You’ve likely heard that ‘tummy time’ is important for babies’ development – as well as helping develop your baby’s muscular, skeletal and nervous systems, it’s a building block to developing other motor skills.
Why Tummy Time Matters
Tummy time 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.
Tummy time 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.
While safe sleep guidelines mean your baby needs to be placed on his back to sleep, often babies are also spending lots of time in ‘containers’ such as baby seats and rockers. Babies’ skulls are still quite soft and constantly lying on their backs without changing the head position can cause plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome – a flattened effect on the back of baby’s head). Plenty of tummy time when baby is awake helps the development of your baby’s skull.
A good mantra is ‘back to sleep, tummy to play’.
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, two or three times a day – and gradually increase the time, as long as your baby is comfortable.
But what if ‘tummy time’ ends in tears?
While some babies seem happy to lie on their tummies, others are not fans, so start gently when baby is calm and respect her response to avoid stress for your little one (and you). Make sure she isn’t hungry or tired and, on the other hand, don’t place her on a full belly of milk as this could be uncomfortable.
To encourage ‘tummy time’, place your baby on a firm, flat surface on his tummy with his arms forward – a baby play mat on the floor is best, as a soft or padded surface makes it too hard for baby to move. 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 towel and let him work on his motor skills without it.
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.
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.
If she becomes unsettled while on her tummy, try to coax your baby 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.
Tummy Time Games to Try
Here are some simple ways to make tummy time fun and support your baby’s development:
Snuggle chest to chest: While you are reclining at a 45 degree angle, lie your baby against your chest, 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. You can start this lovely bonding time from day one, holding your newborn skin to skin and gazing into those deep navy-blue eyes.
Get on the floor: Lie down on the floor facing your baby and talk or sing to her. Hold a rattle or a squeaky toy, wave a colourful silky scarf. Try placing a mirror in front of baby, for her to look at, or pop a toy on the floor in front of your baby so she can reach for it – 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).
Lie baby on your lap: Sit on the floor and hold your baby on his tummy across your lap or thighs. Talk, sing and gently stroke baby rhythmically down his back, making circular motions between his shoulder-blades.
Try some touchy-feely textures: Lie your baby 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.
Tummy-time dance: Holding your baby tummy down, swish her through the air to music, supporting her with your arms and hands under her body and chest. You can also simply walk around the house or garden holding your baby on her tummy – this can be a fun view of her surroundings.
Rock and roll: Lie baby across a beach ball or exercise ball, or a rolled-up sleeping-bag, hold him securely 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.
Face to face:Try lying your baby on your bed, near the edge, and sit on the floor with your face next to hers. She might appreciate the softer surface, and you can talk and sing to your little one in this position.
Play aeroplanes: 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 Australia’s most recognized and respected breastfeeding and gentle parenting advocate. She’s a mum of five, Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), TEDX speaker and best-selling author with 4 titles published by Penguin Random House. Her books include Parenting By Heart and Sleeping Like a Baby (download the first chapter FREE). Pinky is also the creator of Boobie Foods, nourishing, natural and organic foods to support breastfeeding mothers. Pinky’s books, seminars and parenting resources can be found on her website