Tummy Time – What Is It & Why Is It so Important?

We’ve all heard that tummy time is valuable to our baby’s motor development. But what is tummy time and why is it so important?  

Tummy time is the time during the day that your baby spends lying on their tummy while awake. Experts recommend that babies sleep on their back to avoid the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This means that babies spend a lot of time lying on their back, making the discussion of tummy time all the more important.  

So how can tummy time help my baby? 

Plagiocephaly: 

Plagiocephaly is an asymmetrical distortion of the head. It generally occurs on the back of the head as the baby spends a long time lying flat, but it can also occur on either side. As a baby’s skull bones are soft and flexible, it is easier for the head shape to change. This can be fairly common in a newborn and may even occur during labour. Luckily, babies can start tummy time from newborn age. A safe way to do this is to lie your baby on your chest as you recline. This position will give the back of your baby’s head a rest from pressure, as well as give you some bonding time.  

As with all tummy time positions, this position is not for sleeping. It is important to remember the SIDS guidelines and ensure your baby is placed on their back before going to sleep. 

Head and Neck Control: 

As your baby becomes older and starts interacting with their surroundings, they will slowly begin to lift their neck to look at their toys or other people. If your baby is left lying on their back, they can be delayed in achieving this skill which in turn may delay other developmental milestones. Enrich their environment with different toys, sounds and textures to encourage your baby to lift their head. Placing a small mirror nearby is a great way to encourage this action. 

Arm and Core Strength: 

Just like with head and neck control, as your baby gets older and stronger, they will begin using their arms to reach out for toys or objects. They also may begin propping themselves up on their hands or elbows to help them explore their environment from a different perspective. This is very valuable in training not only their arms, but also their core. Before your baby can sit unsupported, they need to have a level of strength in their core and back muscles which can be developed through tummy time.  

Learning How to Roll and Crawl: 

Tummy time is valuable in that it gives your baby a chance to explore their abilities. Most babies learn to roll before they crawl, and the easiest way to roll is from their tummy on to the back. Allowing your baby tummy time will help them practice and achieve this milestone. 

So how much is enough? 

There aren’t any strict guidelines to tell us how much tummy time we should be aiming for per day. The best way to go about it is to set a routine that fits with you and your baby. As a newborn, a couple of minutes per day may be sufficient. As your baby gets stronger, they may tolerate up to 30 minutes of tummy time per day. This can be broken down into small blocks. And remember that supervision is key – if your baby looks sleepy, place them on their back to sleep. 

Position Ideas: 

As mentioned, the best way to start newborn tummy time is lying on a parent’s chest with the parent in a reclined position. Lying your baby on an incline (with their head higher than their feet) may be a more comfortable position for slightly older babies that have wind or colic. Placing your baby on different surfaces such as a furry mat, a bumpy bath mat, or a towel can give your baby different textures to play with and keep them entertained.  

For the baby that doesn’t enjoy tummy time, start in very small blocks and distract them with engaging toys. Crouch down to be with them, and sing or chat to help them engage with you. Ask an older sibling to join in to make it more like a game. Some babies respond well to baby massage and will tolerate tummy time if they expect a massage. Once you find a way to engage your baby, they will slowly build up a tolerance. 

Also note! 

There are many baby ‘containers’ on the market that aim to hold your baby or help them to sit upright. Use of these devices should be kept to a minimum as they don’t encourage babies to train their muscles, or to learn skills independently. They may be convenient and work for you and your baby, but remember that in order to develop strength and learn new motor skills your baby needs a chance to practice.  

How can physiotherapy help? 

If your baby dislikes tummy time, a physiotherapist can help in assessing other ways that you can achieve this position. If you notice that your baby is missing milestones or seems delayed (ie not lifting up their head by four months of age) then a physiotherapist can assess your baby to see how we can help them to get back on track.  


About the Author:

Tayla Burk is a Physiotherapist for Physiotas in Launceston.

Tayla completed a Bachelor of Health Science at the University of Tasmania in 2015 followed by a Master of Physiotherapy at Flinders University in 2017. As a graduate, Tayla worked in paediatric neurorehabilitation before moving back to Tasmania.

Tayla enjoys educating and empowering others on how to manage their health. She is interested in a range of musculoskeletal areas of physiotherapy, in particular paediatrics and surgical rehabilitation.

In her spare time Tayla enjoys being outdoors and playing the violin.