First the good news: Since the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending that babies be put "back to sleep" more than a decade ago, the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome has dropped by more than 50 percent. Now the bad: Ever since this change, more infants are developing flat spots on the back of their skull, a condition called positional plagiocephaly. What's more, always lying belly up can delay motor development, because a baby gets less of a chance to work the muscles in his upper body. Lack of tummy time can not only affect how long it takes for your little one to master such basic skills as lifting his head and turning over, it may also have an impact on sitting up and crawling.
The solution? Flip your baby over when he's awake and you're there to help. "The position promotes trunk stability, limb coordination, and head control," explains Henry Shapiro, M.D., medical director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at All Children's Hospital, in St. Petersburg, Florida. That's not all: Spending time on his belly encourages your baby to practice reaching and pivoting, skills that are often the precursors to crawling. Still, some babies hate doing pint-size push-ups and will initially protest when they're placed facedown. "While on his belly, a baby has to work extra hard against gravity to keep his head up -- it's strenuous," Dr. Shapiro explains.
A Worthy Workout
Introduce your baby to tummy time around the 3- to 4-month mark. At this point, she has better neck strength and control, so she's able to lift and turn her head while lying down. Start by placing her on a blanket on the floor and giving her several five- to ten-minute sessions each day. By about 4 months, your baby should be able to lift her chest off the floor and lean on her elbows with her head upright. She may even be able to lift her arms off the floor, arch her back, and kick her feet. As your baby stretches and pushes on the floor, she may accidentally lean to one side, fall over, and roll from her belly onto her back. Don't worry; that's normal. At 5 or 6 months, she will begin to pivot on her belly and use her arms to reach in front of her or to the sides.
Besides the physical benefits of tummy time, giving your infant playtime on his belly will minimize any flat spots on his head he may have gotten from back sleeping. There are also psychological pluses: When your baby learns to make his body do new things, he feels a sense of accomplishment. This gives him the confidence to try new skills as he grows and his coordination improves.
"Make tummy time part of regular play, not a chore," Dr. Shapiro suggests. Supervise your baby's activities -- never leave an infant unattended on her belly. And, of course, continue to put her to sleep on her back.
- Start early. Place your newborn belly-down on your chest or across your lap for a few minutes so he gets accustomed to the position. Just don't do it right after a feeding; pressure on his full abdomen may cause him to spit up.
- Think comfort. Lay your little one down on a flat, clean surface, such as a blanket or play mat on the floor. If she squirms or cries, try some extra padding. Roll up a small receiving blanket and tuck it under her chest.
- Go head to head. Lie down on the floor and get face-to-face with your infant. Make goofy noises and expressions, or sing songs. You might feel silly, but your infant will be less likely to fight being on his belly.
- Give her distractions. Hold a mirror in front of your baby to capture her attention. Or place brightly colored stuffed animals just within her reach. There are also plenty of tummy-time toys that can keep your baby from getting bored.
- Get others in on the act. Encourage friends, relatives, and your child's caregivers to get down on the floor for short periods of tummy time with him as well.