Your guide to tummy time for babies

baby tummy time

by Rachel Fitz-Desorgher |
Updated on

Tummy time is a brilliant way of helping your baby to gain strength to build all those important muscles they need for sitting, crawling and reaching those important baby milestones.

Until the muscles in their neck are better developed, it's likely you'll find your baby isn't a fan of tummy time, as they're facing the floor and can't see much. However, after a while once baby can lift their head, they'll begin to really enjoy the freedom and love the view. And before you know it, baby will begin crawling for the first time.

If you're keen to know more about the subject of tummy time, including what it is, when you should introduce it, tips to help your baby get the most out of tummy time and all the benefits it provides, so that you can decide for yourself whether to start scheduling it into your baby’s day.

What is tummy time?

Tummy time is where you lay your baby on their stomach for brief periods while they're awake to help strengthen their neck and shoulder muscles and improve their motor skills in preparation for crawling and when baby starts rolling over.

When should I start introducing tummy time?

Evidence-based advice on when and for how long to start putting babies down for specific tummy time is sparse and so even the NHS's advice on baby activity is pretty vague. It is suggested that tummy time should begin from birth – babies should be put on their tummies on their parent’s chest. In other words...cuddle your newborn baby! This seems obvious but many babies spend hours on their backs – in their bouncy chair, car seat, cot and pushchair and so rarely spend time on their tummies in the natural, in-arms way.

From about 5 or 6 months onwards, babies gradually start to roll over by themselves. This is a natural developmental stage and, once your baby finds they can roll over and reach out for a toy (or the pet cat) they will do it repeatedly and you no longer need to set aside a specific time. So, whenever your baby is lying on their back enjoying a good kick, place toys a short distance away to encourage them to look and reach.


How long should my baby spend on their tummy?

Little and often is the best way to begin. Newborns can be put down on a soft blanket for a minute or so at a time a few times a day. As the days and weeks go on, gradually increase the time babies spend on their tummies out of arms. As a rough guide, start with that newborn minute on a blanket and then increase the time by a minute or two at each session every couple of days until your baby is getting a total of 40-60 minutes over the course of each day. This time does not need to be all in one go so don’t leave an unhappy baby wailing on their tummy and as they get older, they may prefer a baby play mat or gym so there's more to stimulate their brains.

How to do tummy time

If you're wondering when to start, the best time to do tummy time is after baby wakes up from a nap or if they've just had a nappy change.

  1. Start by clearing an area on the floor and lay down a towel, blanket or play mat. Place your baby down on their tummy.
  1. Ensure your baby is surrounded by a few of their favourite tummy time toys.
  1. Start doing this for around three minutes on the first day and gradually build the time up.

Why is tummy time important?

The term 'tummy time' did not exist before 1994. Babies born in the UK before the 1970s were generally placed on their sides to sleep and then, because of a growing, mistaken, belief that babies might choke on their own vomit if they rolled onto their backs, from the mid-1960s until 1992, mums were advised to put babies to sleep on their tummies.

Scientists working in the study of babies and how they regulate their breathing noticed that tummy-sleeping was associated with a huge increase in SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome) and suspected that front-sleeping interfered with the natural mechanisms which keep babies safe whilst asleep.

So mums were immediately advised to start putting their little ones on their backs to sleep and the rates of SIDS dropped from around 1 in 250 to around 1 in 3000 babies. One unforeseen consequence of this new, life-saving, policy was that babies began pushing up and crawling later. And so tummy time was invented to encourage mums to give their babies time on their fronts in order to develop motor skills and strengthen their muscles.

What should I do if my baby hates tummy time?

All newborn babies can lift their heads and bob around from birth – it’s how they’ve evolved to find the breast. All babies are evolved to start looking around more at about 4 months old and then to start rolling from around 5-6 months onwards and then to eventually start moving (some crawl, some bottom-shuffle and some skip that stage and some babies start walking sooner).

