What is tummy time?

Regular tummy time helps your baby develop the muscles they'll need for rolling and crawling but when do you start it, how do you do it – and what if your baby doesn't like tummy time?

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Tummy time is (no prizes for guessing!) time your baby spends lying down on their tummy. It’s something all new parents are advised to plan into their baby’s day – to help their baby develop neck control and strengthen the upper-body muscles they’ll need, in the months to come, for rolling and crawling.

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Why is tummy time important?

Tummy time is important because babies spend a lot of time on their backs – rightly so, for safe sleeping but also in car seats and pushchairs and baby chairs. By making sure your baby spends some time every day on their tummy instead, you’re helping them move and strengthen the particular neck and shoulder muscles they need for head control and, later, rolling and crawling.

“Tummy time is important for the development of the neck muscles and the shoulder girdle – the muscles around the shoulder blades,” says Donna Nicol, a specialist paediatric physiotherapist and director of Kids Physio London.

“Tummy time also gets your child off their back,” adds Donna. “A baby’s skull is very soft and some can get a slightly flat head if they’re always are on their back with their head in the same position. Time spent on their tummy can help counteract this kind of head moulding but taking pressure off the head.”

How soon should I start tummy time?

You can start tummy time in your baby’s very first few days.

The official NHS advice is to start tummy time from birth – but only in very short bursts to begin with.

That’s because a newborn’s neck muscles aren’t very strong at all – your baby should be able to lift their head enough to turn it and place the opposite cheek down, but that’s about it.

How long should tummy time be?

Tummy time, at first, can be super-short: 10 seconds is fine. And always stop if your baby’s not happy. Expect the progress to be very gradual. The important thing is just to try to do a little every day.

The idea is that you aim to build up tummy time gradually – adding a few seconds every day. If you’d find it helpful, you could use the timer on your phone to keep track – but don’t let it become too much of a mission! Just focus on slow and gentle build-up.

As your baby grows and gets stronger, you can work towards building up tummy time to 40 to 60 minutes a day. This doesn’t have to be all at once: you can divide it into a number of shorter sessions if that suits your baby better. You might, for example, find it works to incorporate tummy time into your nappy-change routine, gently rolling your baby over after each change for a few minutes on their tummy.

How do I do tummy time with a newborn?

A tiny baby probably won’t love being put down tummy-down on a blanket (it’s all new and strange and their umbilical stump may get in the way a bit), so it’s better – and cuddlier – to do tummy time with you lying down or sitting down and your baby lying tummy down on your chest.

Tummy time like this is a great way to snuggle and bond. Your baby will feel secure and close to you, and can explore your face, watch your mouth, hear your words and feel your warmth. They’ll instinctively want to lift their head to take it all in – and, with time, they’ll manage to do just that.

As new mum Kelmo on our forum says: “I put Ayda on her tummy [on the floor] but she just lay down. Now I lie down on the bed and put her on my chest on her tummy – and she loves it!”

Another tummy-time position that’s great for newborns is to place them slightly further up your chest so that their head can peep over your shoulder.

Be sure to support your baby’s head with your body or hands, in the very early days, to help prevent it flopping backwards. And, obviously, only hold your baby on your chest when you’re wide awake: tummy time’s not something to do when you’re on your knees with exhaustion – because falling asleep with your baby in that position carries a risk of suffocation.

How do I do tummy time with a 3-month-old and 4-month-old?

Once your baby’s about 3 months old, or thereabouts (every baby develops new skills on their own timetable), they will probably have enough control of their head to raise it and keep it steady – without the jerking or bobbing movements of earlier weeks.

So now’s the time to see if you can start some tummy-time sessions on the floor. Put a nice soft blanket or playmat down and get on the floor with your baby, too – facing them, for preference, so they’re encourage to keep their head up, looking at you.

While you’re down there, talk and sing to your baby. You could also put a baby mirror or a couple of brightly coloured balls in front of them for them to look at. Or you could try blowing bubbles.

How do I do tummy time with a 4-month-old to 7-month-old?

As your baby learns to push up with their arms and lift their chest off the floor and also reach out and swipe at or, later, grab an object, you can start making floor-based tummy time even more of a playtime.

Start putting toys just out of your baby’s reach, so that they have to work to grab them. Or, if you have a playmate with detachable arches, collapse the arches so that the toys that would normally dangle above your baby’s head are now at floor-level.

You might also like to buy 1 or 2 of the many tummy-time toys that are specially designed keep your baby entertained as she lies on her front.

What if my baby really doesn’t like tummy time?

Lots of little babies don’t like tummy time to begin with. And, even after the newborn stage, quite a few will take their own sweet while to get properly happy spending more than a few minutes on their tummies.

But don’t give up. It’s all about persevering – doing just a little tummy time every day – and discovering ways to do it that your baby feels more comfortable with.

Top tips for babies who don’t like tummy time

  • Don’t start on the floor. With newborns, stick with tummy time on your chest.
  • Pick the right time. Never start tummy time if your baby’s hungry, wet or tired.
  • Never push it. When your baby’s had enough, stop. There’s always tomorrow.
  • Try your lap. With slightly older babies who aren’t happy doing tummy time on the floor, switch to a session on your lap. Lie your baby face down across your lap. Sing and jiggle (gently).
  • Try the tiger-in-a-tree hold. Lay your baby on their tummy along the inside of your forearm, so that their head sits in the crook of your elbow, with your hand holding his crotch. Bring your other hand between your baby’s legs (from the back) to help support their weight, letting their legs dangle on either side. Once you’re holding him securely, gently sway. Your baby will be soothed by the motion while they get used to being tummy-side-down.
  • Try baby swimming. Paediatric physiotherapist Donna Nicol says. “It can help to try to mimic what you would do on land in the water. Take your baby swimming and hold them under the armpits while you’re in front to work their neck muscles the same way you would during tummy time on the floor.
  • Put a small rolled-up towel under your baby’s chest. Donna recommends this as a way to help your baby feel a bit more supported. “When your baby’s neck muscles are not quite developed enough to lift the head steadily, ” she says, “often babies feel like it’s a very non-functional position. This gives a little bit of help for the neck muscles to work.”
    This tip definitely worked for new mum Lambchop80: “My baby hated tummy time at first but, from about 6 weeks of age when she began to develop head control, I would put her down for about 5 minutes with a rolled up blanket under her armpits so she wasnt headbutting the floor. By 10 weeks she was perfectly happy on her front.”

Is it OK to do tummy time after a feed? 

Yes, if you’re putting your little baby on your chest – in fact there’s some research to suggest it’s good for their digestion and can help ease colic.

“But,” says Donna, “it’s better to wait at least an hour after a meal if you’re planning to do tummy time on the floor. Give that food time to get digested!”

If your baby has reflux, have a chat with your GP about the best way to approach tummy time.

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