Tummy time was always one of those things we forgot about with our first child. With all the other things that needed doing it just didn’t feel like a priority. Plus when we did remember, tummy time reduced our eldest to misery so it never lasted very long.
That wont be news to most parents. Some babies are fine with it, and if you’re diligent at building up time on their front when they’re little, it really isn’t a problem (as we’ve learned with subsequent children). For other babies though, they hate it and it can mean reluctantly leaving them laying on their back for longer, and limiting the time they have to learn to reach, roll and crawl.
At GRASP we're passionate about helping kids grow up confident, developing the best skills from a young age so they have a wide array of competences, because competence leads to confidence. So, the more kids are exposed to new challenges, the more they’ll learn to strengthen, overcome obstacles, and grow in confidence. That’s why we launched the Heads Up inflatable water tummy time play mat for babies that helps engage their bodies and minds as they spend time on their front.
If you’re preparing for a newborn or are in the trenches with a new baby and wondering what tummy time really is, why it matters and how to go about helping your baby develop a routine with it, here are some answers to four key questions:
- Why Tummy Time matters
- How can tummy time help your baby
- How to do tummy time with your baby
- What to do if your baby hates tummy time
1. Why is tummy time an important part of your baby’s development?
My mum would always be quick to remind me that the advice around how to put your baby down to sleep changed not long ago. In fact, it happened part way through having her 7 children. And to be specific, public health advice actually changed the month I was born (child number 5 of 7).
Here's the story behind tummy time...
In December 1991, the “Back to Sleep” campaign in the UK was launched to tackle Sids (Sudden infant death syndrome) after advice to sleep babies on their fronts had been the pre-dominant view for several decades studies into the causes behind Sids led to a dramatic and profound change in policy.
The change in advice – to always sleep babies on their backs - has subsequently saved thousands of lives. In 1989, before the change in advice, there were 1,545 deaths as a result of Sids, today there are barely 200 deaths a year from Sids. And while that is still tragic, this simple change in advice has kept many thousands of babies alive.
So with babies now put down to sleep on their backs – which comes with the best health interests for you little one – it presented a new question to health experts: when do babies spend time on their front? While it might not be safe for them to sleep on their front, there are huge benefits (more on this below) to babies spending time on their front. And that’s where tummy time comes in.
Tummy time is about finding smaller intervals of time when your baby is awake, to put them on their front and encourage them to reach, stretch and develop muscle strength that they don’t do when they’re spending time on their backs.
2. How can tummy time help your baby?
The time your baby spends on their tummy is key to their development. Putting your baby on their front encourages them to lift their head up off the ground and reach out their arms. This engages their neck and core muscles as well as their shoulders and sets them up well for broader motor skills further down the road.
Tummy time also helps prevent flat head syndrome. If your baby spends a lot of time on their back with their head laying to a particular side, their head can become flattened on one side. That can lead to a misaligned ears or even a slightly bulging forehead. This effects a wide number of babies and doesn’t cause them harm or developmental distress, but tummy time can be a huge help in preventing this from happening.
Time on their front, will strengthen baby’s neck which in time allows them to move it more freely into different positions even when lying on their back. This prevents constant pressure on one particular part of the skull that might lead to flat head syndrome. So helping your baby learn to move their body into new positions has immediate impact, not just long term consequences for their development.
Tummy time is also great at establishing basic core strength and engagement in the world around them. This will help your baby reach future developmental milestones more easily as well. For example, babies find it easier to roll over from front to back, so spending time on their front helps develop their ability to rollover more easily. Giving your baby the chance to reach for things they can see at eye level also encourages them to grab and pick up items which is a further integral step in developing their Palmar grasp.
3. How to do tummy time with your baby
Of course, so far we’ve made tummy time sound far more procedural than it really has to be. For some parents it will be just something that happens organically as you cuddle and play with them. It’s not something that necessarily needs a whole lot of thought – especially if you get into a good habit of varying their play set up. Putting your baby in different positions, giving them different toys and moving them to different parts of the house is just generally good practice.
But sometimes parents need to be a little more deliberate in order to cut through the routines of the sleep deprived mind.
Moving your baby around is hard when you’re tired and you just need to put them down… somewhere - anywhere! - for a few minutes of peace. And as with our first child, sometimes it’s just easy to forget to vary things up enough and take tummy time seriously without some prompts or help to build it up into a more automatic reflex in caring for your little one.
So here's some advice on how to navigate successfully doing tummy time with your baby from day 1
- Recommended advice is to try and work towards your baby having at least 30 minutes of tummy time a day by the time they’re 3 months. That doesn’t mean 30 minutes in one go, but across the space of a day.
- Given your baby will likely hate this prone position to begin with, the best thing is to create short intervals of time on their tummy throughout the day for as long as it takes them to get upset. Over time the amount of time they will be able to spend on their front without becoming distraught will increase until you don’t have to think too much about it.
- Create opportunities for tummy time by making a space for your baby where they can be put on their front, and providing them with engaging toys and visual cues that helps extend the time they spend on their front.
- In the first weeks, just putting your baby across your chest is probably the easiest way to give them time on their tummy.
- As they grow, putting your baby on a mat for tummy time with engaging visual cues (mirrors, black and white art cards, bright contrast toys) will help extend the time they can be left happily on their front. Our own Heads Up tummy time mat was designed to do exactly this. Combining the contrast of a black and white background with brightly coloured shapes creates that additional engagement.
- If your baby is particularly struggling, you can also try putting them across your lap or propped up on a feeding cushion to give them some extra support in keeping their head off the floor, something that tends to really upset them.
4. What should I do if my baby doesn’t like tummy time?
One of the biggest pains for parents when it comes to tummy time is their baby getting upset. And while this is a usual part of their development, some babies find it particularly hard.
Sometimes their discomfort on their front us because of reflux or stomach sensitivity that means time on their tummy makes it more likely for them to sick up. Sometimes there is just general discomfort that makes any amount of time on their front miserable.
The best suggestion is to build up very, very slowly. Think in weeks and months not days. If you break it down, there are c.90 days between your baby’s birth and turning 3 months. That means, building incrementally you’ve only got to add 20 seconds a day extra of tummy time to have them on their tummies for 30 minutes by the time they’re 3 months. When you think about it like that, adding 20 seconds a day doesn’t feel too painful.
But there are other ways to help your little one get their head moving, and avoiding flat head syndrome, without always using tummy time.
- Move your baby into new spaces to engage them with different things to look at. This will help keep their heads moving and out of a fix-set position
- Another way of keeping babies head resting at different angles is to fix a mobile in different positions on different days to help them look in different directions. If you notice your baby has a particular favourite side they like to rest on, you can try averting them with art cards or a mirror on the opposite side to get them using their neck muscles to turn their head.
- When feeding, especially if it’s with a bottle, change the positions and angles you feed at so they are resting on different sides of their head.
- Put your baby in a semi upright baby chair at different points in the day so they don’t spend all their time putting pressure on the back of their head. Their weight distribution in a chair will spread to their lower back and bum instead.
- Try using a baby carrying sling. This will totally change the pressure placed on the baby’s head and will help strengthen your baby’s neck muscles as it helps them learn to gradually support their own neck while in an upright position.