Updated: Jul 27, 2020
When should you start doing tummy time with your baby? How can you make tummy time safe and fun? How often and for how long? The article I wrote for the current edition of Bubba West Magazine answers these questions. You can read it on the Bubba West website by clicking here or by reading the text below.
As a baby of the 1980s I was placed on my tummy or side to sleep. At the time, this was considered to be the best way to put a baby to bed. After research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) revealed that sleeping babies on their back is the safest practice, the ‘back to sleep’ campaign was introduced in the early 1990s and there has since been a dramatic reduction in SIDS. The flipside is that babies are now spending much less time on their tummy.
Why is tummy time important?
Tummy time is essential for building strength in your baby’s back, neck and shoulder muscles. Building strength in these muscles is an important foundation for sitting, crawling and walking later in life. Tummy time helps babies to develop control of their head so they can keep it upright to see the world around them, which is important for the development of social and communication skills. The strength gained in the muscles during tummy time helps babies to maintain an upright posture and stayed balanced when they sit and walk later in life.
Tummy time also helps to prevent some common musculoskeletal problems, Plagiocephaly (“misshapen head”) and Torticollis (“twisted neck”). These conditions often occur together and have become more common since the ‘back to sleep’ recommendation was introduced. When babies are born, the join between their skull bones, called ‘fontanelles’, have not yet fused. This allows the head to fit through the birth canal more easily, but also means the head is soft and can change shape if too much time is spent in one position. If they end up with a flat spot on the back of their head it can be hard for them to turn their head equally from side to side and as a result, stiffness in the neck can also develop. Tummy time takes the pressure off the back of the head and helps babies to develop the strength in their neck muscles by looking in both directions.
Tummy time should always be supervised and only during awake hours. Babies should always be placed on their back to sleep.
When should tummy time begin?
Tummy time should begin soon after birth, as long as your baby is medically stable. After spending 9 months supported by fluid in-utero, tummy time is hard work for babies! Initially they will only tolerate short amounts of time and will only just be able to tilt their head back a little to slowly turn from side to side.
How often should I do tummy time?
Give your baby some time on their tummy during each nappy change during the day so that they are doing short, regular sessions rather than one long session. You may find they only tolerate 1-2 minutes initially. They will usually let you know when they have had enough by crying. It’s important to keep tummy time fun, so help them move into a different position when they indicate they have had enough.
How can I make tummy time fun?
There are many different positions you can try for tummy time, it doesn’t always have to be laying flat on the floor! Use your knowledge about what your baby enjoys to make it as fun as possible and to encourage your baby to lift their head to look around. Babies are drawn to faces and voices from birth, so positioning your baby so they can look at you, other family members, or at themselves in a mirror can be very effective.
Tummy time over the shoulder
Although this position doesn’t look like tummy time, it is a gentle way of encouraging the same muscles to work. This is a great way to introduce tummy time shortly after birth because it’s easier for the baby to lift their head in this position than it is laying flat on the ground. Holding your baby close to you will help them to feel safe and secure as you introduce tummy time. Hold the baby as though you are burping them and encourage them to lift their head by using your knowledge of what they enjoy.
Ideas to try: Stand with your back facing towards a window or well-lit mirror. Newborn babies have limited vision and are drawn to light and high contrast so this can encourage them to lift their head. If other people are around you can ask them to talk to your baby to encourage them to look up.
Tummy time on your chest in recline
Put a cushion behind your lower back so it’s supported and lean back into the seat/couch. Place your baby on your chest and help them to prop on their forearms. This reclined position is a bit more challenging than holding them over your shoulder but still easier than laying the baby flat on the floor. Ideas to try: Try singing to your baby in this position. Hearing your voice will motivate them to lift their head and look at you. Not only is this position good for their muscles, it will help to develop their communication and social skills!
Tummy time with a rolled towel
Roll a towel and place it across your baby’s chest with their arms forward. Giving them some support under the chest makes it easier for their muscles to work.
Try doing this on the change table so that you can comfortably squat down in front of them. This is particularly helpful if you have had a caesarean and find getting up and down from the floor difficult. Talk or sing to your baby, or try holding a small mirror or favourite toy in front of them to encourage them to look up. Move the mirror/toy slowly from side to side to encourage them to turn their head.
Sometimes babies do not tolerate tummy time well. If you are concerned about your baby, please consult your GP, Paediatrician, Paediatric Physiotherapist or Maternal Child Health Nurse.