Mention the words tummy time to your mom, and she probably won’t know what you’re talking about. Because back in the day, “tummy time” (which is awake, supervised playtime on baby’s tum) didn’t exist as such, and it wasn’t something that she consciously had to do with you.
Instead, it happened involuntarily when she put you down to sleep on your stomach or left you to lie freely on a blanket. But things have changed.
As a result of the Back To Sleep campaign initiated by the American Academy of Pediatrics – which encourages parents to put their babies down to sleep on their backs – and restrictive infant car seats, bouncy chairs, swings and saucers, babies are spending more time on their backs and less time on their tummies, where they need to be to develop.
Why the fuss?
“Let’s be honest, life is pretty hectic. As a result, babies are sometimes left to fend for themselves on their backs, in their prams or in their baby equipment. It’s the easier option – especially when they’re fussy – while mom or dad tackle a million and one things,” says Cape Town-based occupational therapist Kirsty Beamish.
“This, and the fact that the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends babies sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS, means that being on their tummies is very hard work for babies, as they very often don’t have the head control and upper body strength that they need for this position,” says Kirsty. She adds that reflux babies often have issues with tummy time too as it’s a very unpleasant position for them.
“It squashes their stomachs, forcing stomach acids back up and out of the oesophagus. If your baby cannot tolerate even a few minutes of tummy time, perhaps get her checked out and treated for acid reflux,” she urges.
5 benefits of tummy time
- Kirsty says that you want your baby to be on her tummy so that she can work against gravity and build up her muscles. “Tummy time strengthens your baby’s neck muscles and gives her head control – something she needs to feed well and meet all her milestones: rolling, sitting, crawling and walking.”
- Tummy time aids visual development. Your baby needs strong neck muscles and head control to track movement and focus on objects.
- It also helps to strengthen your baby’s arm muscles so that she can develop upper body strength, push herself up and ultimately crawl, explains Kirsty, adding that she will use that upper body strength for the rest of her life to read and write, hold a pair of scissors properly, or even climb a jungle gym. “Every milestone builds on the next – they don’t happen in isolation.”
- If your baby has had consistent tummy time, by the time she’s sitting, she’s had practice working against gravity, which allows her to bring her two hands together to her midline. “This is called bilateral integration, where the two sides of the body are used together. Babies need it to bring their hands (and toys) to their mouths. It’s how they explore and learn,” Kirsty maintains.
- Tummy time will help avoid flat head syndrome. Babies who spend too much time on their backs or in baby seats can develop flat spots on their heads, which sometimes need medical intervention.
No tummy time - now what?
If your baby doesn’t have enough of it, or completely forgoes tummy time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll miss her major milestones.
“You may, however, notice that your baby doesn’t have great head control, that she isn’t very stable when sitting, that she struggles to bring her hands together or to her mouth, or that she’s mildly delayed in rolling or pushing herself up. Because not doing tummy time can have an impact on a child,” cautions Kirsty.
That said, children develop at different ages, and there’s a range over which milestones need to be met; so try not to stress if your baby doesn’t hit every milestone exactly on the mark.
“If you’re worried that your child is delayed in a particular area, then get her assessed by your paediatrician or an occupational therapist as it’s better to address a problem early on before it leads to another one.”
Tips to make tummy time work
1. Start early
The earlier you start tummy time with your baby, the better, and the more chance there is that your baby will enjoy it. So put your newborn on your chest. In this position, the neck and back-strengthening benefits of tummy time are gained.
2. Prop her up
For a slightly older baby, roll a towelling nappy under her chest to raise it up a little and make her more comfy. You can even use a breastfeeding cushion, a pillow or a small 55cm gym ball. Lie your baby across one and roll her gently over it from side to side and from back to front.
3. Time it right
Time her tummy time for after naps and when she’s been fed – just not straight afterwards. A content baby is much more likely to cooperate and have fun on her tum than a fussy one.
4. Break it up
Do as much tummy time as your baby can tolerate, and alternate tummy time with back time. Start with three to five minutes three times a day and gradually build it up. Eventually, your baby should be able to do about 30 minutes throughout the day, perhaps even more.
5. Play with her
Distract your baby from the fact that she’s on her tummy and get down on your tummy too. Make eye contact with her, play with her – blow bubbles, play peek-a-boo or read to her. If you’re busy, place her at your feet on a blanket with a mirror as babies love looking at themselves.
Lots of toys scattered around to look at and reach for work well too. And don’t forget about interactive playmats – a fabulous buy.