Tummy time during play time should be an important part of your parenting game plan.
The baby version of push-ups. When babies spend time on their tummies during play time, they use their shoulder muscles to push their head and shoulders off the floor, the baby version of push-ups. “Tummy time increases head and neck control and body strength and improves balance,” says paediatrician Brannon Perilloux, M.D.
Without adequate time on their tummies, babies may experience deficits, including weak neck and shoulder muscles, which can delay a baby’s ability to roll over, sit up without support, crawl, and pull to standing. Down the road, tummy-time-deprived toddlers can end up with weak neck, shoulder, and jaw muscles that can impact their ability to hit other developmental milestones.
“Adequate neck control can impact a baby’s eating and speech development,” says Melanie Mintz, DPT, a board-certified paediatric physical therapist, because the same muscles that babies use to hold their head up also support their jaws.
One thing leads to another. When babies push themselves up through their hands when they’re on their tummies, they develop the shoulder support that can impact the fine motor skills they’ll eventually need to learn to eat, hold a crayon, and dress themselves.
Moreover, the muscle tone babies develop from tummy time helps them feel more in control of their surroundings, which has global repercussions. “The more relaxed babies are with their environment, the more they can attend to visual and auditory stimuli going on around them, which helps develop language,” says Rebecca Timlin-Scalera, Ph.D., a paediatric neuropsychologist. Tummy time can also help prevent plagiocephaly (flat-head syndrome) and torticollis (weak neck muscles on one side).
Tummy-time limits. “Tummy time should start from day one,” says Mintz, beginning with three to five minutes, two to three times each day as soon as they get home from the hospital. Continue to up the ante and add increments of tummy time, such as 15 minutes, four times a day. There isn’t a consensus for how much tummy time is needed “but as your baby gets older, 30 to 90 minutes total per day is optimal,” says Mintz.
Feel free to break that time up into five- or 10- minute spurts, or whatever length of time your baby can tolerate.
Official tummy time can end when your baby starts to roll and crawl. In the meantime, here’s how to make the most of this important developmental activity:
Tummy time to-do tactics
Be your baby’s playmat. For the youngest babies who cry when they’re placed on the floor or for babies with reflux, try an inclined version of tummy time: Have your baby lie on your chest while you sit at a semi- reclined position. An incline is easier on babies because they don’t have to use as much muscle strength to hold their head up and most babies enjoy the skin-to-skin contact. Talk to your baby while you’re at it, or sing songs or tell them a story, anything that engages your baby and makes eye contact, which is also important for cognitive, social, and emotional development. “Work your way down to a reclined position,” advises Mintz.
Invest in an activity gym. A take-off on the mobile, activity gyms feature charming, brightly-colored floor and hanging detachable toys that make sounds, play music, and sport tantalizing textures. Some activity gym toys may include unbreakable, embedded mirrors - a definite plus! Babies love to look at their own image. Activity gyms help babies explore their environment through their sense of sound, touch, sight, and taste. Their fine motor skills also get a tune-up when they bat, reach, and grab for toys.
If your baby fusses during tummy time on a playmat, distract them with the gym’s lights, music, and crinkle toys until they get used to it. Also, take turns with your baby making the activity gym’s elephant ear crinkle, for example, or help baby pull the giraffe’s leg. When your baby is around four months old, detach their favorite toys and place them just out of their reach in a circle during tummy time, either lying down or supported by you. At first, your baby might just make general movements in the direction toward the object. Eventually, they’ll be able to reach out and pull objects forward. “One of the precursors to crawling is being able to shift your weight and pivot on your tummy,” says Mintz.
You’re a key player in the process. Babies crave one- on-one social interaction and need the security it provides.
To enhance tummy time and make it more tolerable, here are more tricks to try:
Get down on the floor with your baby and shake a rattle or keys at various points of your baby’s sight so they’ll enjoy the surprise of hearing the toy’s sound from different angles.
Have your baby grab for toys with either hand to help develop both sides of their brain; sometimes present toys on their right side, sometimes on their left (your baby won’t show true hand dominance until age two).
Try tracking; hold a toy six to 12 inches from your baby’s face, which is where babies four months and under see it best, with your baby lying down, and move it back and forth slowly. This technique helps develop eye coordination and vision.
In time, take turns playing with a toy to help establish the notion of turn-taking, an important lesson for kids of all ages.
Warning: Your baby might find the arcade that is their activity gym so entertaining, you’ll be tempted to park them there while you get things done around the house. For safety and other reasons, however, it’s best to hang out in the same room as your baby. You want to make sure your baby doesn’t end up with their face smooshed into the floor. And besides, your baby learns best by interacting with you and other caregivers.
When you choose activities like tummy time, you’re helping them foster motor, cognitive, and social skills they can build on.
Sandra is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting and consumer issues.
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