Why do babies need tummy time?
You might have heard the phrase 'tummy to play, back to sleep' and wondered what on earth that means? Well tummy time became an essential part of baby activity when the guidance on how to put your baby down to sleep changed in 1991.
The short story of how the 'Back to Sleep' campaign saved 30,000 lives
For several decades the advice had been to sleep babies on their front (in the 1950-80s). But studies began to show an association between SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and babies sleeping on their front. After extensive petitioning and a lot of studies, the advice was changed and parents were advised that you should sleep babies on their back. It’s estimated that this simple change in advice saves about 1300 infant lives in the UK each year. Incredible! Multiple that over the last 30 years and that's a game-changer for over 30,000 families that would have otherwise been left heartbroken.
Where did the idea of Tummy time come from?
The result of sleeping babies on their back however , was that unless you were deliberate about putting your baby on their front at some points in the day when they weren't sleeping, they’d spend all their time on their back.
Spending all their time on their back had some negative consequences. For a start, it could mean ending up with baby’s head being slightly squished. While baby's skull is soft, and while they don’t have the neck strength to move their heads, it can lead to a lot of pressure on a singular spot on the baby’s head. Hence, a squished head (what’s called plagiocephaly or brachycephaly).
So the concept of Tummy Time is all about making time in the day when you put your baby down on their front to build up neck and core strength. This encourages them to be mobile when they’re playing and build up the necessary mobility to move their head and roll about. That can help prevent a flat head because your baby has the strength to move their head from resting only on a singular spot. It also establishes the strength and technique baby’s need to help babies learn to reach, roll, sit and crawl.
How can tummy time help your baby
Tummy time is a vital part of play when your baby is awake. It gives babies the strength to help avoid flat head syndrome. But it also helps your baby reach development milestones.
- Lifting their neck up 45-90 degrees from the floor
- Twisting their neck to look left and right
- Building core or trunk strength necessary to stabilise your baby in a range of movements (sitting, standing, crawling, walking)
- Building gross motors strength, particularly in shoulders and hands as they support themselves on their hands or forearms
- Developing hand-eye coordination as they look down at shapes, colours and movements they wouldn’t see on their backs
How does not doing tummy time affect your baby's development
Experts encourage parents to push ahead with tummy time even though some babies don't enjoy it. The general consensus is that a concerted effort to encourage your baby to spend longer on their tummy helps them develop a range of motor skills - reaching, rolling, sitting, crawling - at a faster rate on average than babies that spend very little time on their tummy.
While this might not seem to matter too much, development in your baby's early years happens across four key areas - motor skills, cognitive skills, communication and language skills, social and emotional skills. And crucially, motor skill development affects a baby's other developmental skills.
A baby that learns to crawl (or shuffle) across a room to discover new things, views or people will challenge their other developmental skills as well - cognitive understanding of the space they're in, encouragement to hear new words and talk about new things they're seeing or feeling, social skills from interacting with new people.
Tummy time matters because giving your baby a strong, mobile start that builds good motor skills early in life will help them develop in all areas.
Tummy time milestones by age
What should tummy time look like for newborns
Baby will have very little to no neck strength so the best thing for newborns is to spend time on their front when they’re on your chest, or being cradled on your arm or in your lap. Essentially it will involve a lot of cuddles.
What should tummy time look like for a 1 month old baby
At 1 month you can think about tummy time with your baby spending time on their front on the floor. Ensure they have a soft surface to rest on and see if they can, even for a second lift their head up off the surface. They might also be able to begin turning their head when put down on their front. Try getting close to them, showing your face and talking to them from different sides to encourage them to turn and face different sides.
What should tummy time look like for a 2 month old baby
Things can get a little tricky at this stage and this is where we find the Heads Up play mat is invaluable. Babies should aim for a minute on their front at this age several times a day before becoming too upset. We found this was often just a few seconds which made it a real battle. Baby should be getting most of their tummy time on the floor. Try placing eye-catching (high contrast) shapes and images on either side of them to encourage baby to start turning their head.
What should tummy time look like at 3 months
At 3 months, baby is beginning to put more weight on their arms while on their tummy. This will help prop them up slightly higher and generally help them feel more comfortable in that position. While they might not be able to lift their head right up at this point
What should tummy time look like at 4 months
At 4 months, baby should have control of their neck and be able to keep their head centred and stable (till they get tired!) while on their front. They will be able to use their forearms to push their chest up off the floor or sensory play mat.
Tummy time development at 5 months
Tummy time will become more fun and your baby may actually prefer spending time on their front where they can play and engage more easily with the world around them. You can start introducing toys around them to start reaching and grabbing at things. This will help improve their grasp as well.
Tummy time at 6 months and beyond
At this stage your baby should be spending an hour a day or more on their front. It’s from this position that they will start to explore, either rolling around the room, shuffling backwards and eventually pulling themselves forward or lifting their tummies off the ground in a more formal crawl.
Activities to help encourage tummy time
One of the biggest challenges with our 3 little children was finding the right space and opportunities to get them on their front. It's so easy to lay them down on their back to give yourself a break at times. But here are some ways that you can naturally - without much fuss! - increase the amount of time your baby has to spend on their front and start developing stronger neck and trunk muscles from day 1.
Ideas for tummy time at 3 months
Positions for your newborn to encourage time on their front should come very naturally. Try cuddles on your chest, over your shoulder, or rocking them in your arms face down.
Ideas for tummy time play for 3-6 month olds
Try propping up your baby on your lap (story time is a great option). Try having your baby lay on you which is great when you're on the floor. Try using a play mat like Heads Up to prop up your baby to give them extra cushioning and support.
Ideas for tummy time play for 6 to 9 month olds
This is where you can get adventurous with your baby. As they start to roam you can prepare toys around them to encourage your baby to reach and crawl around the room.