Tummy-time...It’s always interesting to see and hear how parents react to that phrase. Having spent the last 6 years working with babies, I’ve heard it all. As one mother of two elementary school children put it – ‘don’t say tummy-time around me! I still get anxiety when I hear that word!’. Now in fairness, that’s coming from a mom who has 2 daughters who both developed a flat head during infancy, which was in part due to their serious lack of tolerance for tummy-time. And I get it – after a couple months of trying, it’s easier to say forget it and give up altogether. But before you do, allow me to outline in the simplest terms possible not only why tummy-time is important, but how we can make it easier on babies and parents alike.
The most obvious reason for engaging in tummy-time is that yes – it means your baby isn’t on their back, which means there isn’t pressure on the back of their head, which means it’s going to help prevent them from getting flat head-syndrome, also known as plagiocephaly – all true.
Here’s how I look at it though: yes, doing tummy-time gives the back of your baby’s head a break, but it’s the gross motor strengthening that tummy-time facilitates that will help prevent flatness in the long run. Actually, it’s sort of like the old “teach a man to fish” saying; what I mean here is that repositioning your baby to relieve the pressure on their head “gives them the fish”, but really, helping them learn to move independently “teaches them how to fish”, so that they can learn to reposition themselves independently with practice. As you keep up with tummy-time and your baby gets stronger, you’re getting them one step closer to rolling over independently. And when they learn to roll over independently, believe me - they’ll enjoy it. And guess what that means – they’ll be doing more tummy-time on their own, and will be a lot less likely to develop a flat head.
All that being said, it doesn’t change the fact that most babies (I’ve seen reports as high as 78%) don’t like tummy-time. So here are the early steps you can take to make tummy-time more successful, and avoid unnecessary stress, starting the day your little one comes home from the hospital:
- Chest-to-chest: This is pretty straight forward, so I won’t go into much detail here. But basically, doing chest-to-chest with your baby can (and should if possible) start as early as possible. To go one step further, skin-to-skin contact during chest-to-chest offers additional benefits, for which we won’t discuss in this article. But in a nut-shell, chest-to-chest is extremely valuable, especially during the first month of your baby’s life.
- Shoulder level tummy-time: Think about how much time you spend holding your baby during the first 2 months when they’re not much more than a little blob. Well, instead of holding the baby high up so that their head and neck flops down over your shoulder, hold them so their eyes are level with the top of your shoulder. Keeping their body and the back of their head supported with your arms and hands, don’t be afraid to lean them back, away from your body ever so slightly. And instead of keeping your hand directly behind their head, try moving your hand down a little, to where their neck meets the base of their head. Can they keep their head at neutral for a few seconds? How about if you start singing – can they turn to look at your face? This is one of the best ways early on to ease into tummy-time, and is part of the process of helping your baby develop excellent neck strength. Try this move for the first month or two.
- Superman: By the time your baby is 2 months old, their neck strength will have come a long way. With that, try holding your baby so that they face away from you, keeping one arm through their legs and your hand supporting the front of their body. Can your baby keep their head at neutral, or are they a little bit wobbly still? If they’re looking nice and sturdy then go ahead and lean them forward, holding them as they rest over your forearm. They don’t need to be horizontal with the ground necessarily, but how about a 45-degree angle? Does your baby try and extend their neck against gravity to look up? That’s the idea! Once you get comfortable with this, it’s easy to mix in just about anywhere you go!
So while tummy-time is often thought of as something that some babies just simply tolerate better than others, I would argue that with the proactive strategies outlined above, you can increase the odds of your baby mastering tummy-time, thereby helping them learn to reposition themselves independently. And when a baby masters tummy-time and learns how to get off their back all on their own, you can all but check plagiocephaly off of the “things to worry about” list that comes with being a new parent.