Your newborn baby has very little control over their head and neck but, between the ages of 4 and 6 months old, they should develop the ability and muscle strength to hold their head up on their own.
“By about 4 months,” says family GP Dr Philippa Kaye, “your baby should have control of their head when sitting up; by about 6 months, your baby should have strong and steady head control all the time.”
It’s an important milestone for your baby: an indication that they have strengthened some of the key muscles that will be needed to progress to other developmental milestones, such as pushing up, rolling over, sitting – and, later, swallowing solid foods.
How do babies learn head control: what should I expect month by month?
“Head control is actually head and neck control,” explains Dr Philippa, “and it has various stages.”
Newborn: Your baby will need you to support their head and neck for at least the first month or so.
1 to 2 months: “At about 4-6 weeks,” says Dr Philippa, “if you lie your baby on their front, they should be able to lift their head just enough to turn their face to the side. From then on, your baby will gradually be able to raise his head for longer and longer periods of time.” By 8 weeks, some babies can raise their head while lying on their back or hold their head up (maybe a bit wobbily) when you carry them on your shoulder.
3 to 4 months: “By now,” says Dr Philippa, “if you lie your baby on their front, they should be able to hold their head right up and hold it steady for longer periods. Some babies will be able to lift and support their weight on their forearms.” If you lie your baby down on their back and then slowly pull them up by their hands to a sitting position, they should be able to hold their head in line with the rest of their body.
5 to 6 months: At about this age – maybe closer to 6 months than 5 – your baby should easily be able to hold their head steady and upright, and crane it forward when they’re pulled into a sitting position.
Note: As with most things baby related (hello sleepless nights!), your baby will develop at their own sweet pace, so don’t worry too much if your baby isn’t bang on the timelines above. If your baby hasn’t developed any head control by 4 to 6 months, though, it’s probably worth booking a check with your GP.
How can I help my baby develop head control?
Your baby will develop head control all by themselves, of course. But, if you’d like to support or maybe even boost that development, by far the best way to help your baby develop their neck muscles and improve their head control is to introduce (or do more) ‘tummy time’ play.
“Tummy time is hugely important to allow your baby to develop the muscles in their neck,” says Dr Philippa. “So, once your baby’s about 2 weeks old, make sure that you pop them on a mat or a clean floor for a few minutes several times a day.
“Initially your baby may protest a bit – tummy time is hard work! – so have a break and try again later. Try in different positions: with a small baby, you could just lie on your back, for example, and place your baby on your chest (chest to chest), so they can learn to lift their head up to look at you.
“Or, as your baby gains strength, you could prop them up on a small cushion, so they can learn to push up with their arms.”
There’s no need to go over the top with tummy time – little and often is the key with small babies.
As they get older and are more comfortable lying on their tummy, you can make the sessions longer and introduce games and toys.
We can’t promise that tummy-time sessions will mean your baby develops head control any faster that they would anyway but daisy_doodles, one of our forum mums, is convinced that it helped her daughter Daisy-Mae: “She was spending time on her tummy from 2 weeks-isa. It’s a brilliant thing!
“She could hold her head up early, was crawling at 6 months, able to stand with support at 8-ish months and now, at nearly 10 months, is cruising brilliantly. I’m sure it’s all linked to the strength she developed early on from her tummy time.”
What if my baby’s not developing any head control? What do I do?
It depends how old your baby is.
It’s completely normal for newborns to have extremely limited head control, so there’s no need to worry. And there’s nothing to do, apart from supporting their head to make sure it doesn’t flop around too much.
At 3 months, there will probably be wide variations in head control between different babies. It’s worth noting that every baby is different and develops at their own rate. Continue to help your baby by making tummy time a fun part of their routine and try not to worry if your baby seems to be a bit slower than others to develop head control.
“At 3 months there are differing levels of head control, so I wouldn’t worry too much,” says Dr Philippa.
“But if your hasn’t got head control by 4 to 6 months, then I would pop along to your doctor to be checked out – earlier if you have other worries or spot other things, such as your baby not looking at objects.”