There are a few things that newborn babies seem to universally hate: Being more than a few feet away from their parents, wearing shoes, and doing tummy time. Infants can comfortably lay on their bellies while snuggling with someone, but the moment you put them tummy-side down on a mat on the floor just like your pediatrician told you to, they start screaming. Unfortunately, regular tummy time is officially encouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and if you’re wondering when to start tummy time with your baby, chances are good it’s probably time.
Truthfully, tummy time does look uncomfortable. They’re laying there against the floor, struggling to lift their head, and unable to roll over on their own. While you may want to skip it because you hate to hear your baby fuss, tummy time is still an important part of development. You can’t force your babe to like tummy time, but you can do your best to make it as fun and tolerable as possible. And the good news? It gets a little easier as they get older. Here’s a guide on when to start tummy time and how to do it with minimal tears.
What is tummy time and why is it important?
Tummy time refers to the moment when parents intentionally place their baby on their stomach on a firm, flat surface while awake and supervised. Think of it as almost a form of exercise for babies — a really important form of exercise. “Tummy time is one of the first things a parent can do to promote the healthy development of their baby,” says Peter Putnam, a pediatrician.
When placed on their tummy, your baby will, ideally, automatically start trying to lift their head — although, many times, they’ll put their head down and try to go to sleep. The work of lifting their head helps strengthen their neck, back, and abdominal muscles, and eventually, their shoulder and arm muscles get involved, too. It also allows babies to learn how to move their heads and gain head control, according to Brita DeStefano, a board-certified pediatric physical therapist.
Tummy time is also one of the first times that your baby will realize they can do hard things. “When your baby has had enough, there is a loving, caring person who will comfort them and meet their needs,” Putnam points out.
When should you start tummy time with your newborn?
Tummy time should start probably before you think it should. “Tummy time should be happening by two weeks of age,” Putnam says.
Doing tummy time with a newborn isn’t easy, and those first weeks postpartum can be intense. If it’s too much for you, don’t push yourself. Start slowly. If Baby won’t tolerate the floor, DeStefano says that you can start with baby on their tummy laying on a caregiver’s lap or chest, noting that the ultimate goal is to get them to do it on a mat on the floor.
Tips for tummy time to keep them happy and engaged
Many babies are not fans of tummy time. Some babies will use it as an excuse to try to take a nap. It’s the caregiver’s job to keep them engaged and as happy as possible. Both Putnam and DeStanfo offered some tips on how to do just that.
- Don’t do tummy time when they’re sleepy — they’ll just rest their head. If you know they’re cranky because they’re hungry, it’s best for them to eat before doing something that could make them even more cranky.
- Get down face to face with them. This makes them feel less alone and helps keep them engaged. “Play with your child, talk with them, encourage them, respond to them,” Putnam says. “And be there to comfort them when they’ve had enough.”
- Add movement to tummy time. Rocking side to side or bouncing on an exercise ball are two tips DeStefano recommends.
- Add toys that they can look at and be interested by. This could include things like mirrors (so they can stare at themselves) or black and white objects that won’t overwhelm them. Mats with designs and colors are also fun because they’ll want to look at the colors and shapes.
How long should tummy time last for newborns and older infants?
Now, the good news. Tummy time doesn’t have to last very long. For newborns, Putnam suggests a minute or two at least three times a day. As the baby gets older, tummy time can last longer. They may even start to enjoy being on their stomachs and want to stay there.
“I encourage parents to focus on the quality of tummy time (meaning baby is engaged and active and not too fussy),” DeStefano says. “Caregivers will want to watch for gradual improvement over time as their baby gains more endurance and strength.”
Both experts agree that tummy time is over when your child is crying, fussing, and has generally had enough. There’s no need to keep them miserable if they’re genuinely upset, but Putnam says it’s okay to let them struggle for a few extra seconds before you pick them up, since this helps them learn.
And the good news for babies who hate tummy time? It doesn’t last forever. As your child gets older, develops more, can move their head and neck around, and can push their arms down to lift off the floor, the activity naturally changes. “Even if you no longer call it ‘tummy time,’ it is important to continue playing with your child every day to foster their ongoing development,” Putnam says.
If your little one absolutely hates tummy time, don’t get discouraged. “Some babies really don’t like tummy time, but as a parent you know that it is important for them, so you gently push them to try hard things,” Putnam says. “You won’t hurt them if they cry a little while doing tummy time.” If it’s really a constant struggle, talk to your pediatrician.
Peter Putnam, M.D., pediatrician and chair the pediatrics department at Esse Health
Brita DeStefano, Physical Therapist, Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Pediatric Physical Therapy, and Enfamil’s movement expert