Have you ever told your mum or gran about “tummy time”? Did they look at you as if you’d grown another head and say, “What? We never had that in OUR day and you managed to crawl ok!”?
Here’s everything you need to know about the subject of tummy time, including what is is, when you should introduce it, tips to help your baby get the most out of tummy time and all the benefits it provides, so that you can decide for yourself whether to start scheduling it into your baby’s day.
In this article:
What is tummy time?
‘Tummy time’ did not exist before 1994. Babies born in the UK before the 1970s were generally placed on their sides to sleep and then, because of a growing, mistaken, belief that babies might choke on their own vomit if they rolled onto their backs, from the mid 1960s until 1992, mums were advised to put babies to sleep on their tummies.
Scientists working in the study of babies and how they regulate their breathing noticed that tummy-sleeping was associated with a huge increase in SIDS and suspected that front-sleeping interfered with the natural mechanisms which keep babies safe whilst asleep.
So mums were immediately advised to start putting their little ones on their backs to sleep and the rates of SIDS dropped from around 1 in 250 to around 1 in 3000 babies. One unforeseen consequence of this new, life-saving, policy was that babies began pushing up and crawling later. And so tummy time was invented to encourage mums to give their babies time on their fronts in order to develop motor skills and strengthen their muscles.
When should I start introducing tummy time to my baby?
Evidence-based advice on when and for how long to start putting babies down for specific tummy time is sparse and so even the NHS advice is pretty vague. It is suggested that tummy time should begin from birth – babies should be put on their tummies on their parent’s chest. In other words…cuddle your newborn baby! This seems obvious but many babies spend hours on their backs – in their bouncy chair, car seat, cot and pushchair and so rarely spend time on their tummies in the natural, in-arms way.
From about 5 or 6 months onwards, babies gradually start to roll over by themselves. This is a natural developmental stage and, once your baby finds they can roll over and reach out for a toy (or the pet cat) they will do it repeatedly and you no longer need to set aside a specific time. So, whenever your baby is lying on their back enjoying a good kick, place toys a short distance away to encourage them to look and reach.
Babies used to be changed on the floor or a lap and had space to move and roll, whereas, on modern changing tables, movement tends to be a bit more restricted if for no other reason than mums understandably worry about falls and so prevent their baby shifting about. So consider ringing the changes every now and then by getting down on the carpet when you’re tackling a wet nappy – pop baby on a towel and then take your time and play.
How long should my baby spend on their tummy?
Little and often is the best way to begin. Newborns can be put down on a soft blanket for a minute or so at a time a few times a day. As the days and weeks go on, gradually increase the time babies spend on their tummies out of arms. As a rough guide, start with that newborn minute on a blanket and then increase the time by a minute or two at each session every couple of days until your baby is getting a total of 40-60 minutes over the course of each day. This time does not need to be all in one go so don’t leave an unhappy baby wailing on their tummy.
What should I do if my baby hates tummy time?
All newborn babies can lift their heads and bob around from birth – it’s how they’ve evolved to find the breast. All babies are evolved to start looking around more at about 4 months old and then to start rolling from around 5-6 months onwards and then to eventually start moving (some crawl, some bottom-shuffle and some skip that stage and go straight to walking).
So even without scheduled tummy time, your baby will eventually give you the run-around. More of an issue is when babies do not get the opportunity to put their developing ability into practice and strengthen their muscles because they spend so much time in car seats, bouncy chairs and pushchairs as well as sleeping on their backs. Think of it this way: all children develop the ability to learn to swim but if they never get taken to the pool that learning won’t actually happen. We can have the ability to learn to do something but still need the opportunity to do so.
The way that babies have always had lots of natural tummy time is in arms. Mums and dads who constantly carry their babies, with or without a sling, soon discover that their little one pushes off their chest to get a better view of the world. And they never develop flat heads either! Those first three months, when babies are fractious ALL evening, are the perfect opportunity for hours of natural tummy time as you hold your poor colicky baby against your chest, or tummy-down over your forearm.
Mums who breastfeed their babies find that they hardly ever get the chance to put their babies in a bouncy chair or pushchair before their little one asks to disappear back up their T-shirt for another nuzzle, and, if, as a breastfeeding mum, they choose the calm of safely co-sleeping then their baby will naturally snuggle into them whilst lying on their side and push against their mums all through the night gently exercising their muscles.
So you see, babies have naturally evolved to push up, roll about and get moving to explore the wider world.
So, if your baby doesn’t like being put down on their tummy (and many really hate it), don’t panic. Simply ditch the pushchair and go out for a walk using your sling. Encourage family to pick your baby up and cuddle them to their chests for as long as they like – far from making a rod for your back, this encourages social skills and develops confidence.
Sure, introduce formal tummy time if you want to but, alongside this, do what your granny did and allow your baby lots of natural opportunities in your loving arms to workout and power-up. Just don’t forget to buy those cupboard locks!
What are the benefits of tummy time?
- Develops muscle strength – Tummy time is a great way of developing your baby’s muscle strength. They will eventually develop enough strength in their neck, head, arms and legs, so that they can hold themselves up and eventually start crawling.
- Encourages head control – Encouraging head control is important as once your baby has mastered this, every other milestone will follow. Tummy time encourages your baby to start moving and lifting their head a little at a time so that they can explore their surroundings better, and eventually they will be able to hold their own head up and look towards sounds and toys around the room.
