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 tummies sometimes not only gives them a different perspective, but it also plays an important role in their development.
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Think of “tummy time” as baby’s first exercise. It has three main benefits:
- Helps motor skill development. When they spend time on their bellies, little ones use and develop the muscles that allow them to lift their head up, roll and, eventually, crawl. “Having them on the floor helps develop core muscle strength as well as their back, neck and arms,” explains pediatrician Ei Ye Mon, MD. Studies have shown that infants who don’t spend time in this position are more likely to experience a delay in motor development.
- Reduces the chances of a skull deformity. Babies who spend too much time lying on their backs can develop flat head syndrome, or positional plagiocephaly. It’s fairly common and usually not dangerous or permanent. However, other types of plagiocephaly can be caused by a serious condition called carniosynostosis, so if you notice a flat area on your baby’s head, it’s best to have your pediatrician take a look.
- Promotes sensory development. Being on their bellies allows babies to experience different body positions and movements. “It helps them to get a different view and sense of the world,” Dr. Ye Mon says. “It also helps develop their vestibular system because they get that sense of finding out how their arms and legs move.”
Tummy time: the basics
When should tummy time start? The American Academy of Pediatrics says you can start right away when baby is home from the hospital.
Begin with short sessions where you lay them on their belly on a firm surface (avoid beds or other furniture they could fall off of) for a just a few minutes at a time, a few times each day.
“Babies, at that point, probably won’t enjoy doing it,” Dr. Ye Mon says. You may only be able to get in a few minutes before they start fussing.
But as baby begins to get stronger more aware of what’s around them, they’ll tolerate longer stretches of tummy time — and actually come to enjoy it. At that point, you can work up to a full hour of tummy time each day, until they start crawling.
What if my baby cries during tummy time?
If your newborn resists being on their belly, Dr. Ye Mon suggests choosing a time of day when you know their fuss level is typically low — like early morning or after a diaper change.
You can also roll up a thin blanket or towel, or put a nursing pillow on the floor, to use as a bolster for baby’s upper body. “This sometimes makes it a little more tolerable for them,” Dr. Ye Mon says.
But if they’re still not having it, don’t try to push through.
“You don’t want this to be a negative experience for them,” Dr. Ye Mon says. “If they’re really fussing and crying, given them a minute or two and then pick up them and try again later.”
Making the most of tummy time
Dr. Ye Mon offers these additional pointers:
- Stay attentive. “It’s very important that a parent or caregiver is supervising the whole time,” Dr. Ye Mon says.
- Sleep, change, tummy time. If you want to get into a routine, tack designated tummy time onto an activity you do every day, like changing baby’s diaper. (But avoid doing it after feeding, which could lead to a spit-up mess.) That way you’ll both get used to it, and baby will begin to expect it.
- Ditch the floor. There isn’t just one way a baby can lay on their tummy. You can put them on the floor, or you can lay them on your chest, belly or lap. “During the newborn period, that might be easier for baby, and they’ll get some skin-to-skin time, too,” Dr. Ye Mon adds.
- Go for variety. Don’t always do tummy time in the same spot. Choose different locations to encourage baby to look around. Or place toys nearby to encourage them to reach in different directions.
Remember: Though tummy time is great for development and exploration, babies should always sleep on their back to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.