Baby laying on their tummy playing with blocks.What is Tummy time?

Your baby should always sleep on her back. This has been shown to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But if a baby spends too much time on her back, it can lead to a condition called positional plagiocephaly or baby flat-head. This is when a baby’s skull becomes deformed by spending too much time in the same position. Ensure your baby is turning her head to the left and the right while sleeping on her back. Also make sure she is spending time in a variety of positions when she is awake. To help prevent head deformities and promote healthy development, you can position your baby on her stomach while she is awake and supervised. Babies should spend a total of about 1½ hours (90 minutes) every day on their tummies. Remember, “Back to sleep – tummy to play!

Benefits of tummy time for your baby

Placing your baby on her tummy has many benefits:

  • prevents baby flat-head, or deformed skull (positional plagiocephaly)
  • helps your baby develop head control
  • strengthens the upper body, including back, neck, shoulders, arms and hands
  • promotes development of gross motor skills like crawling, sitting and rolling
  • promotes development of fine motor skills and play skills
  • promotes sensory development by changing the environment and how your baby sees the world around her.

Activities for tummy time

To make sure your baby spends time in a variety of positions, try these activities:

  • Position toys on both sides of your baby’s head within her field of view. This will help your child learn to turn her head in both directions and give her something fun to look at.
  • Place your baby’s chest on a rolled towel, cushion, or over your knees. This may be more comfortable for your baby. It can also improve upper body strength and head control.
  • Lay your baby on your chest while you are lying back. This will help your baby develop head control and upper body strength in a safe and enjoyable position.

Baby playing during tummy time.Once your baby can lift her head and push up onto her forearms, try these ideas:

  • Use mirrors and toys around your baby to encourage weight shifting and reaching. This strengthens the arms, hands and back muscles to prepare your baby for sitting, rolling and crawling.
  • Play peek-a-boo while you and your baby are both on your tummies. Hold a blanket between you, and encourage your baby to pull down the blanket. This game helps strengthen the muscles your baby uses for crawling, sitting and fine motor skills. It also helps with language and with social and mental skills.

Once your baby has good control of her head and is able to sit, try playing “airplane”. Lift your baby at the hips and waist, or rest your baby on your bent legs and move them up and down. This will help strengthen neck and back muscles to allow your baby to lift her head up.

We live in an era where children are consistently placed on their backs: in car seats, in bed, and in strollers. Try holding your baby in a variety of positions, including over your knees or chest, to increase tummy time.

Parent is laying down and holding their baby up in the air.Encouraging tummy time with your baby

If your baby dislikes being on her stomach, here are some ways to encourage tummy time:

  • Give your baby something fun and interesting to look at, like a toy, a mirror, or your face
  • Slowly increase tummy time. Short and frequent tummy time experiences allow your baby to become familiar and feel safe in this position. Include short tummy time experiences whenever you change, dress, or hold your baby.
  • Slowly roll your baby from her back to her tummy. This can be less startling for babies compared to simply placing them on their tummies. Firm, flat surfaces can be easier for babies as they learn to use their upper body muscles while playing on their tummies.

If your child is in hospital

If your child has to spend time in hospital, it may not be possible to place her on her stomach. Talk to your occupational therapist or physiotherapist for ideas on how to encourage your child’s development during this time.

Key points

  • Babies should sleep on their backs. Their heads should be turning to the left and right while sleeping to avoid flattened head syndrome.
  • Babies should spend a total of 1½ hours (90 minutes) every day on their tummies. This can be spread out over many short periods of tummy time.
  • Tummy time prevents head deformities and promotes healthy child development.
  • There are many ways to help your baby enjoy tummy time.

Adapted with permission from The Hospital for Sick Children.

About Kids Health is a child health information website that provides parents, children and health care providers with free, evidence-based information about everyday health and complex medical conditions.