppy pillow. Position your baby so that the upper half of their body is at the midpoint of the pillow. This puts them at a bit of an incline, which can sometimes be more comfortable, while also providing support to make the exercise a bit easier for them. It also gives your baby a bit of a different view point, which is sometimes all they need to decide this is an acceptable activity after all.
Once you have set the baby down either on a flat or inclined surface that you are closely monitoring, get down on their level. It’s important to remember that an infant can only see between 8 and 12 inches from their eyes for the first few months. Setting them down on the ground and outside of their ability to see you can be overwhelming for them. One way to make tummy time more interesting is to make the environment more interesting or get down on their level! This is a great job to give to the baby’s big sister or brother as well if you have more than one child. Tummy time is also a great bonding time for the caregiver that did not just give birth, as getting on the floor might be challenging for a newly postpartum parent. Some other ideas for entertaining your baby during tummy time include utilizing contrast by offering black and white objects to look at, get your baby curious about noises by putting something crinkly underneath them so when they move, they hear the noise, offering different textures to explore by touch. You can do this with either a sensory mat or toy, or just pick a few items you have at home and let your baby explore them.
Another alternative to try if getting on the floor is difficult or your floor space is limited, is doing tummy time on a tabletop or counter level. For this method, lay down a blanket, or use a flat surface such as a rectangle-shaped foam pillow or a changing table pad. Set the baby down on their tummy and then get eye level and talk to your baby. Encourage them and let them know that they are doing great. Wait for them to respond to the sound of your voice and naturally begin moving their body independently. You might also try reading a book or singing a song. This method of tummy time is a great option for caregivers with difficulties getting on the floor. Make sure to stay in arm’s reach of your child throughout the duration of any tummy time done on a non-floor surface.
If you have a baby that gets really upset every single time you try tummy time, even with using the strategies I have laid out above, you might want to take a week break from trying and resume again. Just don’t let one week turn into four, five, or even more or your baby could experience difficulty meeting important developmental milestones. While taking the break, try laying your baby on their tummy across your chest. Talk to them and wait for them to pick up their head. You should be able to feel them engage their core muscles when doing so, and you will observe them learning to use their neck and upper body muscles in tandem. Practice this several times daily with your baby, and then reintroduce one of the above methods after several days of success. Your baby will be more accustomed to using those muscles, and should be more accepting of tummy time at this point.