Why Tummy Time Matters and How to Make It Happen

Why Tummy Time Matters and How to Make It Happen

Here’s when and how to do it—and what to do if your baby hates it.

While eating, sleeping, peeing, and pooping may seem like quite a full day of activity for a newborn, there’s one more important thing to add to the list: tummy time.

Call it baby’s first workout—and call it a key part of their day! Here’s why it’s so important: while babies are safest sleeping on their backs, all the hours they log in that position—during nursing, playtime, in a carseat— can cause their neck muscles to become tight and shortened. This tightness can then cause the baby’s head to tilt or rotate to one side. The result is something called torticollis

All that time looking in one direction can cause another issue, called Positional Plagiocephaly, which has the unflattering but call-it-like-it-is alias of “Flat Head Syndrome.” It can be a bit of a one-two punch, because having torticollis can lead to plagiocephaly, since your baby simply prefers holding their head in a certain position because of muscle tightness. (Don’t fret too much, though; despite the funky names of these diagnoses, both conditions are common and can be easily treated, especially under the guidance of a physical therapist).

And here's where tummy time enters the chat: just a few minutes sprinkled throughout the day can counteract all those on-their-back hours, as those are minutes when your baby can start to use their neck, core, and upper body muscles and learn to stabilize their own head.

Oh, so now you know why it’s important. Here’s everything you need to know to make it happen.

When to start: Tummy Time should start once the umbilical cord has fallen off (generally 7-21 days), and gradually increase the amount over time.

Where: The ideal place for tummy time is on a blanket or mat on the floor, not the bed or couch. 

How long: It can be just a few minutes (or half a minute!) at first. Put your baby on their tummy on a mat/blanket on the floor. If they get upset after 30 seconds, that's okay! Pick them up and try again in a few hours. Tummy time is all about practice and about doing it over and over. While some babies don’t like it at first (and they will make it clear!), others may be happy for 5-10 minutes.

Expert tummy time tips from Nanit Lab:

  1. Start gradually and build up. During their awake periods, try to get them off their back and onto the tummy as much you can. Gradually increase the amount of tummy time they get each day, even if it’s simply minute by minute.
  2. Motivate them with a mirror. You can place a child-safe mirror on the ground just at the edge of your baby’s mat/blanket. As they start to lift up their head, they may get a peek of something pretty exciting!
  3. Change your baby’s sleeping position each day. Here’s an easy way to remember: on EVEN days place your baby to sleep in one direction and on ODD days, do the other direction. Fun fact: Newborns like to look toward a source of light so they often prefer looking in the direction of the light from under the door or from the window. You also may notice that they tend to turn their head towards the side of the room where mom and dad enter most frequently.  
  4. Use the Nanit Pro Camera's head position feature. This is available with the Nanit Pro Camera + Floor Stand or Wall Mount and an Active Insights Milestones plan. This app feature shows what proportion of the night your baby’s head is faced to the left, right, or straight. That data can help you understand their preferences and inform how you hold and play with your baby during the day! If you have specific concerns, don’t hesitate to speak with your pediatrician.
  5. Switch up your holding pattern. We all tend to favor one side or the other, so it's all-too-easy to always feed them in one position, burp them over your left/right shoulder, put them on one hip, or carry them with one particular arm. These preferences for what’s the easiest may be based on whether you’re right-or left-handed—but keeping this in mind and switching it up can help your baby rotate their head side-to-side.
  6. Move their toys. Shift the objects just out of reach to different sides of the playmat to encourage looking in different directions.
  7. Move your own body! Considering that you’re usually the most fascinating thing to your baby during playtime, intentionally position yourself on alternating sides of them on the floor, to encourage your baby to turn towards you.

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Natalie Barnett, PhD serves as VP of Clinical Research at Nanit. Natalie initiated sleep research collaborations at Nanit and in her current role, Natalie oversees collaborations with researchers at hospitals and universities around the world who use the Nanit camera to better understand pediatric sleep and leads the internal sleep and development research programs at Nanit. Natalie holds a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of New England in Australia and a Postgraduate Certificate in Pediatric Sleep Science from the University of Western Australia. Natalie was an Assistant Professor in the Neurogenetics Unit at NYU School of Medicine prior to joining Nanit. Natalie is also the voice of Nanit's science-backed, personalized sleep tips delivered to users throughout their baby's first few years.

Kristy Ojala is Nanit’s Digital Content Director. She spends way too much time looking at maps and weather forecasts and pictures of Devon Rex cats and no-cook dinners. A former sleep champion, she strives to share trustworthy somnabulism tips with other parents—praying for that one fine day when no tiny humans wake her up while it’s still dark out. Her kids highly recommend 3 books, approximately 600 stuffies, Chopin’s “Nocturnes,” and the Nanit Sound + Light for bedtime success.

Mackenzie Sangster is on the Brand and Community team at Nanit. She supports content development and editing for Nanit’s Parent Confidently blog as well as other marketing initiatives. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her friends, cooking, being active, and using the Pro + Flex Duo to keep an eye on her fur-baby, Poppy!

Holly Hays is a contributor and writer for Nanit, channeling her years as a mama and former magazine editor to create fun, useful content for fellow busy, trying-to-do-their-best parents and caregivers. Holly has written for a wide range of brands and media outlets (Ergobaby, HGTV, Manhattan Toy Company, OXO), loves to cook and read mystery novels, and leans heavily on her two daughters to keep her up to date on all the latest slang.