What is Tummy Time….AND… why is Tummy time important?

By Hettie Grove – Nursing sister advanced midwife, SA certified perinatal educator, SA certified lactation consultant

Tummy time is when a baby lies on his or her tummy for developmental play and its one of the biggest gifts you can give your child. The best news is that it is free. A definition of tummy time might be something like this – “placing a baby on his stomach or in the prone position during awake times under supervision”. Newborn to one month old babies benefit from doing tummy time directly on mom or dad’s chest. We tend to want to leave tummy time for a later stage, but you see, we only have approximately 16 weeks after birth to do this.

Why is tummy time such a new buzzword and what does it really do for a baby? The quick answer is tummy time is the foundation of all sensory and motor skills throughout life.

The moment babies are born they start learning how to move their little body outside of the secure containment of the womb. Babies need to learn to use their neck, shoulder and arm muscles and this all happens with tummy time. Parents often don’t realise that at birth a baby’s head weighs about 25% of his body weight. Bearing this in mind tummy time is hard work for babies.

Consistent tummy time has been found to be one of the biggest factors which improves motor function and development. Researchers have found that four month old babies who spend at least thirty minutes a day on their tummies scored higher on developmental tasks when compared to babies who didn’t spend time in tummy time.

Not all babies enjoy tummy time from the start. Some may demonstrate frustration and others need a little more support to enjoy their tummy time. So why do some babies hate tummy time and why do parents often shy away from tummy time? Many parents feel that tummy time hurts or causes frustration. They often think there must be something wrong with them or with their baby. We need to be very clear about tummy time that it does not hurt. Not only is baby using his whole body, but he also needs to learn to lift his heads and turn it from side to side to look at his world. While in the womb, babies have been curled up into a little ball for their entire pregnancy.

The beauty of tummy time is that it helps babies learn about how to open their little bodies up and gently elongate the front of their body for optimal development – the throat and mouth areas are also developing for future speech. Visual systems are learning how to coordinate two eyes together. The central nervous system maps and wiring develops from head to toe, which means that the map of the head and the neck develop way before the map of the feet (cephalo-caudal). That is why baby’s neck needs to strengthen to carry his heavy head long before he can walk and why your hands always tend to be more sensitive and skilled than your feet.

Since tummy time is so important, how can you help your baby enjoy it?

There is no doubt that Tummy time is essential for good health!!!

Potential benefits to baby in tummy time –

  • Eases tummy function
  • Encourages movement and developmental progression
  • Tummy time is key to development of movements and motor skills
  • It helps build arm and hand function
  • Prepares baby for sitting and crawling. You may notice that your baby looks in one direction most of the time, or constantly lays on one side of their head during sleep. This is a sign that your baby may be having some trouble with active head and neck movements.
  • Promotes visual development. Tummy time builds visual motor skills, looking up, binocular vision, and moving eyes side to side independent of head movements.
  • Promotes optimal head shape. Most babies are sleeping on their backs, so they spend long periods of time with pressure on one area of the head. Babies are then placed on their backs to play, further reinforcing the pressure on that area of the head. Over time and through the influence of gravity, this can lead to a flat spot on the side baby likes to turn to. Tummy time gives the head optimal pressure relief and actually offsets the time your baby spends putting pressure on the back of the skull. Your baby’s skull is soft and molds easily. The best way to ensure a nice round head without flat spots is to do tummy time every day!
  • Facilitates sensory skills.

Does tummy time only benefit flat heads?

Tummy time assists tongue function, oral skills, sensory development, postural and head control, learning and exploring the environment, assisting play, and aides gastrointestinal issues such as passing wind, burping, reflux, gastric functions, assists neurological development and so much more. Research has shown that most babies tend to spend less than 5 to 10 minutes a day on their tummy. Add all the luxury products of infant swings, rockers, seats and other devices – we are heading for a disaster. We live a “container lifestyle” with babies sleeping on their backs, being in the car seat to the bouncer and being held in reclined position for sleep.

Tummy time can be easily encouraged and fits every lifestyle, and by engaging in time on the floor helps babies to unfold and extend which is totally opposite of their life in utero. Tummy time is about being with baby in a way that is contributing to his natural method of developing, transitioning from a flexed, womb-like position to an extended, opened up position. Equally important is connecting with a parent and experiencing the sensory awareness of extra-uterine life and the influences of gravity which tummy time provides.

Babies need to use reflexes to move in the first few months BUT to be able to do this babies need to work against gravity and tummy time gives them this excellent opportunity. More than half of all babies have a head turning preference to one side and the best way to ensure that baby turns his head to the other side (important for all of development) is to make sure baby is in the best position to do this, which is tummy time. For this to happen we need the parents to interact and play with their babies.

 It’s never too early or too late to start tummy time!

How to do Tummy Time

  • Select a tummy time spot in your home
  • Place a clean blanket on the floor
  • It may be helpful to pick a spot on a carpet, rug or padded foam floor
  • Place one or two age appropriate toys near you
  • Lay your baby on his back to begin
  • Engage your baby in back and forth interaction, for example, eye contact, cooing, making different facial expressions. You are playing first, to warm your baby up for tummy time experiences
  • Be available for eye contact as much of the time as possible
  • Slowly roll your baby from their back to their tummy slowly. It can be helpful to roll baby to his side first, and wait until it flows to roll into a tummy time position
  • You can sing or talk, make gentle playful noises, offer a toy for looking at, etc to keep baby engaged
  • It may be very helpful to lie down on your tummy with your baby. This benefits both of you, the baby has his mom or dad close by and you get to spend some quality time with him
  • When your baby starts to communicate he is ready to transition out of tummy time by vocalizations or movements/facial expression, gently tuck one arm underneath the chest and roll your baby to his side and then back
  • It is supportive and loving to pick your baby up, hug him, and give lots of encouragement by hugging /holding baby close to your heart, reassuring baby “You did it!”
  • “Wow, you are amazing on your tummy!” …
  • Then repeat for 5-15 minutes, depending upon your baby’s abilities 

Tummy Time recommendations

  • 3-4 sessions per day
  • 5-15minutes per session to start
  • Gradually build up the minutes

Tummy Time recommendations based on age

  • Newborn to two months old – spend a minimum of 30 minutes per day during awake periods
  • Two to four months old – spend a minimum of 45 minutes to 1 and a half hours per day during awake periods
  • Four to six months old – spend a minimum of 1-2 hours per day during awake periods
  • Six to eight months old – the majority of waking hours will be spent in tummy time or sitting / learning to sit. Babies should learn to sit before they learn to stand.

It is highly recommended that you begin tummy time as soon as you get home from the hospital or birthing centre.

Most babies LOVE to look at their reflection in a mirror. It is nice to have a mirror available for your baby to look at while he is in tummy time. 

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