The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that babies who spend too much time in car seats and other equipment used to confine them can have delayed motor skill development. The AAP recommends introducing physical activity in early infancy. “Tummy time” — supervised time on the floor — can help your baby get the exercise they need right from the beginning.
Jennifer Shu, M.D., co-author of “Heading Home With Your Newborn,” explains to Parenting.com that tummy time helps build critical muscles. “We want babies to develop their core and upper-body strength, so that if they are in an unsafe situation face down (e.g., face in blankets), they can stretch their heads up and roll over to get themselves out of it.”
The Floor Advantage
When a baby is on their tummy on a hard, flat surface such as the floor, they will tend to push their head up to see what’s going on. Besides the muscular benefits this provides, the neck extension will activate the brain stem and help to regulate the nervous system.
Floor time also supports the development of the touch and vision senses. The sensation of lying on a firm, flat surface is very different than the sensation of lying in a crib on a soft mattress or being held by mom or dad.
When considering tummy time for your baby, you will of course want to place your baby on a clean surface. Babies can be particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants present on the floor. Be careful of carpet, which can harbor dust mites and other unhealthy particles. Formaldehyde and VOCs found in some other flooring products have been related to health issues, too. Ceramic tile doesn’t contain these harmful contaminants and is also easy to clean — sometimes with just water — so you do not need to add toxic cleaning products to the floor surface. Making sure your baby has a clean floor for tummy time is easy with ceramic tile.
Reasons for Tummy Time
Here are five important reasons child development advocates explain for giving your baby healthy floor time.
1. Head Shape
When babies are born, they have soft spots called fontanels. A baby’s skull will not harden until after birth; this allows them to pass more easily through the birth canal. After they are born, babies’ skulls expand, and the seams will close. The fontanels are the areas where the skull has not yet grown back together. There is no normal baby head shape at birth — some will be cone-shaped, some are uneven — so don’t be alarmed if your baby’s head is not perfectly round. By about six weeks old, your baby’s head should round out.
The Mayo Clinic explains that if a baby spends all of his time in a car seat, swing, or lying down in a crib, his skull can become somewhat flat, usually on the back of the head. While this is not a health issue and babies tend to grow out of it, it concerns most parents. Giving your baby frequent, supervised floor time on a firm surface will allow them to roll around and lift their head, giving the skull time to round out.
2. Neck Strength
Dr. Patricia Solo-Josephson explains at KidsHealth.org that torticollis is a condition where a baby’s head is in an abnormal position, such as a tilt to one side, or a baby has difficulty turning her head. This condition develops when the muscles on one side of the neck and shoulders tighten. Sometimes torticollis is a congenital condition and sometimes it is a result of a baby always sleeping on her back — positional torticollis.
Frequent tummy time may help your baby strengthen his neck muscles. For example, when a baby is on his stomach, he will naturally lift and turn his head to look at you and his surroundings; this can help strengthen the muscles in the back of his neck and shoulders. Seattle Children’s Hospital has published a neck exercise guide, which you can download for stretches to discuss with your pediatrician.
3. Core Strength
For babies, floor time is like their own version of the workouts that mom and dad do, such as pilates, kickboxing, and yoga. Laying your baby on their tummy allows their core muscles to stretch and get stronger, much like it does for their neck. If you unwrap their legs from the constraints of a blanket, they can kick and twist, which helps to strengthen the core.
Placing safe, grabbable objects just out of baby’s reach will encourage them to reach out and grab, which strengthens and stretches not only the core, but also their arm muscles. Having good muscle tone allows a baby to help herself; for example, if she is lying face-down in blankets, she will be able to move or roll over.
Floor time also allows babies to roll around as they explore the world, and this rolling gets their little bodies ready to crawl. The back-and-forth movements that a baby on the floor makes will help engage the proper muscles to develop and give them the motivation to crawl.
