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One consequence of the American Academy of Pediatrics' "Back to Sleep" campaign, which reduced the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by 50 percent, was a decrease in the amount of time infants spend lying on their stomachs. But putting your baby on his stomach on the floor for around 20 minutes per day -- while you're supervising him all the while -- by age 3 to 4 months, can help him develop motor skills, according to MayoClinic.com. Start placing your infant on his stomach during the day -- what many parents call "tummy time" -- soon after birth to get your child used to it, but, again, only with observation.
Why It's Important
At least 20 minutes of tummy time per day helps your baby develop his neck and shoulder muscles, because he has to use them to lift his head to see the world around him, pediatrician Jay L. Hoecker, M.D., explains on the MayoClinic.com website. Spending time on his stomach helps him sit, roll over and crawl earlier. It also helps prevent positional plagiocephaly, which means that the back of your baby's head is flattened, usually more on one side than the other. While a flat head usually rounds out after he begins to sit up unaided, in severe cases, a baby needs to wear a specially designed helmet between the ages of 4 to 6 months to round out his head and avoid permanent flattening, according to KidsHealth from Nemours. Have your pediatrician check if you feel that your baby's head is flattening too much on one side.
Modern babies don't spend much time on the floor. They sit in infant seats, car seats, jump seats, and strollers, and are carried in contraptions that allow them to look out at the world from an upright position. All these objects keep them upright and able to see the world, so they don't have to use the muscles needed to push up from the floor or raise their heads. Because babies spend little time lying on their stomachs and can't see the world as well from this position without lifting their heads, many become resistant when placed on their stomachs for tummy time.
The best way to get your baby used to spending time on his stomach is to start early. You can begin putting your baby across your lap on his stomach for a few minutes at a time right after birth. Place him on a blanket on the floor as soon as his umbilical cord falls off and he can lay comfortably on his stomach. A colorful blanket to lie on or toys placed in front of his face that he can look at can keep him interested in spending time on his stomach. As your baby gets a little older, he might enjoy looking at himself in a child-proof mirror placed in front of him. By around 4 months, he should be able to lift his head and chest off the floor.
Don't leave your baby unattended on his stomach. If he falls asleep, move him to his back. Don't place soft toys, pillows or mounds of blankets near your baby, where he could bury his face in them and smother if he can't lift up his head. Avoid tummy time for an hour of so after your baby eats, especially if he's a spitter-upper; pressure on his stomach can increase spitting up after eating.
Tummy time shouldn't become a battle. Place your baby on his stomach for brief periods of time at first, just a few minutes at a time. If he starts to fuss, try distracting him or playing with him for a few minutes to extend his time. Commercially manufactured tummy-time mats have built-in pads that can help hold your baby upright when you place it under his chest and extend his arms over it; these may increase your baby's comfort and help extend his tummy time.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.