There are few words more likely to make a new parent cringe than tummy time. Sit down with your stroller squad and broach the topic, and the responses will likely range from “He screams the whole time” to “Just make it stop.”
So why the heck do parents do this to their babies? And for that matter, to themselves?
The answer goes back a few decades to 1994, when the American Academy of Pediatrics launched its Back to Sleep campaign. Since re-named the Safe to Sleep campaign, the goal was to reduce SIDS in infants by recommending parents put babies to sleep on their backs rather than their sides or stomachs. The campaign worked. Since the ’90s, SIDS deaths have been cut in half, and at least three quarters of parents put their babies to bed on their backs at night.
But while it’s saved babies’ lives, the campaign poses two problems for new parents, says pediatrician Lisa Lewis, MD, author of Feed the Baby Hummus, Pediatrician-Backed Secrets from Cultures Around the World.
“Prolonged back positioning may cause the back of the head to flatten,” Lewis explains. Dubbed flat head syndrome or plagiocephaly, the flat spots can be complicated to correct, requiring babies to wear corrective helmets to help the head develop correctly. All that time on the back also means babies aren’t using the muscles in the arms, neck, and shoulders that they typically develop when they spend time belly-down, Lewis adds.
When doctors started seeing these issues pop up in their offices again and again, tummy time was born to help stave off flat-head syndrome, help babies work those muscles, and make parents everywhere wonder if all the crying is really worth it.
The short answer? Yes, tummy time is worth it. But you knew we were going to say that, didn’t you? Here’s why the experts beg moms not to throw in the towel…and how you can make tummy time easier on your baby and yourself.
How and When to Start Tummy Time
By name alone, it’s pretty obvious what tummy time entails: spending periods of time encouraging baby to lie on their tummy. But when do you start tummy time? And how long should baby spend in tummy time?
According to Lewis, parents should start tummy time at birth, if possible, and no later than 1 month of age.
“At birth, I recommend starting tummy time with skin-to-skin contact on the chest or by placing baby face down in the lap,” she suggests. “Gradually transition tummy time to a flat surface.”
At first, baby can spend just a few minutes doing tummy time—literally as little as three to five minutes is all it takes, two to three times per day.
Now for the bad news: They may hate it at first, and they may even do some crying and screaming.
“Some babies do hate it because it’s exercise! It takes effort,” explains Danelle Fisher, MD, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “When babies hate it, I recommend trying it three times a day for 90 seconds.”
Even there, the doctors have good news. As they spend more time on their tummies, most babies get more comfortable and start to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the part of the day they spend on their fronts. That’s in part because the “exercise” gets easier. After all, tummy time is aimed at helping a baby “develop the strength of the neck, upper chest, and upper back,” Fisher says.
“This helps the baby learn to hold up his or her own head,” she explains. The more muscle strength they can develop, the more fun it will become for baby, as they learn to actually hold their head up and begin to build strength to arch their back, allowing them to look around and get a look at the scenery instead of lying stomach down, cheek on the floor.
As baby gets more into it, the length of tummy time should increase, along with the amount of time they spend on their bellies.
Tummy Time (and Place)
You know there might be tears (baby’s and yours). But you also know it’s worth it.
So how do you set yourself up for tummy time that will help baby and maybe lead to them enjoying that time on their belly?
This is one part of raising baby that doesn’t require much of a cost investment. You can practice tummy time just about anywhere and with few supplies. Fisher even did tummy time with her son on his changing table. He hated the floor, but he loved his changing table, so she made it work.
“The most important thing is that tummy time needs to be fully supervised and only when the baby and parent are awake,” says pediatrician Gina Posner, MD of MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Beyond that, there are few “rules” for tummy time aside from Do it! Even the “place” is fairly flexible.
Tummy Time Supplies
As they grow, laying out a thin blanket on the floor or a colorful play mat with some toys to draw their attention can help keep baby safe and encourage them to engage. Fuzzy blankets and items a baby could choke on should be moved out of the way, and Lewis advises parents to position baby so that their mouth and nose can both be seen.
“If you can see the nose and mouth, then you know he is ventilating well,” she explains.
You’ll also want to grab your phone to set an alarm. Instead of clock-watching to figure out the exact moment tummy time can be over, setting an alarm lets you focus on bonding with baby, whether you’re playing with their hands and feet or encouraging them to smile with some toys.
Tantrum-Free Tummy Time (Yes, it’s possible.)
It’s common sense: If you start playing when baby’s already feeling cranky, they’re going to turn on the scream machine. Think of tummy time the same way.
“Tummy time is easier when the baby is in a content mood,” Lewis points out. “For example, if the baby is getting close to feeding time or sleepy, she might be more likely to get upset when placed on the tummy.”
It’s best to try tummy time after baby’s been fed, burped, and had their diaper changed. This helps a baby transition from feeding to play and then to sleep time, says Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a psychologist and fellow with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“This helps a child learn to self-soothe instead of learning a ‘feeding to settle into sleep’ pattern,” Schneeberg explains. The latter pattern often results in fragmented sleep, as a baby who becomes accustomed to falling asleep while eating will need another feeding if they wake up in the middle of the night. But tummy time helps prevent that cycle.
That said, if a baby has just eaten, lying flat on their belly on the floor can be uncomfortable. Lewis suggest baby be inclined, instead. If they’re on your lap, for example, bring your knees up, so baby’s head is above their waist, easing digestion.
Call in the help.
If you’ve got older kids in the house, tummy time is the perfect opportunity to call them into the room. They can engage their little brother or sister: cooing, chatting, and showing off toys.
No big kids? No problem. Tummy time is also a chance for you to get down on the ground and play with baby, Lewis says.
Or, if your baby is not happy on the floor, even with you nearby, it’s A-okay to scoop them up, lie down on the ground or on your bed, and let baby hang out, belly-down on your belly.
“Make eye contact with the little one, use the hands and voice to soothe if there’s any discontent,” she suggests. Stripping baby down to their diaper and removing your shirt so baby can lie skin-to-skin can help them feel calmer, making the experience more pleasant.
“Skin-to-skin contact is soothing for both parent and baby,” Lewis says. “[It] might be so relaxing that the baby doesn’t work too much, but it still counts as tummy time!”
The End of Tummy Time
Whether baby loves or hates tummy time, this is one stage of baby raising that’s relatively short lived.
“Once the baby is rolling both ways, they will be able to go from tummy to back and back to tummy, so at that point, no more tummy time is needed,” Posner explains.
By 6 months old, most babies have developed their muscles enough to graduate from tummy time. Ironically, at this point they’ll actually be able to roll onto their bellies themselves during playtime, essentially doing their own version of tummy time!