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Playtime & Toys

When to Start Tummy Time

Start slow, mix it up, and more ways to get your baby to love tummy time

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Thanks to the "Back to Sleep" campaign, which urges parents to place babies on their back for naps and nighttime, rates of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) have declined significantly. But this practice has also led to an increase in plagiocephaly, which is when there is flattening of a baby's head due to lying on her back for too long.

The fix: tummy time, which gives your baby a chance to develop her neck and arm muscles and view the world from a new perspective. "This activity takes pressure off the back of the head and allows babies to look from side to side so they can maintain full range of neck motion," explains Andy Bernstein, MD, a pediatrician in Evanston, IL. It also lets them work on their arm strength which they'll need when they're ready to roll over and crawl.

Of course, since she's not used to this position, your baby may end up red-faced and grunting at first. Here's how to make tummy time more fun for both of you:

Choose the right time for tummy time. That usually means she's in a good mood, has been fed, and is well-rested. Many parents have found their babies to be most receptive after a diaper change, bath or nap. Wait about an hour after the last feeding so she doesn't spit up from the pressure on her belly. 

Start slow. There's no need to put babies on their bellies until they can't stand it anymore, reminds Bernstein. Start slowly by putting her in this position for just a a few minutes at 1 or 2 months of age, when babies are beginning to hold their heads up. As your baby's neck and upper body control improves, gradually increase the amount of time spent on her belly.

Make her comfy. A baby's head is larger in proportionate size to her body, so you'll notice it can be hard to hold her noggin up for very long. Because tummy time can be awkward, you might try adding a bit of padding for her comfort. Alanna Levine, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics who practices in New York and New Jersey recommends starting babies in a 'superman' position over a pillow. "This helps infants to gradually develop the strength to hold their heads up," she adds. You can also try a rolled-up baby blanket under your child's chest, increasing the size of the roll as she grows and gets stronger. This bit of padding also frees up her hands to reach out and hold toys.

Keep tummy time fun. Make tummy time more enjoyable by having a few safe baby toys on hand. You might also try getting down to your baby's level so the two of you are eye to eye. "Make it as interactive as you can by showing your baby how it feels to roll over and stretch for nearby toys," suggests Bernstein. Sing, smile or talk to keep your baby's attention and place rattles, teethers or a baby-safe mirror within her reach in order to lengthen the play time. And don't forget to share your tot's excitement and praise her efforts when she actually grabs hold of a toy.

Mix it up. Tummy time doesn't always have to occur on the floor. Change up the scenario by lying on your back and putting your baby tummy-side down on your stomach or chest. Meet her gaze and encourage her to look up. You can also give her neck muscles more of a workout by moving a toy in front of her, starting at eye level and then slowly raising it upward and side to side. "Engage in this activity as much as you can," says Levine. A couple of sessions every day should do the trick.