Benefits of Tummy Time for Newborns and Babies

If you have a newborn, you’ve probably heard the phrase “tummy time.” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) rolled out the Back To Sleep initiative in 1994, recommending that babies sleep on their backs to help prevent SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. So, babies began sleeping on their backs and spending much less time on their bellies. However, researchers started to notice the benefits of tummy time after it was taken away.1

While you may have heard of tummy time, you might not know exactly what it means or how to do it with your baby. Or maybe you know what it is, but your baby can’t stand it. Here, we’ll explore the specifics and benefits of tummy time and share some modifications to make it more tolerable for your little one.

What Is Tummy Time?

Tummy time refers to your baby spending time laying prone, or on their stomach, instead of on their back. Usually, this is done on the floor and should only be performed during awake periods and playtime. A caregiver should always supervise tummy time — a newborn should never be positioned into tummy time and left alone.2

Any moments of time a baby spends on their belly counts toward tummy time. You should aim for 30 minutes of tummy time per day, but you can break this up into very small increments.2

Why Is Tummy Time Important?

You might be wondering why there’s such a big push for tummy time for your newborn. There are many benefits of tummy time for baby, including:

Improved Perception

Experiencing different positions and motor behaviors helps your baby perceive their environment in new ways, improve their cognition, and engage socially with others. In tummy time, baby gets to interact with the world around them and learn about the surface they’re lying on, gravity, and air.3

Spending time on their bellies teaches babies about balance and equilibrium. They learn through tummy time experience that shifting their weight, lifting their heads, moving their arms, and more can cause movement and changes in their positioning. These lessons will carry over when they’re learning to roll, sit, crawl, and walk.3

Head Shape

Newborn babies sleep a lot, and the AAP recommends that babies should be on their backs whenever they’re sleeping. Always putting pressure on the back or side of a baby’s head while they sleep can contribute to plagiocephaly, which refers to a flat side or back of the head.2 Plagiocephaly is the result of not holding our babies and having them lying down on various devices all day, such as swings, car seats, and sling chairs, all of which babies spend time in while busy parents run around.9,10

Doing tummy time while babies are awake counteracts the large amount of time infants spend sleeping on their backs. This can help prevent head shape abnormalities.2

Gross Motor Development

Many studies have demonstrated that babies achieve motor milestones earlier when they spend more time in tummy time. Some of the developmental milestones include lifting and turning their heads, bringing their hands to their mouth, rolling, various forms of crawling, sitting, and walking.2

More studies are needed to learn about the additional benefits of tummy time, but experts hypothesize that tummy time may also decrease body mass index in older children, aid in fine motor skill development, and play a role in later fitness.2

How Does Tummy Time Help With Other Developmental Milestones?

Portrait of young amazed child lying on stomach near smiling mother. Cheerful woman looking happily at her baby. Baby watching something interesting while tummy time.

As mentioned, tummy time can facilitate and speed up gross motor development. But how does simple positioning allow so much progress? There are three major ways:4

  1. Neuromuscular development: Being on their tummies allows babies to develop their neurological and muscular systems.
  2. Neck extension: Babies have to lift their heads and extend their necks to see much in tummy time. They’re more motivated to lift their heads and strengthen their neck muscles when placed on their bellies.
  3. Working against gravity: Tummy time provides the opportunity to practice and learn the skill of working against gravity. This is relevant in lifting their heads in tummy time and applies to later motor skills, such as pulling to stand.

Tummy Time Milestones

Tummy time might help baby reach other milestones sooner, but it also has its own set of milestones. Newborns might lay rather still in tummy time, but as they get older, stronger, and more accustomed to the position, they’ll learn new skills.

Infant strength develops from head to toe, and the first milestones in tummy time involve lifting the head. Strength progresses downward as babies grow and mature. The progression of milestones in tummy time might look something like this:2,3

  1. Baby is able to lift their head.
  2. They turn their head from side to side.
  3. Baby turns their head to look at you when you talk to them.
  4. They lift their shoulders and use their arms and hands to prop up their head and chest.
  5. Baby kicks their feet while laying on their tummy.

Eventually, your baby will learn to roll out of tummy time and army crawl or crawl, which you could also consider a form of tummy time since they’re off their backs! Tummy time has many sensory and strength benefits because of the different positioning and learning opportunities.

When To Start Tummy Time

You can start doing tummy time as soon as your baby is born or when you bring them home from the hospital.4,5 When I worked as a nurse in the NICU, we even did tummy time with those babies!

There’s no set guideline for exactly how long each tummy time session should last or how many sessions should occur throughout the day. However, the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 30 total minutes of tummy time per day for all infants under 6 months old. This can be split into small increments of time throughout the day and certainly doesn’t need to be 30 consecutive minutes.2 To give you an example of what that tummy time schedule could look like, here’s a tummy time chart by age:5

Tummy time schedule sample

Consider incorporating short bouts of tummy time at certain points within your daily routine, such as after each nap or feed.

