Babies spend a lot of time on their backs looking up at the ceiling — in their crib, in their car seat and in your arms. Flipping them over onto their stomachs not only gives them a different perspective, but also plays an important role in their development.
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Pediatrician Matthew Badgett, MD, explains the main benefits of “tummy time” and how to do it safely.
Think of tummy time as your baby’s first exercise. “Tummy time is as simple as putting a baby or infant on their tummy for short periods of time every day to help train them,” Dr. Badgett says.
Tummy time seems (and is) simple, but it has big benefits for your baby. There are four important reasons to prioritize it.
When they spend time on their bellies, little ones use and develop the muscles that allow them to lift their heads up, roll and, eventually, crawl.
“Having them on the floor helps develop core muscle strength as well as their back, neck and arms,” Dr. Badgett says. “Tummy time leads to milestones like crawling and rolling a little bit earlier.”
Studies have shown that infants who don’t spend time in this position are more likely to experience a delay in motor development.
Babies should sleep on their backs, which can help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But babies who spend too much time on their backs can develop flat head syndrome, or positional plagiocephaly — which tummy time can help prevent.
Plagiocephaly is fairly common and usually not dangerous or permanent. Some types of plagiocephaly, though, can be caused by a serious condition called craniosynostosis, so if you notice a flat area on your baby’s head, have your pediatrician take a look.
Being on their bellies allows babies to experience different body positions and movements, and they start learning how their arms and legs move. It also shows them a completely different view of the world — literally.
“In the beginning, babies spend almost all their time on their backs, so this forces them to flip their world upside down for a bit,” Dr. Badgett notes.
In the beginning, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to have fun with your newborn. And even though tummy time isn’t initially all that interactive, your baby will become more engaged as their skills develop,
“Importantly, tummy time is an early chance for interaction and play with your baby, which is a really crucial bonding activity,” Dr. Badgett explains.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says you can start right away — as soon as your baby is home from the hospital.
But bear in mind that babies of any age should never be left alone face down, even if they’re propped up. Tummy time needs to be supervised.
“You can’t just put your baby on their tummy and set a timer and a walk away,” Dr. Badgett cautions. “You need to keep an eye on them because if they slip, or their face is down and they lack the ability to lift their head up, they might not be able to breathe.”
Tummy time is simple, but you may have lots of questions. What is the best way to do tummy time? How long should tummy time be? What should you do if your baby can’t stand tummy time?!
But, really: Keep it simple.
Begin with short sessions where you lay your baby on their belly on a firm surface (avoid beds or other furniture they could fall off of) for just a few minutes at a time, a few times each day. And you don’t need an expensive blanket or fancy pad; carpet or even a clean hardwood floor is fine.
“Newborns can’t lift their heads very much, if at all, so when you put them on their stomach, you want to make sure their face isn’t in the ground,” Dr. Badgett advises. “You can roll up a small towel to prop up their chest.”
You can even lie on your back and put your newborn on your own stomach, tummy to tummy. “It’s a chance for physical bonding, and it still counts as tummy time,” Dr. Badgett says.
Your goal should be to do tummy time two or three times a day for three to five minutes apiece, working up to 20 or more minutes a day. To start, your baby won’t be able to do much, and they may hate tummy time. It’s OK if you can only make it a couple of minutes before they start fussing. (More on this in a moment!)
As your baby begins getting stronger, they’ll become more aware of what’s around them. They’ll start tolerating longer stretches of tummy time, and they may even come to enjoy it.
“As they get older, they’re going to develop better head control, and they can keep their head up longer,” Dr. Badgett says. “They might not need that towel to prop them up anymore.”
This is also when babies’ vision starts improving, so you may notice them beginning to fixate on you and interacting a little bit more while they’re on their tummies.
Now tummy time is getting fun! At this point, your baby will have better core strength, and they might start rolling over, from stomach to back and back to stomach.
“That’s when they can start playing more,” Dr. Badgett says. “They’ll start to get the ability to push up more with their arms and be a lot more independent.” At this point, you can start introducing toys for them to grab and other interactive elements.
Work up to a full hour of tummy time each day until your baby starts crawling. In fact, they may even start to crawl during tummy time itself.
“Eventually, they’ll use it as a kind of practice, trying to push themselves up to see what happens,” Dr. Badgett adds. “As babies develop, tummy time slowly transitions into crawling, walking and playtime.”
If your newborn resists being on their belly, Dr. Badgett suggests choosing a time of day when you know they’re not too fussy — like after a diaper change or when they wake up from a nap. “You have to figure out your baby’s personality and when in the cycle of their day they’re going to be most open to it,” he says.
But sometimes, babies still just can’t stand it. After all, the tiniest of people have big opinions.
“To some degree, you want them to tough it out and challenge them to push through because it’s going to help them learn some skills earlier,” Dr. Badgett says. “But if your baby despises tummy time, you don’t want to torture them.”
Do what you can, and cut yourself a parenting break if you’re not hitting tummy time guidelines. Every baby is different, and Dr. Badgett says yours will be fine regardless of whether they get exactly the recommended amount of tummy time.
“Maybe your baby doesn’t crawl until 10 months instead of eight,” he says, “but that’s OK. Don’t grade yourself on these report cards and check boxes, because although they’re helpful, sometimes they can shame parents a little bit too much.”
Remember: Although tummy time is great for development and exploration, babies should always sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
If your baby falls asleep during tummy time, gently roll them onto their back — and feel free to let them sleep right there on the floor, so long as you keep an eye on them. After all, a sleeping baby is a blessing!
“Definitely get them off their stomach,” Dr. Badgett says, “but then, if the baby’s sleeping, just take that as a victory.”
To learn more from Dr. Badgett about the importance of tummy time, listen to our Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Tummy Time: What You Need To Know.” New episodes of our Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.