Is Tummy Time really essential?

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Fiona has had it with “Tummy Time”! She wrote: “Doctors, prenatal classes, books, other Mums all stress that it’s vital for preventing a flat head and strengthening muscles.  But my little monkey screams blue murder the second I put her on her tummy.  What’s the evidence behind this (fairly recent?) exhortation to put babies on their tummies for a few minutes every day? Have people always done it, and if not, were kids in times gone by somehow delayed in their motor development? My instinct says no, but the call for tummy time seems to be so ubiquitous. And if it’s so important, how do we convince the babies who resist? Mine spends much of her awake hours sitting upright in a sling so I guess she gets a neck workout that way and isn’t lying on her back all the time risking flat-headedness, but it’d be nice to be reassured!”

Tummy time isn’t supposed to be “torture time.” If your baby absolutely hates it, pick her up. There’s no great evidence that it’s necessary at all.

The growing enthusiasm for tummy time began with recommendations in the 1990s that babies be put down to sleep on their backs, rather than their tummies. This led to a dramatic drop in deaths from SIDS, but an increase in what’s formally known as “positional plagiocephaly”, or flat little heads. It turns out that when Junior sleeps on her back, especially with her head turned to the same side all the time, that side gets kind of flatter. There’s no significant medical issue here—heads flattened in this manner don’t cause brain damage or developmental problems—but in severe cases it can be noticeable.

There are good ways to prevent flat heads. The AAP recommends alternating head positions from night to night, and periodically changing around the positioning of the crib so interesting things aren’t always in the same position (you can accomplish the same things by alternating which end of the crib is “up”, or which end the head and feet point to.) And, yes, as part of the anti-flat-head routine, the AAP recommends “a certain amount” of supervised “tummy time” when Junior is awake. They acknowledge that there’s no evidence that this helps, and no studies have shown how much tummy time is ideal, or at what ages it’s needed. It’s more of a common-sense thing. More time on tummy means less time on back, which should not only prevent flat heads but also facilitate motor development by giving Junior a chance to work on her push-ups. So for the many babies who don’t mind some tummy time, I think it’s probably a good idea.

If you’ve got a baby who’s starting to look a little flat in the head department, talk with your pediatrician. Re-orient the crib to encourage Junior to look the other way, and try to alternate head positions and increase tummy time. Your pediatrician should also check for torticollis, a muscular condition that makes in difficult for babies to turn their heads in both directions. Rarely, a molding helmet can be used to help heads grow more round in shape, but beware that companies are marketing these directly to parents, and many babies with mild asymmetry really don’t need anything special, just some repositioning and time to grow and develop.

But for babies like Fiona’s, who absolutely hate tummy time, there’s no reason to think it’s critical. I’d try to make tummy time more fun, if possible, by lying down with the baby so she could see me. But bottom line: if she’s hysterical, pick her up. This issue is not worth any misery.

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3 Comments on “Is Tummy Time really essential?”

  1. Fiona Says:

    Thank you! A really helpful and reassuring post. Maybe once my little one masters the art of the push-up she can teach me – I never could manage more than one.

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  2. cphickie Says:

    If I have an infant whose skull is flat on their back right side, I often find that the parents tend to carry the infant on their (the parent’s) left side. Because the infant wants to see the parent, when they are on the parent’s left side the child must continually look to the child’s right. I ask the parents to start holding the infant more on their (parent’s) right side, which encourages the infant (still trying to see the parent) to look much more tho their left.

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  3. Mama Bear Says:

    Agreed! My first daughter hated tummy time so I didn’t make her do it daily for long (or at all many days!) and she definitely does not have any motor development issues. If I was doing tummy time I would make a “mountain” of the pillows etc in our living room and she liked that much more. She would also lie with her trunk extended (same position, really) if she was on someone’s chest where she could see them face to face.
    This experience is in vast contrast to my second baby who seems to LOVE tummy time. Follow your instincts and your baby’s cues… and don’t worry too much 🙂

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