Defying Gravity: Tummy Time

As a new parent, you receive a lot of rules about how to take care of your new bundle of joy. But, one is a bit hard to implement once you get home: Tummy Time.

What is Tummy Time?

This cute, alliterative phrase refers to any time when your baby is on their belly while they are awake and active. This position allows them to lift and turn their head from side to side, and provides the foundational upper body and core strength/ stability needed for reaching and crawling. 

Why is it so important?

Tummy Time is essential to the development of postural controlthe ability to maintain an upright position against gravity.

When a baby is born, the weight of the world literally pushes them down. A newborn is not strong enough to fight gravity at this point, and their head is usually turned to the side when placed on their stomach. However, as the infant grows and more time is spent on their bellies, their muscles begin to strengthen and stabilize, allowing them to settle in this position. 

  • By 6 weeks of age, they begin to lift and hold their head in line with their body for a few seconds. 
  • By 12 weeks, they begin to have more control of their head and neck; not only bearing weight through their upper body, but starting to do so through their lower body as well. 
  • By 16 weeks, they can “press down” on their forearms to lift their head and upper torso, allowing them to move their neck to track objects, locate sounds, and search for familiar faces. 
  • At 5 months, they start to push themselves up on their hands with straight elbows and can reach for toys nearby. 
  • At 6 months, they have more control of their full body. They can pivot in a circle while on their bellies, roll from belly to back and vice versa, and attempt to coordinate movements to get to objects just out of reach.

In addition to postural control, tummy time is crucial to developing balance and spatial orientation.

What happens if you don’t do it (enough)?

If Tummy Time is limited, a child could develop the following as they age:

  • Limited balance due to poor posture, resulting in fatigue
  • Difficulties controlling eye movements because the head is not stable, resulting in trouble with reading and writing when they are older
  • Difficulties processing what they see in their environment
  • Using compensatory methods to maintain head control, resulting in muscle tension in the neck and shoulders
  • The development of Flat-Head Syndrome, resulting in difficulties wearing protective head gear to safely participate in certain activities when they are older, like playing sports that require a helmet
  • The development of positional Torticollis where the neck becomes tight on one side, causing the baby to favor one side of the body and therefore creating difficulties with midline orientation and symmetry

How do I do it?

Tummy Time is exactly what it sounds like. It can be done on the floor, on the bed, outside or indoors, just about anywhere. Just make sure the area is safe and baby is comfortable

Place a few toys around them to encourage engagement. If that doesn’t work, get down on the ground with them. Playing, talking, and even singing to them can be just as engaging. You could also place a mirror in front of the child since babies enjoy looking at themselves. 

The best time to do Tummy Time is right after a nap or a diaper change. It’s not recommended to do this immediately after feeding (too much pressure on the stomach could lead to a big mess…you have been warned). 

There’s more than one way to do Tummy Time. Other options if your baby is uncomfortable are:

  • Tummy to chest – Prop yourself on some pillows while lying on the couch or floor. Place baby on your chest, facing you.

  • On the lap – Place baby on their tummy across your lap with one hand on the baby’s bottom to steady them. 
  • Football hold – Position one hand under your baby’s tummy with your forearm between the legs. Use the other arm to support the baby’s head and neck, holding them close to your body. You can also do this position with one arm, resting the baby’s head and belly on your forearm while holding them between their legs. 

  • Supported –Roll a swaddle blanket and place it under the baby’s chest and upper arms. This can also be done with a Boppy Pillow after a certain age.  

How long should I do it for?

Every little bit helps. The aim would be for at least 1 hour a day, cumulatively. Obviously, most newborns and babies cannot tolerate that amount of time in one sitting (fighting gravity is hard). Break it up into 3- to 5-minute increments and build their endurance from there. 

If my baby cries during Tummy Time, is it hurting them?

Tummy Time is hard. It requires about 44 muscles in the head, neck, and upper body to lift and maintain the head in an upright position. It’s a child’s first real workout and it’s important to stick with it. If your baby cries, they might be tired but not in pain.

Another reason might be the presence of silent reflux which could upset their bellies. If that’s the case, try Supported Tummy Time as well as completing them in shorter intervals. 

Once your baby builds the strength and endurance to master Tummy Time, they are able to build on these skills and complete so many other great feats of movement, like sitting, crawling, and walking. Before you know it, they’re driving and going to college…but I digress. 

Importance of Tummy Time: When to Start and How to Do It“,
Tummy Time“, Reflux Infant Support Associations, Inc., 2012.
Case-Smith, J. (2005). Occupational Therapy for Children, 5th ed, pg. 279-281.
Goddard, S. (2002). Reflexes, Learning, and Behavior: A Window into the Child’s Mind. 

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