The importance of tummy time

August 13, 2019

Babies have many important activities to keep themselves busy during the day. There’s crying time, feeding time, sleeping time, play time. But one very important habit – tummy time – can often be overlooked.

Tummy time, when a baby or infant is positioned on their front (while awake), is widely recommended by health professionals for its numerous benefits. And it is something which can happen early on, as long as it’s carefully supervised.

Like a baby version of a basic yoga position, tummy time is an excellent way to build a child’s muscle strength and joint development. And baby development expert Ruth Bayliss says it’s a vital part of a baby’s first weeks and months.

“It brings loads of really good physical health benefits,” she explains.

“It helps to develop head control by strengthening the muscles of the neck, which in turn strengthens the baby’s upper back muscles and the muscles that move and protect the spine. It encourages weight bearing through their pelvis and their hips, and it also helps with their brain development and spatial awareness.

Ruth is keen to stress the importance of adult supervision during tummy time, and reminds parents that when possible babies must always be placed on their backs when going to sleep as per NHS and government guidelines.

But once awake, even a little bit of tummy time can make a big difference to a baby’s progress.

“It’s really important for their overall development, and you can do it as early as from birth as long as it’s supervised,” says Ruth.

“With newborns, lying the baby on their parent’s chest is a really nice way to do it.”

Unfortunately, not all babies enjoy tummy time at first, and get upset, so parents will take them off their tummy and avoid the position in future. It can be particularly uncomfortable for infants with reflux or feeding problems.

But it’s worth persevering, says Ruth, even very gradually increasing daily tummy time by just a few moments each time.

“Try to increase the time slowly,” she advises. “So start off with one minute, pick up, reassure, and pop back down.

“Tummy time has actually been proven to be beneficial for babies with reflux. It strengthens up the muscles around the core and the stomach, so it can make things much better in the long run.”

And Ruth, a physiotherapist who specialises in baby development, says tummy time has all kinds of benefits which parents might not be aware of.

“Some of our joints don’t develop until we start using them,” she explains.

“So for hips and shoulders for example, that doesn’t happen when a baby is lying on its back. It happens on its front, pushing up through the forearms to the shoulder, and pushing up through the knees to the hip.

“For muscle strength, it’s the same thing. If they are lying on their back all the time, there’s no need for the muscles around your spine to develop properly.

“But if the baby is lying on its front, they can use their muscles to flex and extend through their back, to look up and see the world around them.”

She continues: “Tummy time is also really good for digestion, as it starts muscles moving in a different way, rather than always being flat.

“And it’s a nice way to challenge their ‘motor planning’, the brain’s ability to select and control which muscle needs to move when. A baby needs to learn which muscle to contract, and by how much. A lot of brain development goes into that.”

When Ruth meets clients, either during home visits or at her clinic, she carries out a full developmental assessment which examines the baby’s muscle strength and tone, how they like to move, and what positions they prefer to be in. She then provides a treatment plan around her findings.

Some parents seek her help because their child has delayed development or flattening of the head – both of which can be helped, says Ruth, by committing to an increase in tummy time.

“Many babies spend a lot of time on their backs, so I see a lot of babies with head shape deformities,” she says. “They’ve spent so much time on their backs that the back of the head has become completely flat instead of nice and round.

“Introducing tummy time can make a huge difference to a really correctable problem.”

She adds: “And from a developmental point of view, once the babies get that strength from being on their tummy, they make amazing progress.

“The trouble is, new parents regularly get told, ‘Do more tummy time’, but nobody actually explains its importance to them.

“Then they try it and the baby hates it, and because they don’t really understand why they’ve been told to do it, or why it matters, it gets forgotten about.

“But it’s important to remember that for a whole range of reasons, tummy time is time very well spent.”

Find out more about Ruth here