Importance of Tummy Time!

Oakville Paediatric physiotherapy, massage, yoga therapy

Today we are going to talk about babies!! 😊

Infants (0-12 months) have many important milestones to hit during their development. Sometimes it seems like every week they’re learning something new!

Their brains and bodies are integrating so much information about their environment and how to interact with it. This includes sensory information (sight, smell, sound, touch).

There are different kinds of milestones:

  • social and emotional skills,
  • language and communication skills,
  • feeding,
  • sleeping,
  • sensory such as hearing and vision,
  • gross motor and fine motor skills…

Today we will focus on the importance of gross motor skills, specifically in regards to tummy time!

What is Tummy Time?

Tummy time is when infants spend a certain amount of time, playing (or at least staying) on their tummy.

It is important to note that during various stages of development the term “tummy time” can be a lot broader. It does not exclusively mean placing babies on their stomachs. It can be modified so that they are on their knees and leaning on to / playing on an inclined surface or toy. But for the most part today we will talk about being on their tummies!

Paediatric Physiotherapy in Oakville, massage yoga, foot specialist
Modified plank onto a bolster is great for developing arm strength and still counts as tummy time!

Why is this important?

Time babies spend playing on their tummy can hugely impact their gross motor development. It is basically a workout!

  • As they learn to push up through their hands, they develop upper body strength.
  • As they learn to move their neck against gravity, they develop neck strength and control.
  • As they eventually learn to get onto their hands and knees (and crawl), they develop core and hip strength.
  • By spending less time on their back, this improves neck tightness issues such as torticollis, and any skull deformities such as Plagiocephaly (Flat Head Syndrome) which develop as a result of the one-side head turning preference typical of torticollis.

Tummy time is also a gateway to transitional movements.

Initially, babies begin to learn rolling over from back to tummy and back again. Being on their tummies is more interactive than being on their stomachs, and they get a better view of their surroundings.

But rolling over is not a very efficient way of getting around. By pulling up through their arms (the army crawl), they can get further in a straight line. By getting onto hands and knees to crawl, they can do this much more quickly and efficiently.

Building up the strength in their core, neck, arms, and hips lays the foundation to learn to transition from four-point position (hands and knees) –> pulling up to kneel –> pulling up to stand –> cruising –> walking.

Modifying tummy time to high kneeling and leaning forward to play with a toy… the important thing is still weight-bearing through arms and legs!

Transitioning from hands and knees to hands and feet (“bear” or plantigrade position) is how they eventually learn to stand up on their own.

Ideally, they are learning all of these new transitions and movement patterns symmetrically on both sides. Hand and side dominance will begin to show at its earliest around 18 months (but is more solidified between 2-4 years of age), which means that during their development, infants should learn and demonstrate all movement patterns symmetrically.

Think about what tummy time entails… pushing up through the hands, army crawling, and eventually hands and knees crawling. Infants are using their whole bodies and in order to move around to reach an object of interest, they are learning symmetrical and reciprocal movement on both sides of their body to achieve this goal. The reciprocal motion of crawling later becomes a natural reciprocal motion when walking: opposite arms and leg motion!

This symmetry also means that infants are not developing tightness/weakness more on one side than the other, leading to muscle imbalances.

In other words, if your little one is not spending a lot of time on their tummy, you can expect their motor milestones to be more delayed.

When can you start Tummy Time?

You can start super early! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you can even do it the first day home from the hospital! (Of course, making sure to support their head as you change their position.)

How often should infants spend in Tummy Time?

Initially, you’ll be doing very short bouts. Even 3-5 minutes, 2-3x day is okay. Gradually, as your baby gets stronger and more comfortable, you can increase the time duration and frequency throughout the day.

How to do Tummy Time?

In the beginning, when your baby is still newborn (0-2 months) and does not have the strength to lift up much against gravity, you will be providing them with support.

  • This could be resting on your chest (skin-on-skin is a great way to bond!). This way they are inclined rather than fully horizontal which is harder, and you are able to assist them with your hands.
  • It could be on their playmat but bolstered at the chest with a rolled towel, small pillow, or Boppy Pillow so they are still inclined and have the support under their chest that their arms cannot yet fully provide.
  • Gradually, as you notice they are starting to rest more effectively onto their forearms and are lifting up their heads higher and for longer periods of time, you may sometimes skip using the pillow support and increase the time spent on their tummy.
  • If colic, or other issues, are limiting your baby’s ability to practice tummy time, speak to your physician and/or local physiotherapist for alternative strategies!
yoga stretching poses from an oakville virtual physio
Get creative with tummy time 😉

Where to do Tummy Time?

Everywhere! Exposure to different textures, surfaces, and environments is great practice.

You may notice that even their clothing makes a difference. Some infants do not tolerate being bareskin while others may dislike tummy time in their clothes. This can be a sensory issue, or perhaps the clothing (or carpet / duvet, wherever they are practicing) may be cumbersome and making it hard to move around.

Different places to try:

  • Chest on chest
  • Lay baby across your legs, raising one knee higher to raise their chest
  • Tummy-down carry
  • Floor
  • Bed

Is it ALL about Tummy Time?

Of course not!

While it is important that babies spend time on their tummies, having an equal opportunity to practice sidelying, sitting, side sitting, high kneeling, etc. (as appropriate for their age) is also important. Otherwise, they will get overly strong with one set of muscles and not develop others.

Lastly, the most important thing of all is giving them the opportunity to learn on their own! If you are always picking them up place them somewhere, or handing them their toys instead of having them try to get there on their own, then they won’t have the opportunity to problem solve and get stronger. 😊