Updated: Aug 28, 2022
WRITTEN BY SALLY HILLS-DAVIS, CHILDRENS OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST AND KIRSTY BROCKLEHURST, CHILDRENS PHYSIOTHERAPIST. FOUNDERS OF THE PRACTICAL CHILD.
Tummy time: What is it all about? And why does everybody bang on about it?
Tummy time is actually a relatively new concept. Pre 1992, babies were routinely placed on their tummies to sleep; however, a link was found between sleeping on the front and cot death (sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS). This brought around the ‘Back to Sleep’ campaign, which decreased the incidence of SIDS and was a huge success.
However, although being hailed as a successful campaign in terms of reducing incidence of SIDS, there were some surprising negative side effects that began to emerge. Evidence showed slower attainment to developmental milestones, such as rolling over, sitting up, and crawling. There has also been an increase in positional plagiocephaly (often called ‘flat head') since the start of the back to sleep campaign.
This led to a new campaign to run alongside ‘back to sleep’ aptly coined ‘tummy time”.
What is tummy time?
So, what exactly is ‘tummy time’? Tummy time refers to babies spending time lying on their front during awake periods. Most parents are now aware of the need to ‘do tummy time’ but many find it a challenge and feel unconfident in how and when to introduce it, as well as what to do if their baby hates it!
When babies are born, they have very weak necks and very large heavy heads. These two things do not combine well when it comes to enjoying tummy time. As a result, many babies get upset and parents avoid tummy time for fear of upsetting their little one.
The benefits of tummy time
One part of our jobs as specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist and Physiotherapist is to help support and educate parents on the benefits of tummy time and find ways to make it fun. We know that developing this skill from an early age can help develop the skills such as rolling, sitting, crawling and walking. The more tummy time is incorporated into a baby’s day, the more the muscles and strength develop, directly impacting on literally everything the baby does.: feeding, sitting in a highchair, speech and communication. Long term, something as simple as tummy time can impact the skills of writing, cutlery skills as well as the ability to sit and concentrate in a group activity.
What age should I start tummy time?
Tummy time can be started in the first weeks of your baby’s life (unless advised by medical professionals not to do so). This should be a parent-led activity and can be undertaken on your chest to start with.
When and where should I do tummy time?
Tummy time does not have to be at a precise time or even for long periods. Tummy time ideally should be incorporated into your daily routine, little and often is the key here!
There is also a general view that tummy time has to be an all or nothing, flat on the floor activity, that you need to get through, but is not to be enjoyed. This does not need to be the case at all! In fact, tummy time doesn’t even have to be on the floor at all to start with!
Top tips for starting fun and enjoyable tummy time with your baby
Little and often is key - Even a few seconds at a time may be enough to start with but repeat that many times a day.
Stop before they get upset - Start to learn your baby’s cues, ideally you want to stop tummy time whilst they are still enjoying it and before they get upset.
Always roll in and out - Try not to place your baby straight onto their front. This can be a little scary as they won’t understand how they got there or how to get out again. Rolling has many benefits, one of which is helping show your baby how they move from their back to their tummy, which may make tummy time a little less scary.
Build it into a routine - Nappy/diaper changing time Is a great opportunity to roll in and out and spend a little time on their tummy. Plus, you will be doing it multiple times each day!
Try it on your chest - A lovely early tummy time is to position your baby on your chest and slowly lean back a little so you are reclined.
Try a roll - Roll up a small towel or blanket and place under their chest with their hands on the floor in front of the roll. This helps move their weight down to their pelvis and away from their head and shoulders, making it easier to push up.
The magic hand - As they get older, place a firm but gentle hand on their bottom. This works similar to the roll in keeping their weight down at their pelvis and not at their shoulders and head.
Get down on the floor with them - Babies love to look at you! Try lying down on the floor, first to the side of your baby so they can look at you, but as they get stronger, in front with your face around 30 cm away. This will encourage them to lift their head to look up at you.
Think about toy choices - Choose toys that your child enjoys looking at and you can adjust the height/position of. However, avoid toys that your baby will want to reach out for and grab as they will need to keep their hands on the floor to try and push up with.
Tummy time can be an enjoyable activity that can help your child develop muscles and strength in their back, core, neck, shoulders and arms. In turn, these will help them develop skills that go far beyond childhood. At first, you may see it as a chore but once you see the benefits of doing it you will notice that your baby enjoys it too.