Helping your baby enjoy tummy time

You’ve likely heard that ‘tummy time’ is important for babies to learn to push up and eventually crawl. But what can you do if your baby cries whenever you try to put her on her tummy?

Some babies love playing on their tummies and may even prefer it to being on their backs. Other babies, for whatever reason, just don’t like it and may need a little more encouragement to play on their tummies.

For many babies used to sleeping on their backs, this can be where they feel most comfortable so they often protest loudly when they are placed on their tummies. However, tummy time is beneficial for many reasons.

The benefits of tummy time

Tummy time during waking hours is important to the motor development of your baby as it allows her to gain head and body control. Motor control develops in a ‘cephalocaudal’ fashion, which means a baby first gains control of her head, then her shoulders and then her abdomen and so on down to her feet. Developing head control first allows your baby to visually explore everything around her.

Having tummy time also helps the development of your baby’s skull. With babies spending more time on their backs, paediatricians have noted an increase in flatheads or misshapen heads. Babies’ skulls are still quite soft and constantly lying on their backs without changing the head position can cause a flattened effect on the back of a baby’s head.

It also helps your baby strengthen her neck, shoulders, arms and torso muscles. This strength will prepare her for crawling as well as getting her ready to push up, roll over and eventually to stand.

As well as gross motor skills, tummy time encourages your baby’s fine motor skills. For example as she grasps at your clothing while you hold her across your legs or on your chest, or at a blanket she is lying on as she balances on one arm to reach for toys.

When to start?

You can start tummy time from birth – with your newborn lying skin to skin on your chest. From there, small amounts of tummy time throughout the day is sufficient – even if only for a minute or two at a time – and gradually increase the time, as long as your baby is comfortable.

According to Dr Jane Williams, early childhood specialist and director of child development programs for GymbaROO, “ babies should be spending more time on their tummies than lying or being propped in ‘containers’ such car seats, infant seats, and high chairs.”  Dr

One tip is to roll your baby over on her tummy for a little while after every nappy change. It’s easy to remember to do this and your baby is likely to enjoy the view if she’s up on a changing table. But do hold onto her securely so she doesn’t roll or push off.

It is best to try tummy time when your baby is calm and respect her responses so she doesn’t associate this new experience with feeling stressed. Make sure she isn’t hungry or tired or, on the other hand, don’t place her on a full belly of milk as this could be uncomfortable.

If she becomes unsettled while on her tummy, try to coax her a bit longer by talking with her or playing with her. But, if she has clearly had enough, pick her up and try again later.

Encouraging tummy time

To encourage ‘tummy time’, place your baby on a firm, flat surface on his tummy with his arms forward – a rug on the floor is best, as a soft or padded surface makes it too hard for baby to move. To begin with, even on a firm surface, moving on their tummy is hard work for babies and they will tire quickly. The answer is short but frequent periods of play, allowing him to gradually build up his strength and learn to move more efficiently.

If your baby cries when you put him on his tummy, help him become more confident by playing some of these baby games:

While you are lying on your back or reclining, lie your baby on your tummy so that he will be encouraged to lift up and look at your face. Try gently rocking him from side to side as you hold him.

Lie down on the floor facing your baby and talk or sing to him.

Hold a rattle or a squeaky toy, wave a colourful silky scarf or a place a mirror in front of baby, for him to look at.

Sit on the floor and hold your baby on his tummy across your lap or thighs. Gently stroke him rhythmically down his back, making circular motions between his shoulder-blades.

Lie him on different textures: a (treated) lambskin or a ‘feelie blanket’ made of squares of contrasting fabrics such as soft velvet and corduroy, coarse hessian, shiny satin, and woollen, fleecy or fluffy fabrics. Curtain shops often sell sample squares of suitable fabrics in inexpensive bundles.

Place a toy within baby’s reach – perhaps a coloured ball or a plastic bottle with some bells or marbles and tinsel in it (make sure the lid is tightly secured and supervise).

Swish your baby through the air to music, supporting him with your arms and hands under his body and chest.

Lie baby across a beach ball or exercise ball, or a rolled up sleeping-bag, and rock him gently to and fro and sideways: this will also stimulate his vestibular (balance) system and help him get used to being in different positions.

Try lying your baby on your bed, near the edge, and sit on the floor with your face next to his. He might appreciate the softer surface, and you can talk and sing to him in this position.

If your baby can’t support his weight on his forearms, support  him on a rolled-up towel placed beneath his arms, with his arms forward so he can practise mini push-ups or play with a toy. When he can get up on his forearms independently, remove the pillow and let him work on his motor skills without it.

Once your baby has sufficient head control — around age 4 months — you can play aeroplanes: lie on the floor and bend your legs. Put your baby’s tummy against your legs, his head at your knees –he will be facing you as you hold him.  Now,  bend your legs up and down while holding on to him firmly As he  gets bigger and  feels  comfortable, you can bend your knees, lifting your feet off the floor so he ‘flies’  as you move your legs up and down. He’ll probably love the new view!

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant, infant massage instructor(CIMI) and best- selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby,Parenting by Heart,100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Toddler Tactics (Penguin Random House).See Pinky’s books HERE.   For more tips to enhance your baby’s development, check out Pinky’s recording series ‘Early loving early learning – loving ways to make your baby smarter’