Mums and dads who constantly carry their babies, with or without a sling, soon discover that their little one pushes off their chest to get a better view of the world. And they never develop flat heads either! Those first three months, when babies are fractious ALL evening, are the perfect opportunity for hours of natural tummy time as you hold your poor colicky baby against your chest, or tummy-down over your forearm.

Mums who breastfeed their babies find that they hardly ever get the chance to put their babies in a bouncy chair or pushchair before their little one asks to disappear back up their T-shirt for another nuzzle, and, if, as a breastfeeding mum, they choose the calm of safely co-sleeping then their baby will naturally snuggle into them whilst lying on their side and push against their mums all through the night gently exercising their muscles.

So, if your baby doesn't like being put down on their tummy (and many really hate it), don’t panic. Simply ditch the pushchair and go out for a walk using your sling. Encourage family to pick your baby up and cuddle them to their chests for as long as they like – far from making a rod for your back, this encourages social skills and develops confidence.

Sure, introduce formal tummy time if you want to but, alongside this, do what your granny did and allow your baby lots of natural opportunities in your loving arms to workout and power-up. Just don’t forget to buy those cupboard locks!

What are the benefits of tummy time?

Develops muscle strength - Tummy time is a great way of developing your baby's muscle strength. They will eventually develop enough strength in their neck allowing baby to hold their head up, as well as building strength in the head, arms and legs, so that they can hold themselves up and eventually start crawling. It's also a brilliant alternative to a baby walker, especially if you're concerned about baby walker safety.

Encourages head control - Encouraging head control is important as once your baby has mastered this, every other milestone will follow. Tummy time encourages your baby to start moving and lifting their head a little at a time so that they can explore their surroundings better, and eventually they will be able to hold their own head up and look towards sounds and toys around the room.

Helps to prevent baby flat head - Babies can develop flat head syndrome which is a flat spot on the back of their head if they spend a lot of time laid on their backs, so laying them down for tummy time is a great way of preventing it.

Eases gas pain - A baby with trapped wind is not a happy baby and it can be quite distressing, but the gentle pressure on their stomach from tummy time can help relieve gas. Just make sure you wait at least 20 minutes after your baby has fed before starting tummy time.

Stimulates senses and cognitive development - Babies develop in so many ways in the first few months, and tummy time can help with cognitive development. They will start to turn their heads towards different sounds that they hear, and eventually rotate on their tummies to look for sounds. They also become more aware of different textures and surfaces when they are on their tummy, as they can feel the floor beneath their hands.

Helps hand eye coordination and visual development - Tummy time exposes your baby to a new environment, as they're usually laid on their back looking at the world upside-down. By being on their tummy, they can learn how to focus their eyes on nearby toys, and it even starts to encourage them to reach out and try to grab objects.

Develops motor skills - Once your baby has stronger muscles, tummy time will start to encourage them to kick and push their arms and legs. This will then lead to your little one learning how to shuffle, roll and hold their bodies up with their arms and legs. tummy time can even help when baby starts to crawl!

Helps baby and parents bond - Skin-to-skin is a great way to bond with your little one, so laying them on your chest for tummy time could be a great way to bond with your little one.

Establishes a routine - Routines are great for babies and for parents as it can help you grab a few moments of peace. Making tummy time a part of your little one's routine will help them begin to anticipate it and even kick their little legs in excitement after nap time, knowing that soon they can see the world from their tummy.

Tummy time tips

tummy time playing

You can start tummy time from day one

After being curled up in your womb for so long, your newborn isn’t used to lying on their tummy, which is why they'll most likely cry if you simply lay them down on their front in the early days. The key is to ease them gently into the process in a way they'll find soothing and secure, and slowly build the muscle strength they need to manage tummy time comfortably. Start by holding them so their tummy is against your chest when you’re sitting down. Their neck doesn’t have any strength in the early days, so you’ll need to support their head. But they'll start to use their neck muscles to push their head up to try to see you and, in this position, they won’t have far to drop back onto you when that becomes tiring. As they get stronger, you can gradually lean back, supported by cushions, until you’re at a 45-degree angle. They’ll get used to feeling that pressure on their tummy while they're all snuggly next to you.

