10 ways to make tummy time less painful

10 ways to make tummy time less painful


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Tummy time is one of the most important things you can do with your newborn baby. It builds the foundation for every physical milestone to come, from rolling over, to crawling, to eventually walking. In addition, it supports brain development and helps prevent flat spots from forming on the baby’s head. It may seem hard to believe that simply laying your baby down on the floor in this position can do so much. But as a pediatric occupational therapist, I can guarantee you that tummy time is truly every baby’s best friend. You can start giving your baby this time to practice and build their skills as soon as you get home from the hospital.

Of course, all of that sounds great – until you have a baby who fusses or even outright refuses to play along. If you’re struggling with this, the first thing to know is you’re not alone. Tummy time is a lot like a workout for your baby. It’s not the easiest time for them, as they’re fighting against gravity. Some babies can be very vocal about their frustration. (Of course, who wouldn’t prefer to lounge in Mom’s arms all day?) In my practice, I’ve seen many parents (and babies) who’ve grown to dread tummy time.

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The other thing to know is that it’s not your fault, and it definitely doesn’t mean you should give up. The sad truth is that parents just don’t get enough advice about how to actually do tummy time from their pediatricians. That’s why I was so excited to partner with BabyCenter for the virtual, on-demand course Meeting Physical Milestones Through PlayOpens a new window. It has a ton of tricks for helping your baby meet their milestones in a fun and engaging way – including plenty for tummy time.

To get you started, here are a few of the tummy time tips I talk through in the course.

Start slowly

I can’t stress this enough: The benefits of tummy time can start from the day you bring your baby home from the hospital. There is no need to wait to introduce it! I recommend striving for 20 to 30 minutes each day in the newborn phase. That said, you don’t need to do all 20 minutes at once. In fact, I recommend against it since babies’ attention spans are so short. Instead, aim for short stints throughout the day.

Know when to end tummy time

Tummy time is hard work for babies. Nonetheless, it should still be a period of play time for them! You don’t want to set the timer and leave them on the floor, no matter how much your baby protests. If your little one is getting really upset and actively crying, pick them up and give them a break. Even if they’ve only lasted a minute, that’s okay. You can always try again in a few minutes or during the next wake window. You always want to follow your baby’s cues and make sure that they’re content.

That said, you also don’t want to pick your baby up at the very first sign of frustration. If you place them on their tummy and they fuss, take a beat and see if they can work it out themselves. Don’t worry, you’ll be right there to help if they get too upset.

Put baby over your shoulder

Yes, this counts as tummy time! While floor time is great, there are many ways to get your baby into a position that helps them strengthen their neck muscles and core muscles. I recommend holding your newborn baby over your shoulder and taking them on a house tour. Not only will this allow them to practice head control, but hearing your voice and learning about light switches and windows will be fascinating for them.

Try diaper change tummy time

With newborns especially, play time windows are pretty short. You can maximize your time by using diaper changes as an opportunity for tummy time. After you change their diaper, flip them over on the changing table for as long as they’ll tolerate it. And if your baby is always facing the closet, flip them the opposite direction so this time they’re facing the window. Seeing the room from higher up offers a new perspective that can keep them interested.

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Try chest-to-chest

Another alternative to floor time is setting the baby up on your chest. Lie back on the couch, placing your baby on their tummy on your chest.  There is nothing more interesting to your baby than your face. This position gives them a close-up view (important for newborns) of their favorite person. The promise of seeing your smile will encourage them to lift their head – and work those neck, core, and back muscles.

Show them how to zoom

Don’t worry, baby. We won’t make you join a video call! The “zoom, zoom, zoom” game is one of my favorites for tummy time play. To try it out: Kneel and hold your baby so that you’re supporting them with one arm held horizontally across their chest and one arm held vertically against their body, coming up from between their legs. (Their arms should both be positioned over your arm so they can move them freely.) Then, gently “fly” your baby forward and backward, then side to side while singing to them. “Blast off” by lifting them up a little higher, and then bring them back down.

You can also try this activity while you’re lying on your back, curled up, and you put your baby over your shins. Support them under their underarms and move your shins side to side and forward and backward while singing to them. This version is nice because you and your baby can see each other’s faces while you do it.

Use a carrier

Getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine is great for helping newborns learn the difference between day and night. If you use an infant carrier, allowing them to sit upright and hold their head up, it can also count as tummy time. Remember that newborns should be facing inward, so that their tummy is touching yours. And this still counts as tummy time – any position where they’re not flat on their backs will help them build strength.

We share more non-floor ideas, including how to use a yoga ball, in the full Meeting Physical Milestones Through PlayOpens a new window course.

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Support them on the mat

The floor is still the holy grail for tummy time because when they’re flat on a mat, they have to work against gravity. Newborns will practice turning their heads from side-to-side. Older babies around 4 months will begin to use their arms to push their chest off the floor. Either way, it’s hard work. If you find your baby is getting too frustrated, offer some support by placing a rolled up blanket or nursing pillow (I like the half-moon shape) under their chests. Place their arms over the pillow or blanket so the forearms are touching the ground. This trick makes it a little bit easier for them – but still challenges them to practice.

Tell stories

You can make tummy time feel special to your baby by engaging their visual interest. Try setting up some high-contrast cards or a high-contrast book in front of them while they’re on their tummy. You can use a box or another toy to prop up the cards or book to encourage your baby to lift their head higher. Tell stories about the images they’re seeing. This can help distract them from how hard they’re working.

Show them some shiny objects

Pick three shiny or exciting toys. This could include a baby-safe mirror, some stainless steel cups, a rattle, Mardi Gras beads (just make sure to watch your baby closely so they don’t put them in their mouth), or anything else that is likely to grab your baby’s attention, via sight or sound. Set up your toys an arm’s-length away from your baby. Spread them out so they’re about a foot a part. Pick up or move slowly each of the toys one at a time. This will encourage baby to look up. If they seem particularly interested in one of the toys, focus on that one, moving it slowly side to side so they can practice tracking the toy with their eyes. This is great for visual development, as well as building their motor skills. 

Want to keep learning?

Don’t be discouraged if your baby isn’t engaged with every single idea listed here. Every baby is different, and I like to give lots of different suggestions so you can find something that works for you and your baby.

These are just a few of the ideas that I go through in the BabyCenter Courses class Meeting Physical Milestones Through PlayOpens a new window. It has lots of fun playtime inspiration for your baby’s first year – and all of it will help your baby hit their milestones, too. At just $45, it’s less than the cost of many toys. And I promise you’ll get a ton out of it!

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