Placing your baby on their stomach to play is an important activity to promote normal development. It is important for a number of reasons (and should begin on day one!) but three of the most important reasons are to help in the development of motor skills (how a baby moves to complete an action), sensory tolerance, and vision. Tummy time builds a foundation for success and should start day one! But more on that in a minute…
Building strength to develop the core muscles – the neck, back, shoulders, and hips – is vital for the development of motor milestones including rolling, sitting, crawling, and even walking. As your baby spends time on their stomach, they develop the ability to hold their head up and to explore their environment. Being on their stomach can also help prevent conditions such as positional plagiocephaly, or flattening of the head, and positional torticollis (twisting of the neck that causes the head to turn or tilt to one side).
#2: Sensory Development
Spending time on their stomach also helps baby to feel and experience different textures and sensations through their arms, legs, belly, and chest that they may not otherwise experience without being in that position. Body awareness and a sense of balance are also developed in this position as baby shifts their weight and feels the impact of their movement on their body.
Visual tracking and hand-eye coordination are a couple of other skills that a baby develops while playing on their stomach. As baby watches their hands open and close and move around they learn what their hands can do and how they move. Tummy time also facilitates visual scanning as a baby explores and sees their environment at ground level.
So, when should you start tummy time, and what does that look like?
Tummy time can and should start day one and should only be done when your baby is awake and alert. This may mean you only get a few minutes in here and there in those first days and weeks but each time you place your baby on their stomach to play, you’re setting baby up for success! Easy ways to start tummy time early on include placing your baby on his/her stomach for a few minutes after each diaper change and/or when they wake up from their nap. A few minutes at a time, several times a day, can make a huge difference in how your baby develops and how they tolerate being on their tummy. By three to four months of age, your baby should be able to play on their stomach for a full hour and should continue to spend time in this position daily until they are crawling.
Activities to Try
NOTE: Your baby should be supervised, awake, and active whenever they are placed on their stomach. Your baby should always be positioned on their back for safety and to maintain a clear airway while sleeping.
On your chest: sitting in a reclined position, place your baby on your chest. You can encourage your baby to lift their head by quietly talking or singing to them. Babies love faces – and up close too, as their vision is still developing – in those early weeks and months.
Prone carry: carry your baby or pass them to another adult while your baby is on their stomach by supporting their chest and their hip/legs. This will give your baby a new view of their environment while they are working on holding their head up.
On your lap: There are two ways to place your baby on their stomach on your lap. Sitting on a supportive couch or chair, lay your baby across your lap while burping them or soothing them with a back rub. You can also sit on the floor with your back supported and hips and knees bent so that your thighs are inclined. Place your baby on your lap with their legs around your stomach and facing your feet. The incline will make is easier for your baby to lift their head up while you read them a book or show them a toy. This a great position for a loved one to be able to engage with baby at eye level.
On the floor: Lay a blanket on the floor and place your baby on their stomach. You can lay on the floor with them and use toys, rattles or a mirror to help encourage visual tracking and head lifting. Being at eye level can encourage your baby to feel calm, too – and they will love seeing your face!
My baby doesn’t seem to like tummy time, now what?
If your baby fusses or cries during tummy time, don’t give up! Try placing them on their stomach when they are most awake and happy, or after every single diaper change so that they learn to expect it, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Doing this several times a day will help build their tolerance. Making tummy time fun by talking or singing to your baby can also help improve tolerance. Talking in a calm voice while rubbing your baby’s back or patting them on the bottom can help soothe your little one if they are having a difficult time. If you feel baby is too upset and unable to calm, help them roll to their back of their side to comfort them before trying again. It is also best to avoid placing your baby on their stomach after eating
Written by Jen Leonard, PT, DPT