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Dr Jane Williams
There has recently been a spate of online blogs and articles espousing that babies do not need tummy time for healthy development, and that they will ‘find their own way to their tummy’ naturally over time if left lying on their backs. While I totally agree with ‘natural’ development, I am very surprised that lying on the tummy is considered an ‘unnatural’ position by these authors. What baby in the animal kingdom lies on its back as the natural position? None. It’s not a position from which babies can move, plus it leaves them vulnerable to attack. Fortunately human babies don’t have to worry about being attacked, but there are some concerns about reduced movement opportunities if too much time is spent lying on the back.
While I also agree with the authors that many babies are restricted in their movement because of the containers most babies spend a great deal of time in – swaddling, carriers, bouncers, prams etc. rather than spending time being able to move freely on their backs, I suggest that this makes tummy time even more important in the first months of life.
One article actually equates tummy time being so bad for baby that it’s like they have been anaesthetised in their muscles and are totally helpless! Claims like this are very concerning as there is NO scientific basis to this whatsoever. Babies’ muscles are in perfectly good condition and they are certainly not anaesthetised … in fact, when lying on their tummy, these muscles are activated so they develop strength and are able to support a baby’s head. Like all the muscles of a newborn baby’s body, these back and shoulder muscles need to learn to feel what it’s like to move and to develop strength.
Why am I so concerned about babies missing out on essential tummy time?
- Tummy time is important for movement. The activation of the primitive reflexes that help babies move forward (commando crawl) is only possible when babies are on their tummies. They can dig their feet into the floor and push off, and reach forward with those arms (now strong from lying on the tummy and pushing up) to pull. There will be many babies who miss entirely the potential of commando crawling as the reflex is most strongly activated in the first 4-5 months of life. Many back-lying babies will not have rolled over until well after this time. This means babies have reduced opportunities to crawl and this impacts on how foundational wiring in the brain is established. These early patterns of movement actually play a very important role in later development. Read more here.
- The longer you wait to place your baby on their tummy, the bigger and heavier his head will be and the less likely he is to enjoy the experience. It will also be harder to lift the head off the mat as the muscles in the back, shoulders and neck have not had the opportunity to develop strength.
- Tummy time helps a baby develop strength, naturally. Turning the head from side to side and lifting the head for short periods, gradually increases muscle strength and head control. Pushing up on the arms develops strength in the upper body and enables babies to control reach and improve hand-eye coordination skills. Being able to push their feet against the mat develops strength in the muscles of the legs and feet.
- Babies who do not become mobile by 6-7 months are far more likely to be propped to sit by their parents as they become concerned by their baby’s lack of mobility. Propping a baby to sit reduces opportunities to crawl and move. In desperation, babies bottom shuffle along instead of crawl. The brain is evolutionarily set up to respond to certain movement experiences and crawling is one of those. Specific patterns of movement wire the brain for later learning success. There is so much research that confirms the essential importance of movement to learning in the first years of life. Interestingly, a very large UK study of 62,000 children from birth to school aged reported that babies who were crawling at nine months of age are more likely to learn easily at school.1
So, there’s no question about it, tummy time is natural, it’s important and it’s something every baby should do every day, right from birth.
Your baby not enjoying tummy time?
There will always be some babies who do not seem to like time on their tummies. But this has nothing to do with anaesthetised muscles, in fact the reason is exactly the opposite. Babies who do not enjoy tummy time from the beginning, are often uncomfortable and may even feel pain due to an unnatural resistance from the muscles in the neck and shoulders. This resistance is usually a result of the birth process. Babies born prematurely or via a difficult, long labour, a very quick labour or a caesarian section, (where babies are often pulled out by the head – the exact opposite movement of being pushed through the birth canal), are at greater risk of not enjoying tummy time. But rather than avoid tummy time, it’s time to see a well-trained paediatric physiotherapist or osteopath. They can help reduce the tension on these muscles. At GymbaROO and KindyROO we have seen many babies over the years shift from disliking tummy time, to loving tummy time, just after one or two visits to the appropriate professional and with tummy time practice.
Encouraging tummy time
As early as possible, lie baby on her tummy for several short periods of time each day while she is awake, to familiarise her with the position and then extend tummy time as she gets stronger. Find ways to encourage her to lift her head and look up:
- Lie baby on your chest so she can look at your face.
- Lie baby across your legs and stroke down her back.
- Lie on the floor with her, sing songs and talk to her.
- Place a toy or mirror in front of her.
- Place a small rolled up towel under her chest and arms to provide support.
Tummy time should never be unenjoyable for anyone. There are many, many ways to develop a love of tummy time together and the earlier you start, the better. You will find lots of ideas and activities in our free online video on tummy time and at your local GymbaROO or KindyROO centre.
Enjoy this short preview of the first video ‘Tummy Time’ in our online series for parents and babies. We have been bombarded with comments from happy and grateful parents who have watched and used the tummy time video. Watch the full free video here: Active Babies Smart Kids: Tummy Time.
Dr Jane Williams (PhD, BMgt, RN(Paeds)) is the Research and Education General Manager for GymbaROO and KindyROO and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the JCU College of Health Sciences.. Dr Williams is one of Australia’s leading experts on baby and child development. More on Dr Williams here.
Reference: Hansen, K., Joshi, H., & Dex, S. (2010). Children of the 21st century (Volume 2). The first five years. London: The Policy Press
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