By Sherri Gordon | Published on January 18, 2023
During your baby’s first few months of life, they spend a good chunk of their time on their backs. Whether in their car seat, swing, or crib, they are used to taking in the world from this angle. For this reason—and a few others that we will get to in a little bit—it is not surprising that some little ones simply do not like tummy time.
“When your baby is not used to being on their tummies and then is placed in that position, their world has been turned upside down,” explains David Berger, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and founder of a health education company Wholistic Pediatrics & Family Care. “Everything looks different and it could be unsettling.”
While this is understandable, it also can create a dilemma. You know your baby needs time on their tummy in order to build their core and neck strength; but you also do not want to see them distressed. If you find yourself in this situation, rest assured you are not alone and we are here to help. Below we not only walk you through what tummy time is and why it matters, but we also offer tips on what to do if your baby would rather do anything other than spend time on their belly.
What Is Tummy Time and Why Does It Matter?
Tummy time—which is recommended from the day your baby is born—represents the brief periods of time your baby spends on their tummy while they are awake and you are watching.1 This position not only helps them build upper body strength, but it also prepares them for developmental milestones that they will conquer during their first year like rolling over, crawling, sitting, and eventually walking.2
Tummy time also helps reduce the risk of positional plagiocephaly—also called flat head syndrome. This condition occurs when a baby’s head flattens in some areas from lying on their back.3
“You can start doing tummy time as early as the first day you bring your baby home,” says Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and founder and CEO at Happiest Baby. “By the time your little cherub reaches 1 month old, it’s important to start integrating tummy time into your daily routine. But be warned that your newborn may hate tummy time—and that’s OK.”4
Keep in mind, tummy time does not have to happen for long stretches of time. Two to three sessions a day for three to five minutes at a time is all you need, Dr. Karp says.1
Tummy time allows your baby to develop their neck, back and shoulder muscles, says Andrea Johnson, MEd, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist with Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. This development prepares them for the other milestones they’ll achieve as they get older.
“Tummy time counteracts the significant amount of time that babies spend on their back and develops musculature on the opposite side of their body,” Johnson adds.
There also are other benefits to incorporating tummy time into your baby’s daily routine. For instance, tummy time can promote sensory development,2 says Leo Damasco, MD, a pediatrician, emergency medicine physician, and senior medical director for Summer Health.
“Babies are very accustomed to spending time on their back,” Dr. Damasco says. “By placing them on their tummy in a different position, it allows babies to experience and interact with their surroundings using different parts of their body and in a different view.”
Tummy time also can promote bonding, he adds. “As they grow and become more responsive, tummy time can be used as a time to interact, play, and engage with your baby.”
Signs Your Baby Doesn’t Like Tummy Time
Distinguishing between general fussiness and an overall dislike for tummy time requires getting to know your baby’s cues. This can be challenging in the first few weeks your baby is born, but as you get to know what they need as well as what they like, you will be able to determine if your little one truly dislikes tummy time or may be expressing their discomfort for another reason.
“The best way to distinguish tummy-time fussiness from general fussiness is to tune into your baby’s natural rhythms—and always start tummy time when you know your baby will be in good spirits, like when they wake up from a nap or just after a diaper change,” suggests Dr. Karp.
For babies that are colicky or have reflux, tummy time may be a little more challenging for them. It could be that these conditions are making tummy time uncomfortable. You may want to keep the time spent on their belly short and pick the time of day when your baby is the happiest. If you recently fed your baby, you may want to keep them upright for 20 to 30 minutes before putting them on their tummy, especially if they have reflux.5
“If a baby has colic, fussiness during tummy time usually happens just at certain times of the day, most often in the evening,” says Dr. Berger. “[Conversely], the fussiness is not likely from reflux if the baby is not fussy when on their back.”
Remember, tummy time should never be unpleasant for you or your baby, says Johnson. Babies should do as much as they can tolerate. If your baby cries extensively and with intensity give them a break. Try again later, and provide some support to make tummy time easier for them, she says.
Why Do Some Babies Dislike Tummy Time?
Some babies are frustrated by tummy time because it is more difficult for them to look around and it requires a lot of extra effort—especially until they develop the neck strength to lift their head and look around.6
“Given that tummy time is exercise, some babies just don’t like it,” says Johnson. “This is because they are lifting their head against gravity and this is challenging for infants. As they do more tummy time, they will develop the muscles in the back of their neck (neck extensors), their shoulders, and their arms and it will become easier.”
