How to Make the Most of Baby Tummy Time

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on March 8, 2016Written by Lisa C. Baker on March 8, 2016
Tummy Time

If your baby screams every time you set them on their tummy, don’t panic.

Many babies don’t enjoy tummy time at first, but playtime doesn’t need to be torture. Tummy time should be fun for you and baby. Helping your baby develop the muscles they’ll need for rolling and crawling doesn’t need to be frustrating.

Here’s why tummy time is important, and how you can make it fun for both of you.

Why Does Your Baby Need Tummy Time?

In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) changed its recommendations for infant sleep. Research had recognized a correlation between stomach sleeping and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The AAP began recommending that babies sleep on their backs.

The “Safe to Sleep” campaign led to a 50 percent decrease in SIDS. However, it also meant that young babies were spending a large percentage of their time lying on their backs.

This can lead to several problems. A baby who spends a lot of time lying on their back is at higher risk of developing plagiocephaly, or flat head syndrome. This is often associated with torticollis, a stiffness in neck muscles that makes it difficult for your baby to turn their head in one direction. In addition, babies who spend all their time on their backs may not develop the muscles in their necks, back, and core. All of those muscle groups are essential for pushing up, rolling, and crawling.

For this reason, the AAP recommends that babies spend time every day lying on their tummies while they’re awake. This enables babies to practice lifting their heads and moving their limbs, developing the muscles needed for gross motor development, without the danger of stomach sleeping.

What Are the Benefits of Tummy Time?

When your baby lies on their tummy, they have to use their back and neck muscles to lift their head if they want to look around.

This helps strengthen the muscles in their back, neck, and core, which are the muscles they’ll need for rolling and crawling. Tummy time also enables your baby to move their limbs freely, which helps develop those muscles as well and encourages him to explore.

Finally, tummy time gives their skull a break from resting the entire weight of their head on the back of their head. That means it can help prevent flat head syndrome.

What Age Should Tummy Time Start and End?

Tummy time can start as early as birth, although it’s a good idea to wait until after your baby’s umbilical cord has fallen off so the cord doesn’t rub on the floor.

Tummy time doesn’t need to last long at first. Just a few minutes at a time is plenty for newborns. As your baby gets bigger, they’ll probably start wiggling to get down and play on the floor. They’ll want to explore their world and exercise their muscles. It’s recommended that you give them some time on their tummy every day until they start rolling over on their own, which is usually at around 4 to 6 months.

At that point, you can start letting them choose whether they want to lie on their back or their belly for playtime.

How to Enjoy Tummy Time

Some babies enjoy having a few minutes to stretch and explore the world. If your baby is one of them, tummy time is easy!

Just lay your baby belly down on a soft mat or blanket and let them stretch, reach, and play until they cry to be picked up. But if they protest, there’s no need to let them cry until you meet your tummy time quota. Instead, try different alternatives to give them the benefits of being on their belly without the stress of being on the floor.

Alternatives to Tummy Time

Instead of tummy time on the floor, try doing tummy-to-tummy time. You lie on your back on the floor, and place baby on their belly on top of your belly.

They’ll be happy because they’ll be snuggled on your body where they can see your face. Since they’re lying on their tummy, they’ll still be able to push themself up and strengthen their neck and back.

You can also do tummy time by laying your baby across your lap. Sit cross-legged and lay your baby on their stomach across your legs. Again, they’ll get all the benefits of being on their belly, but they’ll probably be happier because they’re close to you.

Try holding a toy in one hand where baby can see it, and moving it around to encourage them to turn their head to watch it.

Toys to Try for Tummy Time

Tummy time doesn’t really require any props, but a few toys can make it more fun.

If your baby is happy lying on the floor, then a soft exercise mat is a great cushion. Play mats designed for tummy time will encourage your baby to reach and explore. The Fisher Price Kick and Play Piano Gym is a favorite for many parents. Baby can lie on their belly and kick the piano keys to make music, and you can lower the overhead arch so they can reach for the toys while they’re on their belly.

If your baby doesn’t like the idea of being on their belly, a pillow might help. Try putting a Boppy pillow under their arms to help them prop up their head and neck. This can help them have a better view to look around, which may make tummy time more fun. Just be sure to keep a close eye on them if you try this with a young baby. The pillow can be a suffocation hazard if they’re having trouble lifting their head.

Another option for making tummy time a little different is an exercise ball. Instead of laying baby on the ground, try helping them roll on a 55-centimeter exercise ball. You’ll need to keep hold of baby at all times if you try this. Hold their hands and sit down so you can watch their face while you gently roll the ball slightly so they can feel the motion. Use your feet to keep the ball from rolling very far in any direction. They’ll use their muscles to balance against the motion of the ball. A few minutes of this will give them just as much exercise as tummy time.

When to See Your Doctor

You don’t need to worry about making sure you fit in all the required minutes of tummy time. What’s important is that your baby is hitting their gross motor developmental milestones.

They should be able to raise their head while lying on their tummy at around 2 months old, and they should be able to roll from front to back by 5 months. If you’re concerned that their gross motor skills are behind, talk to your doctor about whether their development is on track and whether more tummy time might help. 

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