Tummy time tutorial: Why babies need to lay on their stomachs

Science and Health

You have probably heard that it’s important to lay a baby on its stomach, but do you know why? When does this start, and what does this have to do with symmetry?

We turned to Netta Bacher, a baby developmental guide and sleep coach, and she explained to us why it’s so important and ways to perfect this skill. JAMA is happy to share her knowledge. Let’s start with the facts. When a baby is just born, the size of its head is about a quarter of the size of the whole body. If you lay a newborn on her stomach, you can see that it’s difficult for her to hold her head up, and in order to succeed she has to use a lot of strength and train every day to learn this skill.

The earlier you put a baby on her stomach, the better it is, since tummy time will become part of the daily routine and each time she’ll get better at this skill. Since the Health Ministry recommends that small babies sleep on their backs, many don’t spend time on their stomachs even while awake, This can cause developmental delays and a lack of functional symmetry.

So why is tummy time important?

1. Symmetry

Babies are born without preferring one side or another, so it’s important to maintain motor symmetry. This means that for every action done on the right side, it’s important to do so on the left side as well like lifting the baby on both sides, practicing rolling over on each side, and so on.

This way, you’ll prevent torticollis, which is a condition in which the positions of the neck and the baby’s head aren’t symmetrical. Congenital torticollis develops if the baby is in the wrong position in the womb, but there’s also acquired torticollis, and in this situation, a baby prefers to turn her head to one side only due to an imbalance of the neck muscles.

Mother with newborn baby in the nursing pillow (credit: INGIMAGE)

How does lying on the stomach help?

Lying on the stomach allows free movement of the head to both sides, both to the right and to the left. The baby can look around and turn his gaze towards a familiar voice – like yours! 

2. Prevent the baby’s skull from flattening

When babies are kept on their backs, you can see thinning of the hair in the area where the baby was, as well as a flattening of the skull. Tummy time prevents this.

3. Preventing developmental delays

A baby lifting their head is an early but critical stage in motor development. The baby leans on their hands and pushes hard on the surface they’re on, which helps their head to stay up. Even when the baby sits down, their hands will be on the sides of their body, supporting and pushing the ground beneath them. When standing, the baby’s hands push against the ground while the body is lifted upwards.

In each stage of motor skill development, the skill of pushing hands against a surface to get up, which is learned through tummy time, is necessary and critical. So it’s important that you make sure the baby is on their stomach – and don’t try to postpone it because you’re afraid it might disrupt their breathing or because the baby looks uncomfortable. Pay attention and do it in short spurts when the baby is calm, but don’t neglect to learn this very important skill.

This article was written in partnership with the JAMA parenting app.