We know that it's safest for babies to always sleep on their backs, thanks to guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1994, but that means infants spend up to 15 hours a day facing the ceiling. The popularity and increased use of infant seats, swings, and carriers have also meant less tummy time. As a result, today's babies have fewer chances to practice using their arms, back, neck, and head to lift themselves up. Lying on his stomach prepares your newborn to explore the world on his own.
How Important Is Tummy Time?
Leaving your baby on her belly for a few minutes while she's awake helps her work all the muscles in her upper body, promoting trunk stability and head control. "Tummy time helps your infant build strength in his back, legs, arms, and neck," says Joanne Cox, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston. "This helps with further development, such as rolling over and sitting."
Other Benefits of Tummy Time
Regularly spending time on his stomach also helps your baby avoid developing a flat spot on the back of his head, which became more common after the AAP's aforementioned "Back to Sleep" campaign to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In severe cases, head flattening, or plagiocephaly, can distort facial features. Tummy time is also helpful for babies with the condition torticollis, which causes the head to tilt unnaturally because the neck muscle is stiff and tight.
When to Start Tummy Time
Begin at 2 weeks old with short sessions of 30 seconds to one minute. Try placing your newborn belly-down on your chest or across your lap so he gets accustomed to the position. To make it part of your routine, put your baby on his tummy after each daytime diaper change. Just don't do it right after a feeding, when pressure on his stomach may cause him to spit up.
Don't be surprised if your baby fusses or simply lays his head down; just try again later. "Many babies don't enjoy tummy time at first, but gradually get comfortable on their stomachs as they build up strength, says pediatrician Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. "It takes some work to lift that head up and it isn't always fun," she says. "It's a workout."
By 2 months old, aim for three 5-minute sessions daily on a flat, cushioned surface, like a playmat on the floor. If she seems uncomfortable, try rolling up a receiving blanket and tucking it under her armpits to give her support.
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.
As your baby grows, strive for a minimum of 15 minutes of tummy time per day, while encouraging him to play longer. Once your child is rolling over and independently spending time on his stomach, usually by 6 months old, you can stop dedicated tummy time.
Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian also contributed to this article.