With all the focus on putting baby to sleep on her back, it’s easy to forget that tummy time is just as important. Though it’s tough to see at first, all those little wiggles and attempts at half-lifts are contributing to baby’s development in major ways, preventing flat spots from forming on the back of her head (a side effect of all that time on her back) and preparing her for down-the-road milestones like rolling over and crawling.
Tummy time basics
While there’s no prescription for exactly when to start tummy time, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents get going on it early. In fact, babies born at full term with no health issues can start tummy time as soon as their first day home from the hospital, so long as you and your newborn are both awake and alert, and you or another caregiver are there to supervise.
Don’t be surprised if baby hates tummy time and those initial attempts are met with some resistance. “Babies usually don’t like it and get cranky about it,” says Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health pediatrician Michael McKenna, MD. “The first time, they might only be down there for a minute before they start screaming. It’s about getting them used to being in that position. You’ll probably have to start with short sessions and work your way up.”
So how much tummy time is enough? A little bit goes a long way. When it comes to tummy time for newborns aim for two to three sessions a day for three to five minutes at a time, ideally after a nap or diaper change and as part of playtime. “You can stop or take breaks in there if your baby is having a tough time,” says pediatrician Ashanti Woods, MD.
As baby gets older and begins to enjoy his “workout,” gradually ramp up the number and duration of tummy time sessions. Aim for around 20 to 30 minutes a day of baby tummy time by the time he is 3 or 4 months old. Keep the practice up until baby can roll over on his own, a feat many babies accomplish at around 5 or 6 months of age.
How to do tummy time
Like most exercises, tummy time is pretty straightforward. Set a soft blanket or tummy time mat down on a firm, flat surface, and place baby belly-down on top of it. The floor is an ideal spot, though you can also lay your infant facedown on your stomach or chest or across your lap. Seeing your face can be incentive enough for baby to try lifting his or her head from your body, but McKenna warns that sometimes the plan backfires. A sleep-deprived new parent (read: all of us!) might be tempted to doze off once she lies down. Or, if you manage to stay awake, baby might not have the incentive to lift her head off your warm body and could drift off to sleep instead.
See how it goes and how baby responds to tummy time. You may need to play around with positioning. If, say, baby really can’t handle being on her stomach, consider laying her on her side. This AAP-recommended position has baby on a blanket, laying on her side, with a rolled-up towel behind her back and a rolled-up washcloth under her head for support (if needed). Bring both of baby’s arms in front of her and both legs forward, bending her knees for comfort. Be sure to roll her to the alternating side every 10 to 15 minutes.
How to make tummy time fun
In a perfect world, your infant will push up and move around on his own during tummy time, but chances are he’ll need some sort of stimulation to keep him engaged. Pulling out one or two tummy time toys and placing them just out of reach, so baby has to extend himself to grab them, can do the trick. Try holding a brightly colored stuffed animal or shaking a rattle near baby’s face to distract him from the task at hand. Or enlist his favorite toy—you! “Lay down there with your baby,” McKenna suggests. “Move his hands around, have him feel new things, read to him or put down different-colored blankets—something to keep it interesting for baby.”
What if baby still hates tummy time? Don’t stress—and don’t give up, Woods advises. “Like many things with children, it’s okay to step back, take a break and come back to tummy time,” he says. “Take a couple of days or a week off, and try again later. You’ll likely see success after you take a breather.” Also consider shortening sessions and spacing tummy time out throughout the day to make the task more bearable for your baby. A little here and there all adds up. “As long as they are doing some [tummy time], it will have some benefit,” McKenna points out.
Benefits of tummy time
We know, it’s not easy to make baby do an activity she’s less than thrilled about. But trust us, tummy time offers major rewards. Not only can it help set baby up to reach important milestones earlier—such as rolling over, sitting upright without support, and crawling—it’s also the ultimate workout.
This on-the-belly time boosts baby’s blossoming gross motor skills and engages some lesser-used muscle groups; it helps prevent positional plagiocephaly, aka flat head syndrome; and it gives him daily opportunities to master head control—a must before he’s able to crawl or sit up without help. It also helps alleviate gas pain, exposes baby to a different environment, and offers a sweet way for the two of you to bond. Win-win!
Experts: Michael McKenna, MD, general pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health; Ashanti Woods, MD, attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.