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When to Start Tummy-Time?
Babies spend most of their time on their backs. Between daytime naps and nighttime sleep, they’re in that position for many hours. That’s in part due to the “Back to Sleep” campaign which, starting in the early 1990s, urged parents to place babies on their backs to sleep in order to decrease the mortality rate from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

Happily, that campaign has been successful. As a result, though, today’s babies don’t spend much time on their tummies. A natural outcome of being on their backs so often is that they gain head control and roll over a little later than infants of previous generations.

Parents shouldn’t press the panic button over this trend. Babies eventually gain the upper body strength necessary to push up and roll over, so there’s no need to feel pressure for them to reach those milestones.

Still, it is important for all babies to enjoy some quality “tummy-time.”

What does tummy-time do for a baby? It develops upper body strength and head control, and strengthens muscles in the arms and neck. All of this is needed in the next stages of physical development—rolling over, pushing up and, eventually, crawling. It also helps promote sensory development, allowing babies to see the world from a whole new perspective.

Many parents have found that a good time to introduce tummy-time play is after a diaper change or bath. Whenever you decide to make tummy-time play a part of your routine, make sure enough time has passed after your baby has eaten. Also, choose a time of day when your baby is alert, cheerful and in the mood to play.

If you’re just introducing tummy-time play, begin with a few minutes at a time, allowing your baby to get used to the new position. Some parents start tummy-time play for about a minute or so at 1 or 2 months of age, when babies can hold their heads up for a short time. Others wait until a child is 3 or 4 months old, when the neck, shoulder and torso muscles are stronger. As your baby’s neck and upper body control improves, gradually increase the amount of time spent on tummy-time play.

Since some babies find the tummy-down position awkward, you’ll want to make sure your child is as comfortable as possible when in that position. Sometimes it helps to prop babies up, giving them a better look at their surroundings. Try placing a rolled-up baby blanket under your child’s chest, increasing the size of the roll as your little one grows and gets stronger. Beyond supporting your baby, the blanket frees up both hands to hold and shake toys.

There are many things you can do to make tummy-time an enjoyable experience. Try getting down to your baby’s level, so the two of you are looking at each other. While you’re there, sing, smile or talk to keep your baby’s attention. Placing rattles or easy-to-grasp toys within baby’s reach can also encourage longer tummy-time play periods. When baby reaches out and successfully grabs an object, you can see the sense of pride and self-confidence in your baby’s face. And since we’re on the subject of faces, have you ever tried placing a mirrored toy in front of your baby? Since babies are delighted to look at their own image, a mirror gives them incentive to remain on their tummies.

Here are some more ideas to maximize tummy-time:
  • Lie on your back and put your baby, tummy-side down, on your stomach. Then, while face-to-face, talk or sing or make silly faces.
  • Move a toy in front of your baby, starting at eye level and slowly moving it upward, to help strengthen neck muscles.
  • Eventually, move the toy side to side to encourage sideways head movement in addition to neck muscle development.
  • Gently rub your baby’s back in a circular motion between the shoulder blades, and up and down the back, to stimulate the muscles used to hold the head up and to push up with the arms.


However you decide to introduce tummy-time, make it a point to keep it relaxed and enjoyable, for both of you. When your baby starts to fuss, it’s a good idea to try another position —and another activity. Remember, tummy-time should be fun time!
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education