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Turn your baby’s tummy time into play time!

May 27, 2015

Written by Sabina Sheikh, MD

Over the last 20 years, the number of babies dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) has been dramatically reduced, thanks in large part to public education initiatives aimed at teaching parents to put babies on their backs to sleep. Infant safety is a top priority, so this is great news! However, one thing that doctors did not expect to see as a result was a decrease in the time babies are spending on their tummies. There are several benefits to placing your infant on their belly when done properly.

What exactly is tummy time, and why should you do it?

It’s exactly as it sounds- babies spending time on their bellies. With all the advice parents receive, sometimes the importance of tummy time can be overlooked. Other times, parents can become very anxious about placing their babies on their stomachs, concerned that their baby may die due to SIDS. There are several reasons to do tummy time with your infant. Most notably, it helps strengthen upper body muscles. This includes the upper arms, shoulders, neck, and head stabilization muscles. Another key reason for doing tummy time is to enhance socialization. This makes your baby look around for you, make eye contact, and helps with the bonding experience. Also spending time on the belly can prevent flattening of the back of the head, called positional plaigiocephaly, and hair loss due to the head lying on a surface for too long.

Milestones to watch for

At one month of age, newborns are only able to graze or lift their chin off of a surface. At two months, normally developing infants should be able to lift their head and shoulders off the surface while on their tummy. Their arms begin to straighten as well. At three months old, babies can lift their chest and prop themselves up on their forearms. At four months old, they should be able to completely lift their head and chest as well as completely straighten their arms. Sometimes it can look like baby push-ups! By this point infants are typically able to roll from their front to back.

Advice for tummy time

The most important thing to keep in mind is safety. Your baby must ALWAYS be supervised! Also, if your baby begins to fall asleep (or whoever is supervising is getting sleepy), place your baby on their back for safe sleeping. Tummy time can begin as soon as possible, even when your baby is just a few days old! There is no specific amount of time to keep your baby on their belly, but start with what you can, even a minute at a time. The older they get and the more they develop, the longer babies can stay on their bellies. Its typically recommended to do this several times a day, but in between feedings are important so your baby is less likely to spit up. Place your infant on a firm surface with a cover, such as a thin blanket. It’s very easy for fluffy blankets and small fibers to get in the way of your baby’s breathing, so it’s best not to use those items. You can, however, place age-appropriate toys around your baby so they can attempt grasping, but keep small objects out of reach to prevent choking hazards. A firm surface prevents your baby from the “sinking in” feeling, which can occur when placed on pillows or soft mattresses that can cover their face and prevent breathing. Placing your infant on a low-lying surface, such as the floor, is safest to prevent falls especially as they become more active. However, when being watched closely, it’s okay to place your baby on your chest while lying down. It serves the same purpose, and your baby will love looking at you!

Enhance the tummy time experience

This is where the parent, sibling, or caregiver can really get involved and interact. When possible, place your baby on their tummy on a covered floor…but then get down there with them! Lay your arms flat with elbows out to the sides and bring your head down to their level. If that means placing your head all the way down on the floor, go for it! Babies love to make eye contact, which is a great bonding experience. Talking to your baby, using their name, smiling, and laughing will improve their socialization skills. Telling stories and even reading a book can be pleasurable for both of you. For infants who do not like being on their bellies, it’s a way to make this important activity a fun experience, because they want your attention.

Enjoy your baby while they can still stay in place, because pretty soon they’ll be crawling circles around you!