Tummy Time

Tummy-timeBabies 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.


Bucket Babies
Sighing: An Antidote to the Fear Response
  1. I love your work Jonathan, however I have to respectfully disagree on the topic of tummy time. First of all I think I should start off by letting you know that I’m a big proponent of self initiated movement. I’m going to leave the whole SIDS debate alone (a very smoke and alcohol filled time in our history where parents usually slept far away from their children – I don’t think any position was going to change that). As for the trend of Tummy Time, I personally believe that an infant aught to find their own way to their belly. Here is why. When they’re lying on their backs, infants are working hard on developing core muscles. Not only throughout the abdomen and back, but also at their upper back and neck. They do this as they arch and squirm. You might think of the actions to be similar to the actions of the yoga posture, setubandhasana (bridge pose). Then from there, watch how infants will work the diagonals.. first with their gaze and then the reach through their fingers and toes. It’s a beautiful transitioning that will lead them to finally make their own way to their belly. I think it’s that transition that offers so much richness! The balancing on the side for a bit. The reaching and almost making it but falling back and then the beautiful accomplishment when the finally make it all the way. Look at any baby put on their tummy too soon and they look pissed and they’re usually not shy in expressing that. Why wouldn’t they be? As you know, the head is the heaviest part of the body. I believe strength needs to be developed gradually on the back before the heavier strength training of tummy time. I witnessed this with my daughter many times. I never sat her up before she found her own way to sitting (which by the way means a bit of creeping and crawling first) and I absolutely never held her hands over her head and walked her. I can see the balance and confidence she holds in her body now just shy of two years old. She rarely needs me on the playground or jungle gym and I believe she’s safer for it. I also love the confidence and fulfillment I see on a baby’s face when they have accomplished something on their own. Self initiated movement isn’t just wonderful for the body, it’s amazing for a child’s confidence, balance and sense of self. Something else that supported my exploration (and opinion) on this subject is my work with Bartenieff Fundamentals and Laban Movement Analysis. The movements I had been practicing in many years of movement education, my daughter was instinctually finding all by herself. Oh the beauty of getting out of the way and allowing! OK – thanks for letting me rant a bit and much gratitude to you and your wonderful work. I know you help so many people Jonathan. Peace, Kate

    • Hi Kate,

      I love and appreciate disagreement. I don’t plan on having any more kids so I won’t be able to try the experiment again. I’m not sure why this week is parenting week but I was planning on writing about letting babies find their own way to sitting up, and I have to admit that I never applied the same thought to making their way from the back to the front. We didn’t avoid putting our kids on their backs so they definitely worked from that position; we just made sure to include tummy time. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. I came across your blog and response on Tummy Time. As a pediatric physical therapist who is also dedicated to educating parents about supporting babies and child wellness, I have to respectfully disagree with Kate’s views regarding letting babies find their way to their tummy by themselves. Before the AAP came out with “Back to Sleep” recommendation and public relations campaign in 1992 & 1994, babies had combined awake/asleep time on tummy up to 20 hours per day. Now we are lucky if they have 30 minutes total. The unintended medical consequences of lack of tummy time are real and with serious consequences if not addressed. Some include skeletal and joint asymmetries, delayed milestones that affect development of other systems: sensory and visual systems included. I have a website, blog, and classes/consultations that go into more detail at http://www.MovePlayGrow.com should you be interested.
    On one very important point I do agree with Kate. Babies should not be placed in positions in containers, that they themselves cannot get to independently. Let babies find their way to sitting, do not place in a Bumbo. Let them find their way to standing and cruising; do not place them in standers/walkers. I don’t have as strong of a dissent with parents doing the supporting in these positions because parents are a dynamic support that can appropriately respond to babies changes in posture alignment and control (especially with a little professional training in how to handle and support an infant). Containers cannot do that as they are a static environment.
    The development that occurs on the floor is invaluable, but until a baby can roll with control (usually between 4-5 months), they should have the opportunity to experience back, side (right and left), and tummy positioning. We have to place them down there anyway…why not consider tummy down as the first position of choice since it is where they spend the least time when sleeping and in car seats, etc. Then slowly help them to roll to side and back as necessary when position becomes boring or difficult. The same amazing movement principles that Kate outlined occur on tummy as on back and help our babies create a balance of mobility and flexor and extensor muscle control. We don’t want babies to work only on one side of the body.
    There is a lot of confusion about tummy time out there, but the evidence is clear that there are real and significant medical and developmental consequences associated with lack of tummy time. Again, refer to http://www.MovePlayGrow.com for more information.
    Thanks for you post

Leave Your Reply