Babies should spend as much time on their bellies as possible and there are many reasons why. When babies are on their stomachs they have to work to lift their head, which strengthens their neck and upper back muscles. Being on their bellies also encourages more dynamic movement derived from the extremity’s being grounded to the earth. A baby on its back has little control over its environment and can only move so much.
A baby on its belly needs to be able to lift and turn its head in order to be aware of their surroundings, and spending time on the belly conditions them to lift and turn the head. A baby also needs to steady its head, neck and spine when it is moved and the head lifting and turning that tummy time encourages also facilitates this necessary stability. Tummy time is also connected to the development of the shape of the head (the subject of tomorrows post).
The painful issue here is that for thousands of years babies have died unexpectedly in their sleep without a reasonable explanation. There is a mention of such a sudden death in the bible and there are numerous references in medical texts throughout the centuries to deaths of this nature.
The first study of what would come to be called SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) took place in the 1950’s. Somewhere around 4000 babies have died each year in this unexpected fashion until the 1990’s when an active campaign to teach parents to have their babies sleep on the backs for the first six months (back to bed) cut the death rate by about 30%. There is also a bias against co-sleeping amongst people working to eliminate SIDS that I think is unfortunate.
Having a baby is the greatest/ most terrifying experience a sentient being can experience so I never fault people when they make choices that they think are in the best interest of their children. It is just that I don’t always think those choices are investigated enough. My wife and I did not put our baby’s on their back to go to bed. We didn’t feel that it was necessary. My wife nursed both of our children to sleep and then let them sleep any way they wanted.
But let’s say that you are not ready to go there which I have no problem with. If you do sleep your baby on its back, you should try to have your baby on its belly anytime you are with it and can see it. It doesn’t have to be every waking minute and your newborn might not seem to like it at first but with patience and engagement tummy time becomes a happy and productive time that can serve a baby for its entire life.
My daughter Ida was about three weeks old and hadn’t really been on her belly much— because we were a little hesitant about knowing when to begin, and a little nervous, and Ida didn’t seem all that into it—when we saw a mentor of ours at a workshop. She basically gave us the thumbs up we needed to put our baby on her belly and we never turned back.