Much to my dismay, most babies do not appear to come with an instruction manual. Or at least mine didn’t. I’ve learned what he needs and how to provide these things by reading a lot of websites, talking to seasoned mothers and through a whole lot of trial and error. But there is one area of babies that I know pretty well, thanks to an absurdly expensive 3-year graduate school education, and that is their physical development.
In my last clinical affiliation I worked exclusively in pediatrics, and it was there that I found myself telling all parents of infants that their children desperately needed floor time. At the time it seemed so simple, how hard could it be to make sure your little one lays on the floor every day? As it turns out, it can be quite hard. Even knowing that Eli needs floor time, there are days where it doesn’t happen and a lot of days where it is very, very brief. Bad mommy, I know.
Most parents have heard that their babies need tummy time, but these are 7 important reasons why your child needs floor time each day — both tummy and back.
1. Head shape
In the first year of life, especially the first 6 months, babies heads grow at an incredibly rapid rate. And while they’re growing they’re, well, deformable. Babies who spend too much time in devices, like swings, carseats or even completely flat on their backs develop a flat head, known as brachycephaly. This didn’t used to be such a big issue when babies went to sleep on their tummies and before we had 800 containers for our kids (I don’t judge, my kid spends LOTS of time in a swing while I pump), but now it’s become an epidemic. Putting your baby on his tummy or even on their sides on the floor, supervised, for as long as they will tolerate it each day is one great way to prevent this flat head.
2. Neck strength
No matter how much my son tries to convince me otherwise, he does not have adequate neck strength. He demonstrates this by smashing his head into my face 80 times a day while being held. And the best way to work on this neck strength, is, you guessed it, on the floor. While on their tummy, babies lift and turn their heads, which helps develop the muscles on the back of the neck. While on their back, babies tuck their chins and strengthen the muscles in the front. Babies who don’t get enough floor time tend to be slower in developing good neck strength which makes it harder for them to achieve other motor milestones.
3. Core strength
There is almost nothing I love more than a baby playing with their feet. Not only is it entirely adorable, it’s also a killer ab workout. (If only that was still true for adults). Abdominal strength is key for rolling, crawling, walking and all other dynamic movements and the best way for babies to develop these muscles is on the floor. Help show your baby his feet and eventually he’ll learn to pull them up and play with them by himself.
It’s pretty much simple logic that it’s more than a little hard for a baby to learn to roll if they’re never on the ground, right? And the two previous reasons for floor time, neck strength and ab strength, play a huge part in rolling. Once a baby can pull his chin up and knees to chest, he can learn to roll from back to belly, which is traditionally the harder way to roll.
5. Visual development
Letting babies explore on the floor gives them a completely different perspective of the world. Letting them see things from farther away, including you once their eyes are more developed, is a great way to help with visual development and with the visual organization center of the brain.
6. Sensory input
When you hold a baby, he gets input all over his body. It’s part of why many babies sleep better while being held or swaddled. When they’re on the floor, the input is entirely different. They also have the opportunity to touch things with their hands that they may not have while being held or while in a device. They can put their mouth on things (every baby’s favorite) and can just otherwise experience things, independently, that helps their brain map out their sensory areas and teaches them all about their environment.
7. Neck stiffness
This one is near and dear to me because my adorable child has what’s called a positional preference. He really, really likes to keep his head tilted to the right. It’s not that his muscles are tight, but if he doesn’t get out of this posture, they will be eventually. Being on the floor allows me to help him position his neck in midline and even GENTLY stretch his neck to the other side. It allows me to help him learn to turn his head both directions and just otherwise remove pressure from the part of his head that he’s usually on.
Babies with neck tightness (torticollis) and positional preferences are especially prone to a different head shape deformation called plagiocephaly, where one side of the head flattens, which in the long term can be a major problem because the jaw can get offset, the ears shift and the facial features can become asymmetrical. Getting your baby on the floor and especially on their tummy so the pressure is off their head, is critical for those with tightness and positional preferences. If you notice that your baby looks one way all the time or has a constant head tilt, definitely talk to your pediatrician, they may either recommend stretches or send you to physical therapy, depending upon the severity. This is a problem you want to tackle sooner rather than later.