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Tummy Time and Infant Development

What is tummy time and why is it important to your infant's development? Our experts answer your questions.

With the success of the Back to Sleep campaign, which recommends babies always be put to sleep on their backs to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), babies don't spend as much time on their tummies as they used to.

Yet spending a little time every day on their stomach is good for an infant's development. But why do babies need tummy time? What is tummy time exactly? And when should you start placing baby on his or her tummy?

WebMD asked the experts: pediatricians and parents -- to share their thoughts on tummy time, how it ties in to infant development, and what you can do to make it more fun for your little one.

What is Tummy Time and Why Is It Important?

Tummy time is simply the time babies spend lying and playing on their tummies, says Laura Jana, MD, a Nebraska pediatrician and co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn.Of course, this time should always happen when the baby is awake and is being supervised.

Now that most babies sleep on their backs, spending time on their stomachs while they're awake is important not only because it gives baby a different view of the world, but also because it encourages an infant to lift his or her head, a movement that strengthens the muscles of the neck and upper back. Your baby will need those muscles later on for rolling over, sitting, and crawling.

And "not only do babies need to learn how to support their heads when they are still," says Tanya Altmann MD, a pediatrician in California, they also need to be able to turn their head in response to what's happening around them, and hold their heads steady when they're moved. "As with other milestones, they develop these skills through practice," says Altmann, author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers.

Spending time on their stomach also helps a baby's head develop its conventional roundness. As more parents put their babies on their backs to sleep, pediatricians are noticing an increase in infants developing flat spots on the backs of their heads, a condition called positional plagiocephaly.

When Should You Start Tummy Time?

Tummy time can begin right after birth, says Chris Tolcher, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, or definitely by one month of age.

One reason you may want to delay tummy time for the first few weeks is to allow baby's umbilical cord stump to fall off, but if your baby finds tummy time comfortable, you can safely have baby enjoying time on their stomach right away. "I'm also a big believer that the sooner you start, the more accepting babies are and the more it is just accepted as a natural position," Jana tells WebMD. And you "may be surprised to find that even a newborn can start to turn [their] head side to side."

How Long Should Baby Get Tummy Time?

There's really no hard and fast rule about how long your little one should enjoy some time on his tummy. Some pediatricians suggest 5 or 10 minutes a couple times a day; others say you don't have to worry about a set amount of time.

"I usually recommend starting to offer tummy time at least once per day," says Scott Cohen, MD, FAAP, an attending physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and a pediatrician, who suggests leaving baby on his tummy as long as he accepts it. Whether that turns out to be 15 seconds or 15 minutes, it's time to pick baby up if he starts crying or fussing.

Some infants initially resist tummy time because they don't have good control and find it hard to lift their heads, but ultimately, the more practice baby gets with time on their tummies, the better they'll like it, says Cohen, author of Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Complete Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.

How to Make Tummy Time Fun

So how can you make this important part of infant development feel more like play time? "It’s as easy as laying down on your own belly facing your baby," says Jana. The pros and parents also offer these tips for making baby's tummy workout fun, including:

  • If baby is still very young and can't yet support his or her own head, put baby on your chest for a comfy tummy time cuddle, or across your lap for burping, both good ways to get baby used to being on his stomach, say the writers of The BabyTalk Insider's Guide: Your Baby's First Year. 
  • Get down on the floor with your baby, face-to-face, Cohen suggests. "Make faces, talk to them, get a tummy time mat, and hold colorful toys or a rattle in front of them." 
  • Try talking above baby's head, sing songs, and encourage baby to look up, Altmann suggests. 
  • Place baby next to a mirror or musical box, Tolcher suggests, or give your little one an impromptu soothing massage. 
  • Try placing baby's upper body and arms over a nursing pillow. This has the benefit of giving your little one some elevation, a nice view, and it may be more comfortable, too. 
  • If baby starts to fuss, divert their attention. Put baby on his or her back, then blow raspberries on your tiny one's tummy. Flip baby onto her stomach and make the same raucous noises on her back. Distraction at its silly best. 
  • Some parents suggest waiting an hour after baby eats to start tummy time, for the baby's comfort and for mom and dad -- less spit up to clean up!

What If Baby Doesn't Like Tummy Time?

The sooner you start tummy time, the more normal it is for your little one. But some babies may have strong opinions about being placed on their stomachs; after all, tummy time is hard work! Yet a little grunting and squealing doesn't always mean baby doesn't like their belly workout.

"I let parents know that just because an infant 'squawks' when on their belly, it doesn't always mean they don't like it," Jana says. "For some, being put on their belly causes them to try to scoot -- an effort that is often accompanied by exertional squawking."

What if your baby is just plain angry about tummy time? "Keep trying," Cohen says. "The more exposure and practice the better, and when their head and neck get stronger they will enjoy it better."

Every baby meets each milestone when he’s ready, so don't worry if yours isn't a fan of tummy time right away. Talk to your baby's health care provider if you have questions. In the meantime, don't be shy about trying to make tummy time "a fun part of every day," Altmann says.

Finally, remember that tummy time should only be enjoyed by babies when they're awake and supervised. "Babies should never be allowed to sleep on their tummies, as this raises the risk of SIDS," Tolcher tells WebMD. "They should always be placed on a smooth, flat surface when on their tummies, with no loose items (toys, blankets, pillows) close to them which might block their airway and lead to breathing problems."

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