- Helps to prevent flat head – Babies can develop a flat spot on the back of their head if they spend a lot of time laid on their backs, so laying them down for tummy time is a great way of preventing it.
- Eases gas pain – A baby with trapped wind is not a happy baby and it can be quite distressing, but the gentle pressure on their stomach from tummy time can help relieve gas. Just make sure you wait at least 20 minutes after your baby has fed before starting tummy time.
- Stimulates senses and cognitive development – Babies develop in so many ways in the first few months, and tummy time can help with cognitive development. They will start to turn their heads towards different sounds that they hear, and eventually rotate on their tummies to look for sounds. They also become more aware of different textures and surfaces when they are on their tummy, as they can feel the floor beneath their hands.
- Helps hand eye coordination and visual development – Tummy time exposes your baby to a new environment, as they’re usually laid on their back looking at the world upside-down. By being on their tummy, they can learn how to focus their eyes on nearby toys, and it even starts to encourage them to reach out and try to grab objects.
- Develops motor skills – Once your baby has stronger muscles, tummy time will start to encourage them to kick and push their arms and legs. This will then lead to your little one learning how to shuffle, roll, hold their bodies up with their arms and legs and even start to crawl!
- Helps baby and parents bond – Skin-to-skin is a great way to bond with your little one, so laying them on your chest for tummy time could be a great way to bond with your little one.
- Establishes a routine – Routines are great for babies and for parents as it can help you grab a few moments of peace. Making tummy time a part of your little ones routine will help them begin to anticipate it and even kick their little legs in excitement after nap time, knowing that soon they can see the world from their tummy.
Tummy time tips
You can start from day one
After being curled up in your womb for so long, your newborn isn’t used to lying on his tummy, which is why he’ll most likely cry if you simply lay him down on his front in the early days. The key is to ease him gently into the process in a way he’ll find soothing and secure, and slowly build the muscle strength he needs to manage tummy time comfortably. Start by holding him so his tummy is against your chest when you’re sitting down. His neck doesn’t have any strength in the early days, so you’ll need to support his head. But he’ll start to use his neck muscles to push his head up to try to see you and, in this position, he won’t have far to drop back onto you when that becomes tiring. As he gets stronger, you can gradually lean back, supported by cushions, until you’re at a 45-degree angle. He’ll get used to feeling that pressure on his tummy while he’s all snuggly next to you.
Be patient ‘til he’s past the jerky stage
At birth, your baby’s head makes up a whopping third of his body. When he’s all grown up, it’ll only be around an eighth. And to lift his big ol’ brain-packed head, he uses two sets of neck muscles. Sternocleidomastoid are the large muscles on either side, while the trapezius runs from his shoulders to the back of his neck. And because these muscles are fairly weak to begin with, he’ll lift his head with a jerky movement. But as they grow stronger, his head control and the ability to move it from left to right will become smoother. And your baby will be much happier if you only begin moving him into a fully horizontal position once he’s past the jerky stage and has some control of his head.
Keep him close to you at first
Safe sleeping advice means that babies don’t spend much time on their tummies, so it’ll take some getting used to. But letting your little one lay on you first, where he feels safe and secure, will really help. Try lying on your back on the bed and holding your baby on your front. Or sit on the sofa, place a blanket over your thighs and lay your baby horizontally across your legs, holding him in place as he experiences being fully on his front. When he’s happy and relaxed doing this, it’s time to progress to laying him on top of a soft surface such as a towel or playmat on the floor.
Your voice works better than a toy
Don’t spend a fortune on tummy-time toys just yet. It will take a while for your baby to develop the core strength to reach for them just yet, and he’ll be far more interested in your face and voice. Do some tummy time yourself, alongside him or head to head. Chat and sing to him, and let his natural instinct to respond to your voice and look for you motivate him to lift his head.
Movement soothes him
If your baby doesn’t like being on the floor, the tiger-in-the-tree hold can help. Lay him on his tummy along the inside of your forearm, so his head sits in the crook of your elbow, with your hand holding his crotch. Bring your other hand between his legs to help support his weight, letting his legs dangle on either side. Once you’re holding him securely, gently sway. He’ll be soothed by the motion while he gets used to being on his tummy.
Tummy time can aid digestion
Research has found that being on his front will help your baby’s digestion. Why? As your youngster lays on his front, the pressure on his tummy, and gentle massage it gets, helps get rid of excess gas. To get maximum digestive benefit, carefully lay him on his front over a large exercise ball, with his arms stretched out in front of him. Hold onto him securely at all times. Rock the ball very, very gently, taking great care to make sure he’s safe and content during the movement. Once he’s happy and is strong enough to control his head during the movement, gently rock the ball side to side, too.
10 second counts
You might find that your tot can only manage a few seconds on his tummy to begin with, and that’s just fine! Don’t feel pressured to persuade him to do any more than he can happily cope with, but simply build plenty of moments into your day together. Be led by him – and if he’s just a little grumpy then it’s ok to encourage him to continue for a few seconds more, but if he’s at all upset, pick him up or gently roll him over. You’re building big foundations, so go slowly. Everything your baby achieves in the next few months, such as feeding and walking, will have been nurtured during tummy time, so just enjoy watching his strength slowly develop – there’s no rush!