While the benefits of tummy time extend throughout a baby’s first year and beyond, by 6 months old, my babies were both rolling nonstop and would no longer stay in tummy time for long periods anyway, even if I put them there!2

Where Can You Do Tummy Time With a Newborn?

It can be daunting to imagine doing tummy time with your tiny, fresh newborn just days after they’re born. You may find it helpful to mix up the location of your baby’s tummy time. Most authorities recommend doing tummy time on the floor, but it can be performed anywhere that baby can safely lay on their belly.2 Some locations for tummy time include:

On the Floor

Lay out a playmat or a blanket so your tiny newborn isn’t getting dirty on the bare floor. Place a toy to their side or out in front of them to catch their eye and attention. You can help them turn their head from one side to the other. This helps their neck get practice looking each way before they can lift their head and turn from side to side on their own.6

On Your Chest

You can also have your newborn do tummy time on your chest. Recline on the couch or floor, then place baby chest-to-chest with you. Interact with them through eye contact, facial expressions, vocalizations, and toys.6 One study shows that chest-to-chest tummy time can decrease fussing and increase the degree to which babies lift their heads during tummy time.6

On a Prop

Roll up a towel or blanket and place it under baby’s armpits to prop them up slightly.5 Personally, I used to use my Boppy nursing pillow to prop my brand-new babies up in tummy time. I found this helped keep them more comfortable and less frustrated before they could hold their heads up.

How To Do Tummy Time

While tummy time seems straightforward — simply placing your baby on their belly on the floor — it’s best to prepare baby for a session and come into the position gradually. To get into the position and practice tummy time, follow these steps:

  1. Start with your baby lying on their back on a blanket on the floor.
  2. Engage with your baby through face-to-face interaction and eye contact while they’re still on their back.
  3. Tap their arms and squeeze their legs, slowly bringing their knees to their belly.
  4. Rock them gently from side to side with their knees to their chest.
  5. With one knee up, roll baby onto their opposite side into a side-lying position.
  6. Roll baby onto their belly, making sure their arms and elbows are in a propped position beneath their shoulders.
  7. Stroke your baby’s spine while they’re on their belly.
  8. Engage with them during tummy time through singing, smiling, and toys.
  9. When they’ve had enough tummy time, help them roll back onto their back.
  10. Repeat, this time rolling them in the other direction, leading with the opposite leg.

One study showed that preparing your baby for tummy time using these gradual transitions improved tolerance of being on their bellies.7

What If Your Baby Hates Tummy Time?

Tummy time for little baby, learning and development for little kids

If your baby hates tummy time, try some of the tips below to help make it better for them:

Break It Up

The benefits of tummy time are apparent with frequency as well as duration. As mentioned, you can squeeze in tiny windows of tummy time throughout the day. This gives your baby breaks from it when they start to get fussy or frustrated.5

Make Gradual Transitions

Place baby into tummy time gently and slowly with support from your hands. Instead of plopping them down on their bellies, which can be alarming or startling and uncomfortable, try gradually placing them into a prone position. They’ll likely tolerate this better because they’ll learn your cues and see it as a warning that tummy time is coming.7

Involve Others

Get down on the floor with your baby, or encourage your partner or another child to do so. This can be a source of entertainment, play, and bonding. Also, babies like mirroring or imitating you, so if they see you (or a big sibling!) doing tummy time on the floor, over time, they may want to join you.5

Hopefully, these tips will help your baby enjoy tummy time and help you find ways to actually place your baby in a prone position for a few minutes!

How To Keep a Baby Safe During Tummy Time

There are some things to be aware of when doing tummy time to prevent injury and keep baby safe. Most importantly, only do tummy time while your infant is awake! Here are some other safety tips:

Supervise Them

The most important thing you can do to keep your baby safe during tummy time is to supervise them. If your eyes are on them, you’ll be able to see if their face gets stuck. You’ll also be able to move them before they suffocate or injure themselves.2

Use a Safe Surface

Another part of preventing suffocation is doing tummy time on a firm, flat surface. The surface shouldn’t indent or conform to baby’s face if they lay their head down. An inclined surface could cause inadvertent rolling, which can lead to baby getting stuck or ending up somewhere less safe.8

Make the Area Hazard-Free

Keep tummy time areas free from any hazards. These include choking hazards, cords and wires they could get entangled with, and any edges they could roll off or get stuck between.8

Ensure Awareness

If other people are in the room, make sure they know you’re doing tummy time so no one accidentally steps on the baby. That might sound crazy, but we had a few close calls with my toddler while my newborn was on the floor!

Just Remember: No Stomach Sleeping

While tummy time is very important for infant development, safety is the most important thing. Remember that the AAP recommends “Back To Sleep, Tummy To Play.” The Back-to-Sleep campaign reduced SIDS by 40%, so be sure to get in your tummy time while your baby is awake, but always lay them on their back to sleep!2

Tummy time is important for a baby’s development and can be a fun part of your daily routine. Aim for at least 30 minutes of tummy time per day, but break it up however you need to. Change up the location and try some modifications to tummy time, and your baby will be loving it before you know it!


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