When it comes to tummy time, one of the most common things I hear from parents is how much their baby hates it, and that's the reason why they're avoiding it. Most parents know tummy time is recommended throughout the day and to give it a try early on, but few parents are prepared for their baby's distress calls. Baby gets frustrated, sad, or uncomfortable and lets loose that piercing cry - the one every mom in a kilometre radius can hear, and inevitable mom or dad swoops in to save them from the terrible tummy time experience. It's natural, it's reflexive, and it's incredibly common, but today I'm going to talk a little more about why it's so important to prioritize tummy time, and what you can do to make it a little easier on yourselves as new parents.
Why Do We Need It In The First Place?
There are a ton of reasons why tummy time is important. As a paediatric physiotherapist, I spend a lot of time educating parents and advocating for the role of tummy time in the development of their little ones. I'll save the laundry list of reasons for today and instead, give you my top three reasons why tummy time is a critical part of your day-to-day.
Tummy time is a precursor to fine motor skills
Fine motor skills including independent feeding, object manipulation, and later, printing in school. It might seem small, but that is definitely my #1. Gaining strength through the upper body including chest, arms, head and neck as an infant leads to participation in the classroom and at the table - printing, cutting, grip, and object manipulation. Early head lifting and pushing up through the arms give way to crawling, pulling to stand, and climbing to the top of the tower at the park, so think long-term gains on this tummy time tip.
Preventing flat head shape and tight neck muscles
Known medically as plagiocephaly and torticollis, tummy time means decreased time resting on the back/side of the head while gaining neck/head control. We know that back-sleeping is the safest position for infants before they're able to roll independently onto or off of their tummy, but that also means they spend more time with pressure on the back or side of their head. With tummy time we can prevent, or at least help reduce the development of these common conditions.
The tummy is a great place to play!
Imagine all you did all day was lie on your back and stare at the ceiling (or maybe at a single mobile placed above you. That would get pretty boring, wouldn't it? That is part of the drive for babies to learn to roll and why, once they do, they refuse to stay on their backs. On their tummy babies can see the world around them, interact with it by reaching for toys (or mom, dad, a sibling or a pet!), and eventually that curiosity drives them to start moving. The key? It all starts on the tummy!
Ok, We Get It, It's Important. So How Do We Get Past The Discomfort?
Parents, listen closely:
It's hard for you, and it's certainly hard for your baby! At birth, your baby's head makes up about 25% of its overall body weight, and is 25-35% of its overall body length! Imagine lifting 25% of your adult body weight with your neck, that sounds un-fun, and you certainly wouldn't want to do it all day, every day after living in a nice, warm cocoon for nearly ten months. The advice you'd likely give your adult self with the goal to lift that much weight with your neck would likely be to build up slowly, and the same goes for your baby. Slowly increase tummy time and, just like any routine, it will eventually pay off.
Here are a few tricks that I give parents as their babies grow and develop:
You can start tummy time on Day One (Restrictions and complications aside)
What does that look like? Chest to chest snuggles. Lay baby across your lap, nursing pillow or cushion. Newborns have an innate reflex, called the labyrinthine reflex, that lifts their head and turns it to either side to allow them to breathe. Take advantage of this and encourage them to turn to both sides equally so that one side doesn't become tight - every baby will have a preference. Respond to their cries with words of encouragement, frequent breaks, and keep it to a few minutes at a time in the early days.
As your baby gets a little older you will see their head begin to lift more and they will start to push some weight through their arms so that by three months they are lifting their head up to vertical and starting to push themselves up to look around. You can place a roll under their chest to help support them and make it easier to push up. You could also use an exercise ball to play superman with lots of hands-on support.
Using a mirror and/or getting down on your baby's level is a great way to distract them and engage them in play on their tummy. Place colourful toys in front and around them to draw their attention and begin to reach around.
By six months most babies will start to push up even more, and begin to move their arms independent of their legs. They may reach for toys, creep forward and press up to hands and knees. Giving them plenty of opportunities for climbing over your leg or pillows will naturally cue them to start pulling up and to start moving!
By nine months their exceptional head control will lead them to crawl, which will take them everywhere! They'll be using their upper body strength to pull up on furniture (or you!), and it won't be long before all that early work pays off with walking!
Parents, the best advice here is to start small and play the long game. Every bit of tummy time will make a huge difference in your child's growth and development. Encourage them, and give them breaks, but don't let them miss this important opportunity because you'll be thankful for it in the long run. If you are still struggling, reach out to a local paediatric physiotherapist for assessment, advice, and home exercises for your family to support your little one's development.
Stephanie Sollazzo is a Registered Physiotherapist, wife, mother, yoga teacher, and self-professed lover of homemade Italian food (especially when her sons make the noodles). She is passionate about helping moms return to activity after pregnancy, and working with children of all ability levels. If you can't find Steph at CONNECT, the only place to look for her is on a beach. To book an appointment with Stephanie, click here