Be patient ‘til they're past the jerky stage

At birth, your baby’s head makes up a whopping third of their body. When they're all grown up, it’ll only be around an eighth. And to lift their big ol’ brain-packed head, they use two sets of neck muscles. Sternocleidomastoid are the large muscles on either side, while the trapezius runs from the shoulders to the back of the neck. And because these muscles are fairly weak to begin with, they'll lift their head with a jerky movement. But as they grow stronger, their head control and the ability to move it from left to right will become smoother. And your baby will be much happier if you only begin moving them into a fully horizontal position once they're past the jerky stage and have some control of their head.

Keep baby close to you at first

Safe sleeping advice means that babies don’t spend much time on their tummies, so it’ll take some getting used to. But letting your little one lay on you first, where they feel safe and secure, will really help. Try lying on your back on the bed and holding your baby on your front. Or sit on the sofa, place a blanket over your thighs and lay your baby horizontally across your legs, holding them in place as they experience being fully on their front. When they're happy and relaxed doing this, it’s time to progress to laying him on top of a soft surface such as a towel or playmat on the floor.

Your voice works better than a toy

Don’t spend a fortune on tummy-time toys just yet. It will take a while for your baby to develop the core strength to reach for them just yet, and they'll be far more interested in your face and voice. Do some tummy time yourself, alongside them or head to head. Chat and sing to them, and let their natural instinct to respond to your voice and look for you motivate them to lift their head.

Movement soothes them

If your baby doesn’t like being on the floor, the tiger-in-the-tree hold can help. Lay them on their tummy along the inside of your forearm, so their head sits in the crook of your elbow, with your hand holding their crotch. Bring your other hand between their legs to help support their weight, letting their legs dangle on either side. Once you’re holding them securely, gently sway. They'll be soothed by the motion while they get used to being on their tummy.

Tummy time can aid digestion

Research has found that being on their front will help your baby’s digestion. Why? As your youngster lays on their front, the pressure on their tummy, and the gentle massage it gets, helps get rid of excess gas. To get maximum digestive benefit, carefully lay baby on their front over a large exercise or birthing ball, with their arms stretched out in front of them. Hold onto them securely at all times. Rock the ball very, very gently, taking great care to make sure they're safe and content during the movement. Once they're happy and strong enough to control their head during the movement, gently rock the ball side to side, too.

10 second counts

You might find that your tot can only manage a few seconds on their tummy to begin with, and that’s just fine! Don’t feel pressured to persuade them to do any more than they can happily cope with, but simply build plenty of moments into your day together. Be led by them – and if they're just a little grumpy then it’s ok to encourage them to continue for a few seconds more, but if they're at all upset, pick them up or gently roll them over. You’re building big foundations, so go slowly. Everything your baby achieves in the next few months, such as feeding and walking, will have been nurtured during tummy time, so just enjoy watching their strength slowly develop – there’s no rush!

About the author

Rachel Fitz-Desorgher is an active birth teacher, parenting consultant and author of Baby Skin To Skin, with over 30 years working as a midwife and as a parenting consultant. Part of our Mother&Baby expert panel, Rachel is based in Berkshire, near London, and has appeared on numerous radio programmes, talking about various issues from infant feeding to smacking to humanist parenting. She co-created Henley Birthcare, a unique freelance midwifery and doula service offering bespoke care.

She teaches other midwives and peer supporters and lectures at hospitals and conferences on infant feeding and tongue-tie.  She is the midwife specialist for EDS UK, a genetic connective tissue disorder. Through Henley Birthcare she lectures to Midwifery students at Oxford Brookes University in the first private/NHS partnership of its kind.

Mother to four sons of her own, Rachel's passion is reconnecting women to their innate inner-mother. She brings her knowledge of evolutionary biology to her approach to feeding, soothing and parenting babies. Her ethos combines gentle parenting techniques with the practical/scientific knowledge of a baby’s instinctive reflexes in the ‘fourth trimester’ and beyond. Follow her at Rachel the Midwife.

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