In the meantime, try not to worry if your baby protests a little bit about tummy time. With patience and practice, your baby will develop the strength and the skill they need to hold their head and body up, Dr. Damasco says. Eventually, most babies learn to enjoy tummy time.
“They may just need a few short sessions and some cheerful encouragement to get them over the hump,” Dr. Karp explains. “Know that lots of babies resist tummy time at first. It’s all new to them, so give them time to adjust. Remember to start slowly and try to make it fun.”
Ways to Make Tummy Time More Enjoyable For Baby
Babies thrive on routine and predictability, so you should consider incorporating tummy time into your baby’s daily routine. Try putting your baby on their tummy when you take them out of their infant carrier or after you change their diaper. The key is to be patient and go slow.
“Remember that tummy time does not need to be done all at once,” Johnson says. “Short bursts of time go a long way in building endurance and strength.”
To make tummy time a little less frustrating for your baby, she also suggests trying to change the position of your baby’s head to decrease the force of gravity. One way to do this is by positioning your baby’s body on an incline using a blanket or boppy cushion under their arms.
You also can surround your baby with familiar objects such as toys, pictures of people they know, and mirrors, as babies usually like to look at themselves, Dr. Berger suggests. In fact, one older study found that these objects may distract your baby enough that they focus on them and try to raise their head rather than fussing or crying.7
Carly Campbell, a stay-at-home, homeschooling parent, and owner of the blog, Mommy On Purpose says she makes tummy time fun for her baby by playing music, speaking in a gentle voice, and offering encouragement and praise when her baby lifts their head up.
“I also switch between tummy time activities to keep her engaged, such as showing her pictures or reading a story,” she says. “Special massage techniques are also a great way to help baby relax and be more comfortable during the activity.”
Meanwhile, Whitley Procopio, a parent of a 12-month-old, suggests switching things up from time to time, especially as your baby is getting used to tummy time. For instance, she suggests trying different surfaces like a rug, the tile, the grass, and so on.
“I would go outside and reset and try tummy time at another time,” Procopio says. “I also would roll my baby onto his back, and then roll him back to his tummy.”
Alternatives to Tummy Time
If, despite all of your best efforts, your baby still protests when you put them on their tummy, there are other things you can do that will help them build the neck and arm strength they need. Here are a few things you can attempt.
Try Different Holds
When carrying your baby, you can try holding your baby against your chest facing away from you and supporting their trunk, suggests Johnson. This position encourages them to watch the activities in the room by turning their head and allows them to work on holding their head up.
“As they get better at holding their head up, support their trunk and lean them forward to play the airplane game—watching them ‘fly,'” she says.
You also can try carrying your baby facing away from you on their right side like a football. Then switch and carry them on their left side. “Switching sides helps develop muscles on both sides of the neck,” Johnson explains.
Procopio says that experimenting with different holds worked with her 4-month-old. “I would hold him belly down across my forearm and walk around with him, allowing him to get used to being in that position,” she explains. “He would pick his head up and look around at everything.”
Incorporate Tummy Time Into Playtime
When playing with your baby, Johnson suggests lying on your back and holding your baby on your chest facing you. “This will encourage your baby to lift their head to look at you,” she says.
You also can put a small towel or blanket under your baby’s arms to support their chest when they are on their tummy for playtime. Then, place a toy where they’ll need to lift their head to see.
Or, try placing your baby on your lap, tummy down. Carefully, raise one of your legs higher than the other. “This assists your baby in lifting their head,” Johnson says.
You can even try placing them on their tummy on an exercise ball. While making sure your baby is secure and safe, try carefully rolling the ball slightly backwards to position your baby in a slight incline, she says.
Add Tummy Time Activities to Daily Care
You can also turn basic baby care activities into tummy time alternatives. For instance, after a bath, try towel drying your baby while they are on their belly and massaging them while they’re in this position, Johnson says. Or, after a diaper change, roll them onto their belly for a little supervised playtime before you pick them up.
The key is to be creative and try not to stress out if your baby hates tummy time, Dr. Karp says. “It’s perfectly OK to take a break from tummy time for a couple of days or even a week. Oftentimes, shortening tummy time sessions and spacing the sessions throughout the day can make tummy time more bearable for your little one. Remember, some tummy time is better than no tummy time.”