Why do babies need tummy time?

Last Modified: 7/13/2021

tummy time

Did you know that babies spend most of their days facing the ceiling? With so much time spent on their backs, infants must practice using their neck, engaging their core and honing their motor skills, which are all precursors to key developmental milestones. For this reason, we asked Brittany Brannan, NP, PPG – Pediatrics, to help explain what tummy time is, the safest ways to go about it and why it’s an integral part of your baby’s normal growth and development.

What is tummy time?

Tummy time is placing your baby on their stomach, face down, to play. It is one of the first and most essential exercises for your infant.

Why is tummy time important to an infant’s development?

Tummy time is crucial to a baby’s development. When on their stomach, a baby develops the muscles necessary to lift their head, roll over, sit up, crawl, stand and eventually walk. This exercise provides the building blocks to all other stages of motor development.

What could happen if a child doesn’t get enough tummy time?

When a baby does not get enough playtime on their tummy, they can develop positional plagiocephaly or a flattening of the back of their head. This cosmetic issue often requires molding helmets or physical therapy to correct. And, since a baby is safest to sleep on their back, it is essential to let them play on their tummy when awake, allowing for critical motor development while also keeping their head nice and round.

When should parents start tummy time with their child, and for how long?

We recommend parents start tummy time early in the newborn period or within the first few days of life. Babies should do tummy time for at least 20-30 minutes every day, always with parental supervision. It’s best to start with two or three 3–5-minute sessions, then gradually work your way up.

Can tummy time happen during nap time or while an infant sleeps?

No, tummy time should never happen when an infant is tired or sleeping. Tummy time is safest when your child is awake, alert and a parent is present. Moreover, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants should only sleep on their backs, as it is the safest sleep position for them.

Where is the safest place for tummy time to occur?

Holding your baby on your chest or placing them belly down on your lap are both excellent places to do tummy time with a newborn. As your child gets bigger, laying a blanket or playmat on the floor is a great option to let them play and practice their tummy time. While those are the best options for your child, remember it’s never safe to place your baby on furniture or other areas where they could accidentally roll or fall off. And, if there are other children or pets in the home, be sure to keep them at a safe distance while the baby plays on the floor to avoid any unintentional injury to the infant.

Is it normal for babies to cry during tummy time?

Yes, some babies cry at first when placed on the floor for their tummy time, while others love it. Either way, parents need to help their child get accustomed to this exercise to promote their motor development. Remember, your baby will get the hang of it.

How can parents help their child better tolerate tummy time?

Parents can help their baby better tolerate tummy time by starting slow, especially if the infant is unsure and cries. If your baby cannot do 3–5-minute intervals on their stomach, begin with a minute or two instead, then slowly increase the time. Using your chest to position the baby in the tummy-down may also be helpful as they get familiar with this exercise. Get down on the floor with your baby face-to-face and encourage them. As your baby gets a little older, adding age-appropriate toys to their playmat to help distract them is helpful. Also, try not to do tummy time right after a feeding, as this can put pressure on the belly and increase spit-up.

Where can parents turn if they have questions regarding tummy time?

If parents or caregivers have questions about tummy time, I encourage them to reach out and speak with their pediatrician or primary care provider. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics has many online resources that can be extremely helpful.

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