Occupational therapist Alice Fitzgerald explains how to work tummy time into your baby’s routine.
Tummy time: why and how to do it
Spending a little time every day on their stomach is good for an infant’s development.
More than a decade ago the Back to Sleep campaign was launched, lowering the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by more than 50%.
However since this change, more infants are developing flat spots on their skulls, a condition called positional plagiocephaly. Also, always lying belly up can cause a delay in reaching some of their motor milestones, because a baby gets less of a chance to work the muscles of their upper body.
Research suggests that babies who spend time on their tummies crawl on their stomachs earlier than babies who don’t practice tummy time. Although an infant who is hardly ever on their stomachs will eventually meet these milestones, daily tummy time can ensure that they won’t be late! To practice daily tummy time, you simply put your baby on their tummy for short periods of time when they are awake.
Spending time on their tummy encourages your baby to practice reaching and pivoting, skills that are often the precursors to crawling. The position promotes trunk stability, limb co-ordination and head control. In addition, it helps your baby’s head to become round instead and prevents flat spots developing on the back of the head. Besides the physical benefits, there are also psychological benefits: as an infant learns to make their body do new things, they feel a sense of accomplishment. This gives them the confidence to try new things as they grow and their co-ordination improves. Tummy time provides an infant with a different view of the world!
When to start and how often?
Start tummy time in the first few weeks of life, when babies are awake and alert. For the first few weeks you may want to delay it until the umbilical stump falls off.
Start by laying your newborn on their tummy across your lap two or three times a day for short periods of time so they get accustomed to the position. Some babies resist a lot if you start later.
As your baby grows stronger, place them on a blanket on the floor. Place them tummy down for a few minutes several times a day if they are comfortable.
By the four-month mark an infant should be able to sustain several five to ten minute sessions each day.
An infant should be able to lift their head off the floor and lean on their elbows with their head upright. They may be able lift their arms off the floor, arch their back and kick their feet. As they stretch and push on the floor, they may accidentally lean to one side, fall over and roll onto their back. Don’t worry that’s normal!
At five to six months, they will begin to pivot on their belly and use their arms to reach out in front or to the sides. Some research suggests aiming for a minimum of twenty minutes of tummy time a day.
Time it right
Make sure your baby isn’t hungry or tired when you set them tummy-down. On the other hand, don’t place them on a full belly, which will be uncomfortable. Wait for approximately an hour after feeding to avoid spit-ups or infant acid reflux. When they start to cry, try to coax them for a bit longer, by talking or playing with them. When they have had enough, pick them up and try again later. Their tolerance for tummy time is likely to increase gradually with experience and a bit of coaxing. Many babies are more content on their tummy once they can roll over and it becomes a matter of choice.
Make it fun
- To make this more enjoyable, you can get down on the floor with your baby, making eye contact and singing songs.
- Try using an exercise ball to help make it more fun: Place baby on their tummy on top of the ball. While supporting them with your hand on their back or bottom, gently roll the ball lightly forward and backward.
- Give them distractions; hold a mirror in front of your baby to capture their attention or place toys just within their reach.
- Prop them on a rolled towel or nursing pillow. If your infant has some neck strength and head control (age three or four months) but can’t get up on their forearms, simply place the towel or pillow under their chest and armpits, with their arms in front of it. When he can get up on their forearms independently, remove the pillow and let them work on their motor skills without it.
- Encourage others to get involved. Have your baby’s sibling(s) play nearby when they are on their tummy.
- Once your baby has adequate head control (around age four months), you can play airplane. Lie on the floor and bend your legs. Put your baby’s tummy against your legs, their head at your knees. Then bend your legs while holding on to them firmly. They’ll probably love the new view.
- You might also put them on the bed, near the edge, and sit on the floor with your face next to theirs. They may favour the softer surface, and you can easily interact with them in this position.
- Or place them on a colourful quilt or an activity mat designed just for babies. Some mats have prop-up toys or mirrors, and others are filled with water, for added fun. Take your baby’s socks off so they can get good traction on the mat.
Tummy time troublemakers
Some babies have strong opinions about being on their stomachs. After all, tummy time is hard work!
Some babies initially resist tummy time because they don’t have good control and find it hard to lift their heads. Every baby meets each milestone when they’re ready, so don’t worry if your baby isn’t a fan of tummy time right away. The more practice they get, the better they’ll like it.
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