Hand a newborn over to a person who doesn’t have much experience with babies and it’s practically a guarantee that someone in the room will shout, “Support their head!” (And they may even jump in to cradle that sweet-smelling little noggin.)
And it can certainly be an anxious time while you wait for your baby to gain control over their neck muscles. Until then, it can feel like their head is a wobbly wrecking ball held up by a bunch of spaghetti noodles.
Thankfully, that all begins to change around 3 months of age, when most babies develop enough strength in their neck to keep their head partially upright. (Full control usually happens around 6 months.)
But as with all things parenting and baby, there’s a wide range of “normal.” Some babies have stronger necks from the start, while others take their time building the muscles needed to take a good look at the world. Here’s more about when and how it happens.
In the very early days of a baby’s life, they can’t lift their heads much at all. But that quickly changes, with some babies making headway (pun intended!) when they’re just 1 month old.
These little head lifts — which aren’t the same as having full head control — are most noticeable when your little one is lying on their tummy. For example, you may notice them when your baby is resting on your chest or shoulder while you’re burping them or snuggling up together.
If you’ve introduced tummy time, you may also see your baby trying to lift their head up enough to turn it from one side to the other. This practice is important for future head control, but it also plays a role in developing the surrounding muscles in the shoulders, arms, and back that will help your baby become more mobile later on.
A newborn baby may not be very interested in activity or play mats yet, but it never hurts to lay your baby down on their tummy for a few minutes at a time, a few times per day. (Make sure to stay with your baby, supervising the tummy time session, so they don’t fall asleep this way.)
You can also practice tummy time by laying your baby facedown on your chest, lap, or stomach. Some babies like this better because they can still see your face and you can interact with them more closely.
Between 1 and 3 months of age, a baby typically starts lifting their head up more often (usually mastering a 45-degree angle) and might be able to lift their chest partly off the floor as well.
At this point, your baby’s vision has further developed and that activity mat might actually be more appealing than it was during the first month. They appreciate geometric designs and black-and-white patterns, so an eye-catching rug or blanket can work just as well as an activity mat at this stage.
You may also want to add some incentives to baby’s playtime by placing a toy or other coveted object just out of their reach. You can lie down on the floor next to your baby, too, engaging them with your attention.
This is also a great time to begin propping your baby up slightly during tummy time with a nursing pillow or rolled-up baby blanket (again, under your supervision). Sometimes a little extra support — and a better view of what’s around them — gives babies the motivation to keep practicing lifting their head up on their own.
Eventually, your baby will begin pushing themselves off the floor with their arms in a precursor to crawling. At this point, they can usually lift their chest up completely and hold their head mostly level at a 90-degree angle, though probably not for long stretches of time. In other words, watch out for the inevitable wobbles!
Everything that happens with head lifting between birth and 3 or 4 months of age is a warm-up for the main event: the major milestone of your baby having full control of their head.
By 6 months, most babies have gained enough strength in their neck and upper body to hold their head up with minimal effort. They can usually also turn their head easily from side to side and up and down.
If you think your baby needs a little help developing head control, there are a few activities you can work into your daily routine to encourage them to keep building those muscles:
- Spend time sitting your baby upright on your lap or propped up in a nursing pillow. This allows your baby to practice holding up their own head with a safety net helping to support their back.
- Place them in a high chair for short periods of time, even if they’re not eating full meals yet. This will also give them some support while encouraging them to hold their head straight and level. Make sure they’re strapped in and the seat is fixed at to a 90-degree angle, rather than in a reclined position.
- Consider wearing your baby in a carrier that allows you to place them in an upright position when you’re running errands or going for a walk. The world is a fascinating place — most babies will want to sit up and look around if you let them!
- Place your baby on their back on an activity mat that includes an arch or some other hanging feature. Your baby will be naturally inclined to reach up for what they see, strengthening the muscles in their neck, back, and shoulders.
Until your baby is able to hold their own head up, make sure it’s supported any time they’re not lying flat on their back. When you pick up your baby, slide one hand underneath their shoulder blades to lift their head and neck while using your other hand to lift their bottom. Reverse the steps for laying a baby back down.
When burping your baby, keep a loose hand on their neck and head to prevent wobbling. Car seats, strollers, infant swings, bassinets, and bouncers should all be fixed at the correct incline for your baby’s age to maintain the right level of head support; if your baby’s head flops forward, readjust the angle.
Some companies sell neck support pillows or inserts for babies, encouraging parents to use them in cribs and car seats to prevent their heads from flopping around. But most experts (including the
Using a pillow can actually be dangerous in these situations: It can pose a suffocation risk or interfere with the functioning of restraint straps during an accident.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a baby with poor head control or weak neck muscles should be evaluated by a pediatrician if they aren’t meeting the typical milestones for head control.
If your baby can’t hold their head up unsupported by 4 months of age, it might not mean anything worrying — but it’s worth checking in with your pediatrician. Sometimes, not meeting the head control milestone is a sign of a developmental or motor delay. It could also be a symptom of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or another neuromuscular disorder.
Most of the time, though, it’s simply a short-term delay. All babies develop on their own schedule, and some babies pick up certain skills faster or slower than other babies. Occupational therapy and other early intervention services can help, whatever the cause.
When your baby can finally hold their head up, all bets are off! Next comes rolling over, sitting up, moving and grooving (via creeping, scooting, and crawling), pulling themselves up to stand, and — you guessed it — walking.
We’re not saying your days are numbered once your baby holds their head up, but… OK, we are saying that. Start babyproofing now!
There’s no one set time when a baby should be able to hold their head up. It takes patience and practice. But everything your baby does — from reaching for toys and lifting their head off a play mat to making eye contact with you during a burping session — is priming them for meeting this major milestone.
If you’re worried about your little one’s progress at any point, talk to your pediatrician at your next well visit. They can either put your mind at ease or give you the advice and resources needed to help you address your baby’s development.