When I found out I was pregnant, one of the first things I frantically Googled was “What do we do with the baby after we come home from the hospital?” I really wish I was joking. Sure, I had a vague idea that my home life would revolve around a lot of diapers and such, but I had no idea how I was supposed to stimulate and interact with a newborn. Babies, being magical creatures of transformation that undergo a dramatic and rapid metamorphosis within the first year of life, require a lot of attention and help from their parents to do so. As I was doing my due diligence, arming myself with any and all information on how to parent, something that kept popping up in every article I found was tummy time. Okay, tummy time. Time on your tummy? Sounds easy enough, but why? Well, let’s break it down.
WHAT IS TUMMY TIME?
Tummy time is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the time that your baby spends on his tummy, while awake and supervised. Feel free to think of it as your baby’s first workout—which it really is. Spending time on your tummy may not seem all that impressive, until you consider the fact that newborns have virtually no trunk strength. Imagine trying to lift your head while a 15lb sandbag is on your neck. Not comfortable. Not easy. For newborns, tummy time can be as simple as lying chest-to-chest on Mom or Dad, and can also be combined with skin-to-skin contact. However as your baby gets older and stronger, you can lay him stomach-down on the floor for longer periods of time. Soon enough, you’ll be aiming to have most of the waking hours spent on his tummy, on the floor, to facilitate rolling, crawling, and eventually walking.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?
We know that babies should always be put to sleep on their backs, and since newborns spend the majority of their time sleeping, they run the risk of developing positional plagiocephaly, otherwise known as flat head syndrome, as well as positional torticollis, also known as a stiff neck. Severe cases of plagiocephaly can distort facial features, while torticollis causes head tilting and discomfort. Because babies are born with soft skulls, prolonged positioning in one spot can cause flatness. However, regular tummy time can counteract this, and is extremely helpful for both plagiocephaly and torticollis.
Even more importantly, tummy time is crucial for developing the core muscles of the neck, back, and shoulders. It promotes trunk stability and head control as your baby works his entire upper body. It’s essential for motor, visual, and sensory development. Think about it. When your baby is flat on his back on an infant positioner, there’s not much he can do in the way of moving. He may look straight ahead or turn his head from side to side, but he isn’t really working any of his core muscles. When placed on his tummy, however, he’ll quickly (it may not feel like it in the moment, but babies really do build that neck strength in no time at all) learn to lift his head long enough to look about freely, taking in the world from a different perspective.
Research shows that lack of tummy time can cause a delay in your baby reaching physical developmental milestones, and it’s not hard to see why. Tummy time encourages babies to move independently, such as reaching and pivoting, and helps them build the skills that are often the precursors to crawling. If you needed even more reasons to give your baby plenty of time on his tummy, tummy time is also associated with better cardiovascular health and body mass index, as well as a lower risk of SIDS.
WHEN SHOULD I START?
Right away. It can seem daunting when your baby is just a newborn, but start off with him on your chest. It’s a natural position to assume with your little one, and more comfortable for him than starting off on the floor. If you wear your baby in a wrap or ring sling, I’ve got good news. That counts as tummy time too! The upright position comes with all the benefits of strengthening his neck, back, and shoulders, as well as preventing plagiocephaly. Babywearing is a great tool that not only makes your life so much easier, but also comes with a whole lot of benefits for your baby that you can read about here.
HOW LONG SHOULD I DO IT?
When your baby is a newborn, take it nice and slow. In the first few weeks, your baby may only tolerate a few minutes at a time. Aim to give him at least two sessions a day. Those small increments of time will help him build the necessary strength to increase the length of each session as he grows. By three months, give your baby a full hour of tummy time a day, broken up in however many sessions it takes. He should be able to lift his head and chest off the floor, and may even be lifting his arms off the floor as well.
By the time your baby is able to roll, which usually happens at around 5 or 6 months, you may find yourself relaxing your tummy time quota, so to speak. Once your baby is more mobile, he will prefer spending time on his tummy, and you can stop the dedicated sessions.
WHAT IF MY BABY HATES IT?
Some babies love tummy time. They enjoy their unimpeded view of their surroundings and revel in their freedom to look around at will. And on the flip side, some babies hate it. Like really hate it. If your baby is of the latter camp, welcome to the club. I promise you’re not alone. Up until my baby was about three months old, she hated being on her tummy so much that she would simply drop her face into the floor and scream. I felt more like a bootcamp instructor than a doting mother. First thing in the morning, I would set the stopwatch on my phone, and use every creative method I could think of to maintain my baby’s attention and entertain her for as long as possible.
One method I found particularly helpful was making noise. I used light-up, musical toys (sorry, Montessori method) because they held her attention, and danced them around her face. I also sang songs, while banging on her stacking cups like a drum set. I whistled, sang, clapped, banged, tapped, knocked, and made every noise I could possibly make. Did I look a fool? Yes. Did it work? Yes.
Another way to keep your baby on his tummy is to get an unbreakable mirror. There are plenty of tummy time mirrors to choose from, and babies get a real kick out of seeing their own reflection. Try sitting behind your baby so that he can see your reflection in the mirror too!
One of the most effective methods I utilized for max-tolerance to tummy time was an elevated surface. I tried to make it a habit of flipping her on her stomach after every diaper change. Since we had a tall changing table, I would sit on the floor and let her look down at me. The change in perspective held her attention for at least a few minutes. If you don’t have a high changing table, a couch will also do. You may want to kneel on the floor so that your baby is eye-level with you.
With these tips and tricks under your belt, you’re well equipped to get even the most stubborn of tummy time haters through this period that is so critical for his development. With the love, care, and attention you give him, he’ll make his dramatic transformation from helpless newborn barely able to lift his head to fully-fledged toddler running around the house. And he’ll have you to thank for it!