Think about the size of a newborn’s head compared to the rest of his tiny, fledgling body. Add in the fact that for many months after birth his muscle strength is low, and you can see why tummy time is a frustrating homework assignment for both babies and parents.
Still, it’s important. As you probably heard starting with your two-week pediatrician’s appointment, babies spend a huge amount of time on their backs – a good thing for lowering SIDS risk, but the around-the-clock supine position has its developmental drawbacks.
Tummy time: strength, head shape, and smarts
Putting a baby on his tummy not only gives his neck a workout, it strengthens the trunk and gives him more reaching and looking practice. That’s a huge bonus for development; in fact, researchers have seen that more tummy time correlates to better motor skills in babies. Not only that, but, amazingly, encouraging motor skills is also known to help babies with social development, since the stimulation to motor pathways in the brain seems to encourage growth in other regions as well. In other words, tummy time isn’t just a physical workout – it’s a mental boost, too.
Seeing the world belly-down and head up also makes it easier for your baby to correlate the sounds in his surroundings with their exact location (rather than being stuck looking at the ceiling or seeing things upside-down all the time). That’s also why carrying your baby is good for the brain – being in a car seat, stroller, or bouncy seat full time blocks his ability to turn, look, and see where all the hustle and bustle in his world is coming from.
Finally, since back sleeping is the norm, babies need help in the flat-head department. In fact, in the two years following the Back to Sleep SIDS prevention campaign, which started in 1992, the incidence of flat head went up an estimated sixfold.
When and how much?
Most doctors say around two to four weeks after birth is a good window to start tummy time. Remember, at this point your baby and her large cranium are fighting an uphill gravity battle, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get far with the exercise. Try once a day to start, and if it helps, put baby on your stomach (this counts) and talk to her while she does what could be all of a 30-second workout.
From there, tummy time will grow in length. Recommendations range from trying for 30 minutes a day or several stints of five to 10 minutes, to a looser goal of whenever possible. But many babies don’t enjoy the exercise until they get stronger (around four months of age). Within a month or two after that, the belly becomes one of their favorite positions because it allows them to see, reach, and play more easily.
Tummy time how-to
If your baby is just starting out, you can roll up a receiving blanket and put it high on his chest, under the armpits. That’s probably better than propping your baby up on a breastfeeding pillow, which gives him a little too much height and can restrict movement.
Instead of plopping your baby down directly on his tummy (where he’s not used to being), start by lying him on the floor on his back. Look at him, give him a smile, and make contact first. Tell him something like: “I’m going to help you roll to your belly, okay?” (With repetition, he’ll know what’s about to happen) and roll him from the hips gently. If his arm gets stuck underneath him, lift up the hip on the same side of his body to allow him to pull his arm out. The idea is to let your baby participate in getting into the position so he’s practicing the movements and feeling more in control, instead of having you simply stick him there.
Once your baby is on his belly, get down on the floor in front of him to talk.
Put one or two toys within reaching distance or a mirror close up so he can see himself.
Once your baby can lift his head enough to see in front of him, one of his favorite things to look at might be a book of faces. Get an accordion-style baby faces book with clear, large photographs.
Use a comfortable but flat mat without too much padding so he has more control over his arms.
Your best bet is to try tummy time when your baby is fed, rested, and ready to play. His tolerance for frustration will be higher when he’s in a good mood.
Just because your baby is grunting and making noises, or kicking and struggling a bit, it doesn’t mean you have to rescue him. It’s a difficult exercise for babies, so sometimes their noises just signal effort. But when your baby truly seems unhappy or starts to cry, roll him over to his back and scoop him up to a more familiar place.
Remember that since it’s an unfamiliar position nowadays, it takes a lot of practice and repetition for some babies to like being on their bellies. But even a two-minute session counts, and it’s something to build on. Keep at it, and you’ll see your baby’s comfort, and even enjoyment, of tummy time grow.