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Early Childhood Education

Your Baby Might Hate Tummy Time But They Need It

A small brown baby lies on its tummy.
Dairian Roberts' daughter Koko, who modeled tummy time for her baby peers in a recent Zoom workshop. (Courtesy Dairian Roberts)
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When babies play while on their bellies, it can help them build muscle, learn to crawl and reach other developmental milestones, according to a study slated for publication in the scientific journal Pediatrics.

"They're strengthening the muscles in their head and shoulder and trunk muscles that they'll need to master skills such as rolling and crawling," said Lyndel Hewitt, lead author of the paper and a research clinician at Wollongong Hospital in New South Wales, Australia.

We already knew this, kind of.

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The research reviewed 16 existing studies that included 4,237 participants in eight countries and found that tummy time is associated with positive gross motor development — that is, baby's ability to move.

Tummy Time 101

Tummy time is pretty self-explanatory. Set baby on their stomach while they're awake and add toys and other amusement as needed.

An image of a room shot from below with a colorful woven carpet, pillows and yoga balls strewn about. In the foreground is a Black baby on their belly, looking intently at a small plastic ball. Sitting behind the baby, not too far away is a Black woman with a big grin on her face as she looks at the baby. Other people and their babies are close by, with two adults each holding their babies, laying on their bellies, on yoga balls.
Dairian Roberts teaches a tummy time workshop at Kindred Space LA in pre-coronavirus times. (Courtesy Dairain Roberts)

But it can still be intimidating to some parents. It was to Hewitt.

"I remember being a first-time mum being quite afraid of tummy time thinking, 'Oh, is it safe? Are they going to be OK?'"

Starting in the 1990s, there was a big push to only lay babies on their backs to sleep to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The number of children dying from SIDS went down but researchers also found some babies were slower to reach developmental milestones and developed flat spots on their heads.

One possible solution? Tummy time.

Today, the World Health Organization recommends babies spend at least 30 minutes on their stomach a day.

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An early childhood nurse helped Hewitt understand how to make tummy time safe.

"You just did it a little bit at a time, that they could tolerate and then you give them a nice big cuddle at the end," Hewitt said. Her boys are now 12 and 14 years old.

But I (Or My Baby) Hate Tummy Time!

"No, they just don't love it yet," says Dairian Roberts, an L.A. occupational therapist who's been teaching tummy time workshops for the last year.

The baby industry offers parents many options for keeping infants upright and amused, from bouncers to special pillows, but for Roberts the developmental benefits make tummy time non-negotiable.

I tuned into one of her now-virtual workshop and got some tips.

Tuck & roll

Roberts' 5-month-old daughter, Koko, was the class model. Roberts started by lowering her gently to the floor, folding one arm into her chest and rolling her gently toward that side onto her belly.

"As long as she's happy, that's how long she's going to stay here," Roberts said.

My baby is not happy

A light-skinned Black woman smiles at the camera. She is wearing a navy dress with a light floral pattern.
Occupational therapist Dairian Roberts has taught tummy time workshops for about a year. (Courtesy Dairian Roberts)

Time to reverse. Tuck that arm back in and roll baby on to their back.

"If they keep having negative experiences every time they're in tummy time, that's how they learn to not like tummy time," Roberts said.

Even just a few seconds of tummy time several times a day can build into a beneficial routine, as opposed to the twice-a-day, 15-minute stretch that can feel like tummy torture.

Roberts suggests putting baby onto their stomach after you change their diaper (or every third time you change their diaper) as one way to incorporate tummy time into the day.

Maximize those few seconds

Keep baby's favorite toys close by or improvise. A crinkly empty water bottle or flashing phone screen can help keep your little one's attention for a bit longer.

There's also your face.

When Koko got fussy, Roberts looked into her eyes, put on a huge smile, cooed, clapped her hands and gave her a enthusiastic "muahs!" to keep her entertained.

"It takes a lot of energy from us as a parent," Roberts said.

Take a second look

Once you have a few peaceful moments of tummy time, take a look at how your baby is reacting, Roberts said.

Where is their head? Are their hands opened or closed? What are their legs doing? Do they roll more often to one side than the other?

Parents can be a part of their baby's development by manually rolling them toward their less-favored side to help them build muscle memory.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California? What’s a story that’s not being told about your school?
Mariana Dale wants to hear from parents, educators, and students about what’s happening in schools — the successes and challenges.

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