Have you been diligently practicing tummy time, all the while dying to know when baby will start to roll over? We don’t blame you. Seeing baby roll over is such a fun—not to mention important—developmental milestone, since it’s the first sign he or she is becoming more mobile and independent. Once baby can roll from belly to back and back to belly, sitting up and crawling are usually not far behind. Read on to learn at what age babies start to roll over and how you can help baby get rolling.
When do babies roll over?
Babies can start rolling over as young as 3 to 4 months old, says pediatrician Deena Blanchard, MD, MPH, since it takes them a few months to build up the necessary strength—including neck and arm muscles and good head control—to pull off this physical feat.
Newborns have what’s called a fencing reflex, which is meant to prevent them from rolling over in those first few weeks. When a newborn’s face is turned to one side, her arm and leg on that side extend while the opposite arm and leg flex. “It’s nature’s built-in mechanism for preventing SIDS,” says pediatrician Cheryl Wu, MD. As the reflex starts to disappear (it should be completely gone by 6 months), and you notice baby has the strength and muscle tone to hold her head up more, you can take those as signs baby may be strong enough to roll.
It’s possible for babies to roll over even earlier than that 3- to 4-month mark—but that tends to be more of an accidental flop and not an intentional movement. “Sometimes I get a 5-week-old who’s managed to flip herself over because she was frustrated doing tummy time, moving around a lot and not enjoying being on her stomach, so she accidentally rolled over. It doesn’t mean she’ll continue to do so,” Blanchard says. Since newborns can sometimes roll over unexpectedly, Blanchard cautions that from the moment you bring baby home, the only safe place to leave her unattended is a crib, playard, bassinet or another place where she can be securely strapped in, such as a swing or bouncer. “Early on, baby is untrustworthy—you don’t want to be on the phone with your doctor at 2 a.m. because baby rolled off the bed or the changing table,” she says.
Most babies will first start trying to roll from their stomachs onto their backs because it’s generally easier. “Babies are definitely helped by momentum and gravity,” Blanchard says. If you notice baby trying to roll from his back onto his tummy, though, don’t discourage him—it’s actually a good sign. “Going from back to front definitely requires more strength, so if baby can do that, chances are he’s also capable of rolling from tummy to back,” she says. That’s why—although you should always put baby to sleep on his back to prevent SIDS—you don’t need to worry if baby rolls over while sleeping. “Once a baby can roll, if he rolls to his stomach when he’s asleep, you don’t need to get up and keep flipping him,” Blanchard says. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that by 7 months, most babies have mastered the art of rolling over.
How babies learn to roll over
Practice makes perfect. That’s why tummy time is key for baby when it comes to learning to roll over. “For a newborn, tummy time is super-important muscle training,” Blanchard says. The more opportunity baby has to work that muscle, the quicker he’ll learn. You’ll likely start to notice progress around the 4-month mark—that’s when baby’s growing body starts to proportionally catch up to her head (which is comparatively large at birth) and her overall muscle strength improves. It’s this combination that will help baby take that adorable mini push-up and roll with it into a bigger movement. “You’ll see her slowly start lifting her head higher, then she’ll be able to push with her arms, and finally she’ll get her chest off the floor,” Blanchard says.
How to help baby learn to roll over
The best way for you to encourage baby to roll over is to physically guide him along, teaching him what it feels like to move. “I put babies on their left side and extend the left arm so they don’t get stuck,” Wu says. “Then I pull gently on the right arm to teach them what it feels like to move.” Keep in mind that the sensation of flipping over is completely new to baby and can be a little shocking or scary. “They have this ‘What just happened?’ look on their faces,” Wu says. Don’t be surprised if baby cries at first. But after he experiences it a few times—and hears you clapping and cheering—he’ll be more eager to try it out.
Here’s how you can help baby get used to the movement and help him roll over all on his own:
Turn tummy time into playtime
During tummy time, place toys out of baby’s reach to encourage her to roll toward them. You can also try getting down on one side of baby and talking to her. Be sure to give lots of positive reinforcement too. “At 4 months old babies are social beings and love seeing their parents smile. If they see that rolling got a good result, they might be encouraged to keep trying,” Blanchard says, adding that if you have an older child, she can also get on the floor to cheer baby on. “This is a win-win, because baby is probably obsessed with her older sibling, and the big brother or big sister gets praised for interacting in a nice way. Tummy time can be a tool for bringing the family together.”
Let baby go naked
Try letting baby spend some time naked on the floor each day, since diapers can restrict movement in the hips and legs. “This way babies are free to experiment and move around,” says Dan Rindler, director of Child’Space NYC, a program that teaches movement techniques to support infant development. “I’ve had many parents tell me baby did something new during the time he was naked.”
Swaddling baby for the first few months of life can be a great sleep aid, but by 3 to 4 months, she will likely be ready to sleep without a swaddle, Blanchard says. This not only helps lower the risk of suffocation but also lets baby practice rolling over in her sleep. “Babies experiment a lot with movement in their sleep, and being swaddled or sleeping in something like a baby rocker instead of flat in a crib can limit that,” Rindler says.
Limit time in restricted spaces
During the day, help baby roll over by limiting the time he or she spends in anything that hinders movement, such as bouncers, swings, car seats (unless you’re driving!) and activity centers. “These days there are a million gadgets for babies to be in, and they could easily spend a whole day going from one to the other,” Blanchard says. “But you want kids to be in the position that is natural for them to develop the muscles they need to move forward.” She adds that physical therapists have a diagnosis for babies who don’t get enough opportunities to move: container syndrome. Babies should never sleep in swings, bouncers or car seats, Blanchard says, because of the risk of positional asphyxia, which happens when someone’s position restricts their breathing and causes them to suffocate.
What if baby hasn't rolled over yet?
Blanchard says that at the six-month well visit, she’s looking for babies to be close to rolling either from back to front or stomach to back. “Babies might not roll over right at 6 months, but if you aren’t seeing any attempts at movement, definitely discuss it with your pediatrician,” she says. “If your doctor thinks there may be a developmental delay, you’ll be able to work together to figure out what the next steps should be, like physical therapy.”
What developmental milestones come next?
Once baby can roll over, he’ll start to work on sitting up around 4 to 7 months and eventually crawling by the 10-month mark. But Blanchard cautions against waiting until baby is crawling to start babyproofing the house—when baby begins to roll, it’s a good idea to clear the area of choking hazards. “Some babies roll crazy fast and can rake objects with their hands—so a 6-month-old getting hold of something tiny, like a raisin, and bringing it to his face is definitely a possibility,” she says.
Once baby gets the hang of rolling over, practicing tummy time and propping baby up in seated positions are great ways to help baby move on to these next developmental milestones.
Expert Sources: Deena Blanchard, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Premier Pediatrics in New York City. Cheryl Wu, MD, a pediatrician in New York City. Dan Rindler, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner (GCFP), Child’Space NYC method trainer and director of Child’Space NYC.