Some mothers say, regarding their infants, “Yes! Tummy time is fun, no problem”. Some say, “No, my baby cries!  He hates being on his tummy.”

Why the difference? Why do some like it and some not?   All babies are different, each has his/her internal system of likes and dislikes. But why is it so important for infants to play on their tummy?  Do babies really need to spend time on their belly when they are awake?

tummy timeYES!

Ever since the implementation of Back to Sleep campaign to decrease the incidence of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), infants have been sleeping on their back.  SIDS has decreased dramatically.  However, along with Back to Sleep, has evolved the importance of Tummy Time.

What is tummy time?

Tummy time is the time your baby spends on his tummy, while he is awake, with you playing with and/or watching him. Tummy time includes many different activities, positions, ways of carrying your infant, and routines to help your infant spend a significant amount of time on his or her tummy.

In contrast to lying on his back, it’s a different view from his belly, a different feeling for his body. Many different sensory experiences are awakened and many different muscles are being used in different ways.  Some babies like it, but many do not, especially at first. Whether your baby likes it or not, he or she needs this time to practice moving away from the ground–lifting his head, pushing up from the ground.

Why is tummy time is important?

Tummy time is important because it helps prevent flat spots on the back of your baby’s head, it makes neck, upper back, and shoulder muscles stronger so your baby can sit, crawl, and walk.  It improves your baby’s motor skills, all those movements needed to complete an action, for normal growth and development.

One mom told me, “My doctor said my baby has to be on her tummy for at least 15 minutes a day. She starts crying after about a minute.  Fifteen minutes is way too long a period to have my baby cry.”

From the day your baby comes home from the hospital, s/he benefits from two to three Tummy Time sessions each day for a short period of time (three to five minutes).  Think a total of about 15 minutes per day in the beginning.  As your baby grows and begins to have fun on his Tummy Time, you can lengthen the sessions. As babies grow older, more Tummy Time helps build strength for sitting up, rolling over, crawling, and walking, along with body awareness and an awareness of many sensations (tactile/touch, visual, hearing, body space and location awareness).

How can you help your baby play on his or her belly and like it?

  • As soon as you are with your baby, even in the hospital and before the umbilical cord comes off, place your baby on your chest or belly in a reclined position. (You can prop yourself up with a pillow at your back.) This is belly to belly time and is a wonderful time to look eye to eye with your baby, to learn about each other, to bond.  Be animated and exaggerated, your baby is looking at you!)
  • Put your infant over your legs crosswise, with head supported if necessary. Rock your baby gently side to side and/or up and down. Baby will feel the variety of movement sensations, becoming more aware of each body part related to other body parts, and their body in relation to space around them.
  • Your baby can be put on the floor experiencing various textures: on a soft blanket, a mat—all different textures for baby to feel. If your infant is not yet pushing up with his arms, you can put a roll, (a soft towel or blanket) under his arms to prop him up.  As soon as he can straighten his arms, take the roll away and let him push with his arms.  Your baby is gaining strength in his upper extremities, shoulders, neck, and upper back.  He is also gaining flexibility in his joints from stretching out on his belly.  His view of the world is also changing—he does not have to look at the ceiling!
  • Side-lying is another position for your baby, with support at his back with your hand or a rolled up towel. Make sure both of his arms are in front of his body.  His hips and knees can be slightly bent for more comfort.  He can reach and play in this position.  You can roll your baby to the side and then gently back to his belly.

Some tips while you are doing these activities in tummy time:

  • Be sure to be there with your baby. He or she needs supervision.
  • Put your baby on a surface that is safe and firm with variety of different “feels.”
    • For example:  a blanket on the floor, a rug, a colorful mat, foam squares, terry cloth towel, fleece throw, etc
  • Try short Tummy Time sessions after a diaper change or after your baby wakes from a nap
    • A few tummy time sessions are fine, spread throughout the day
    • Notice when baby is getting fatigued, putting his head down, or getting ready to start crying
    • Pick up your baby while he is still having fun (that way he will want more, to do it again)
  • Incorporate Tummy Time into the activities you’re already doing with your baby, such as towel drying after bath time, changing diapers, or applying lotion.
    • Story telling is a great time for tummy time
    • Roll up a towel like a bolster, to put under his armpits
  • Put a toy or toys within your baby’s reach to help him play and interact with his or her surroundings.
    • Brightly colored toys, ones that feel soft, or make noise, or light up, or that wiggle or shine, a mirror, toys that are squishy with gel (enclosed) or water
    • Move the toys slowly, side to side to encourage tracking
  • Sit in front of your baby during Tummy Time to encourage interaction and bonding
    • Lay your baby on a raised surface (that is safe and firm) and get face to face, eye to eye with him while you are laying in front of him, or kneeling at eye level
    • Ask siblings to join in
  • As your baby becomes more involved in the play, he or she will be able to stay for longer periods of time on his/her tummy.
    • This can be up to 60 minutes per day! Or more!
    • Tummy time is all during alert and awake time.
  • Limit the time your baby is constrained in swings, exersaucers, and other baby gear

You are encouraging active and interactive play to strengthen your infant’s muscles, awaken his senses, his curiosity, while helping him to grow and develop.  Have fun and he or she will too!

Marcia Levinson, PT, PhD, MFT