Connie Helms, M.Ed. stresses the importance of tummy time and notes to LetsGrowKids.org that if a baby doesn’t get enough floor time, she can skip the crawling stage altogether, which can compromise the development of fine motor skills and spatial awareness (our internal GPS system). Even if your baby seems ready to go straight to walking, you should still encourage floor time for the developmental benefits it provides.
5. Spatial Awareness
When a baby gets floor time, it gives them an awareness of where they are in relation to the rest of their world. Spatial awareness will help a baby grow into a child that can navigate, run, jump, and play. Later, that child will be able to master other spatial concepts, such as how words flow on a page. A study by Emory University published in Psychological Science measured spatial reasoning in infancy and how the child performed in math four years later. The study concludes that early spatial reasoning may even help children succeed in math later in life.
Adding a plastic mirror to tummy time helps to reinforce spatial awareness by allowing your baby to see himself and his surroundings at the same time. Occupational Therapy for Children reports that having poor spatial awareness can lead to a child being clumsy, having poor eye-hand coordination, or having difficulty with left-right directions.
Important Information on Tummy Time
When to Start Tummy Time
The Mayo Clinic suggests that you should start tummy time with your baby soon after birth, but use your body instead of the floor, and only for a few minutes at first. Lay him across your lap, or lie down on your back with your baby on your chest, tummy-down. From this position, your baby can see you, so they get healthy tummy time and bonding time, too.
After the umbilical cord falls off, you can start to put your baby on a blanket on the floor. Dr. Henry Shapiro, M.D., medical director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, suggests to readers of Parents magazine that they “[m]ake tummy time part of regular play, not a chore.” Some babies may not like the tummy position as raising their head requires some exertion. Start with a minute or two and gradually work up to 20 minutes at a time by about four months old. Always supervise floor time with your baby, and if they fall asleep, turn them over.
How to Engage Your Baby During Tummy Time
In the beginning, you can put a rolled-up towel under your baby’s armpits to lift their face off the floor a bit. Lie down next to your baby and sing or speak to them. As babies start to get stronger, they can lift their heads and look around. At this point, you can place soft, grabbable toys near them to encourage stretching and reaching.
After your baby is a few weeks old, you can start to unwrap their legs from blankets so they can start kicking, which will build strength and flexibility. To add resistance, place your hands near their feet so they can push off. As your baby gets older, their kicks will become more targeted and less random, and their coordination will improve, too.
To build sensory perception, touch your baby and dangle toys for them to feel and grab. Stimulating all of your baby’s senses helps them to learn about the world. Try toys that make different noises, such as rattles, squeaky toys, and music. Introduce your baby to herself with an unbreakable mirror.
Exercises for Strength Training
By about four months old, your baby will start to roll to his back, and soon after will be able to roll from back to tummy. You can encourage the rolling by tempting him with a toy held just out of reach. As your baby reaches for the toy, he will start to stretch and roll, and his core muscles will strengthen.
When your baby is big enough to sit up, keep an assortment of toys in a container nearby for him to play with. The act of grabbing and lifting an object up and out of a container builds arm, neck, and core muscles.
The Best Flooring for Tummy Time
Literature discusses that the ideal surface for tummy time is a firm one, so babies have the resistance to push themselves up and build their muscles and coordination.
Ceramic tile has many health advantages over other types of flooring. Tile is one of the best choices for providing an allergen- and toxin-free floor for your baby. For a soft-to-the-touch surface, use a freshly laundered blanket or towel. You can also find brightly colored, sensory-stimulating tummy time mats for sale.
A Lifetime Advantage
We all know how important physical activity is for kids and adults. Exercise helps keep our brains and bodies healthy and us feeling good. Give your baby the best start in life with the healthy advantage of floor time. Include quality interaction with you, and the bonus is the natural development of baby’s muscles, senses, and coordination that will benefit them for a lifetime.
Many resources explain the general benefits of tummy time, but you should check with your pediatrician about medical matters and what is best for your baby, who may have specific needs.