Why is tummy time important?

Q: Why does my baby need tummy time, and when should I start it?

A: Because we now know that it's safest for babies to always sleep on their backs, it's important to give your baby lots of opportunities to lie on his belly when he's awake. This ensures that your baby gets to work all the muscles in his upper body, promoting trunk stability, limb coordination, and head control. Tummy time also encourages your baby to practice reaching and pivoting, skills that are often precursors to crawling. And research shows that a lack of tummy time can delay your baby from meeting milestones like lifting his head, rolling over, sitting up, and more. Plus, giving your infant playtime on his belly will minimize any flat spots on his head --known as positional plagiocephaly -- that he may have gotten from back sleeping.

Starting during your baby's first month, give him a few five- or 10-minute sessions each day. By 3 or 4 months, your baby should be able to lift his chest off the floor and lean on his elbows with his head upright. He may even be able to lift his arms off the floor, arch his back, and kick his feet. After 4 months, your baby may be strong enough to start rolling over during tummy time -- something that will surprise and thrill him endlessly.

Tummy time can be uncomfortable at first (if your baby hates it, he won't be shy about letting you know), but you can minimize your baby's protests with the following tips:

• Start by first placing your newborn belly-down on your chest or across your lap so he gets accustomed to the position. Just don't do it right after a feeding, when pressure on his tummy may cause him to spit up.• Think about comfort. Always lay your baby on a flat, cushioned surface, such as a blanket or play mat on the floor. If he squirms or cries, try some extra padding. Roll up a small receiving blanket and tuck it under his chest to give him a boost.• Lie down on the floor and get face-to-face with your infant (babies love gazing into other faces), and encourage other friends and relatives to jump in too. Make silly noises and faces and sing songs, which may help distract him and extend the belly session.• Hold a mirror in front of your baby to capture his attention or place brightly colored stuffed animals just within his reach. Reserve a few toys just for tummy time so your baby looks forward to it every day.

 --Sheryl Berk

Originally published in the April 2004 issue of Parents magazine. Updated 2009