You could buy all of the toys in the world to attempt to entertain your child during tummy time, but there is one key factor in motivating your baby to lift his or her head to develop head control in the earliest stage of life: YOU. Finding the time to get down on the floor throughout the day can be hard though, especially if you have other children at home requiring your attention. Therefore, use this time to multi-task by doing part of your daily exercise routine to make it seem less overwhelming. This blog covers ways for you to strengthen your own muscles while encouraging your baby to do so at the same time.
The time your baby spends on his or her tummy is essential for developing the muscles of the neck, back, and shoulders. This is important for allowing your baby to develop head control and posture, but it also aids in preventing flat areas from developing on the back of your baby’s head. Most importantly, it promotes development of the muscles your baby needs to learn to roll, sit, and crawl.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, beginning in the first weeks of life, parents play with their baby two to three times each day while the baby is on his or her stomach. Spend three to five minutes each time, and then and gradually increase the time period and frequency over the next few months until the baby spends about one hour total each day on his or her tummy.
This all sounds simple enough, but what if your baby doesn’t like tummy time? What if he or she cries or screams each time you set them down? When the baby is very young (less than one month), substituting tummy time on the floor for tummy time on your chest, or arm, or thigh works well. As he or she gets older though, time on the floor is an imperative activity for growing babies. This time allows them to develop important skills to meet motor milestones through explorative play. If your baby is resistant, you may be called to the floor to be with them to help facilitate and encourage playtime.
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How can I encourage exercise for my baby during playtime?
Motivating your baby with toys
Placing your baby on a fun and interactive play mat is a good place to start. Mats with mirrors motivate young babies to lift their heads by allowing them to interact with themselves like on this Tummy Time Mat with mirror. If you have soft carpet, a mat may not be necessary, but a simple mirror like Bright Starts Sit and See Floor Mirror meets the same purpose. Gadgets that encourage your baby to reach are great for developing scapular strength through weight bearing through the upper extremities like on this Bright Starts Tummy Time Prop & Play Mat.
Propping baby up
As your baby is learning to develop head control, it may be difficult for him or her to maintain a head lift for extended periods of time. Propping up his or her chest on a Boppy Original Nursing Pillow and Positioner can alleviate some of strain he or she must exert to promote better tolerance to this position. As your baby’s endurance for floor time improves, gradually decrease the amount of support provided at his or her chest. Replace the pillow with a thick rolled up blanket, and then eventually a very small towel roll. Be sure to provide supervision of your baby at all times when using these supports.
Urge your child to turn his or her head side to side when on his or her tummy. Use a toy that makes noise or has bright lights like the Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes Musical Toy to capture your baby’s attention. Move the toy across his or her field of vision in both directions. If your baby has a preference to look only one direction, position yourself so you are on his or her non-preferred side. Visual tracking can be done when your baby is sitting or laying on his or her back too in order to develop the muscles of their neck.
Typically, babies learn to roll from their tummy to their back first, but if your baby is different, there is nothing to worry about. You can work on teaching your baby how to roll with the following tips. Encourage your baby to roll from his or her tummy to his or her back by shaking a rattle or toy like this VTech Baby Rattle & Sing Puppy behind his or her shoulder to motivate a head turn. Your baby may need help tucking his or her arm under his or her body to roll over. To encourage your baby to roll from his or her back to his or her tummy, shake a rattle or toy at his or her side to motivate a head turn and to encourage him or her to reach with the opposite arm to grab the toy. Your baby may need help reaching with his or her arm across his or her body, but head turning and reaching will help facilitate the initiation of the rolling pattern. Bonus tip: each time you pick your child up from laying on his or her back, roll them towards his or her side first to expose his or her body to what this movement feels like.
Lie your child on his or her side to play. You may need to place a towel roll under his or her head to properly position or behind his or her back to keep them in position. Refer to this Velvet Baby Pillow for Sleeping Deep Sleep for ideas on set-up. Starting in side-lying is also a nice way to teach rolling as it gives your baby a “head-start” for completing the rolling movement.
How can I exercise when my baby is on his or her tummy?
Lying on the floor just like your baby allows you to interact at his or her eye level. Babies are inherently motivated by facial expressions, especially their parents. Interacting with your baby at eye level will excite them more than any toy likely could.
Try these Glute buster exercises (pictures from HEP2go) next time you are on the floor with your baby. Don’t worry about the number of sets or repetitions you do. Instead, just enjoy time on the floor playing with your baby.
Exercising your legs while laying on your own stomach allows you to isolate your gluteus maximus muscle.
The gluteus maximus is an important muscle to develop post-partum to help alleviate back and hip pain especially if you were a glute clencher during pregnancy. Perform these exercises by actively squeezing the back of your hip (but not overarching your lower back) with your knee straight and knee bent.
Lying on your side allows you to continue to engage with your baby at their level, but focuses on strengthening your gluteus medius muscle.
The gluteus medius is a very important muscle that promotes pelvic stability. It’s imperative to address activation and strength deficits in this muscle post-partum because of the tremendous changes your pelvis goes through during pregnancy and labor or delivery. This muscle is especially important when returning to running postpartum. Actively contract the “back pocket” in your hip with each of the following movements.
Lastly, when your baby needs a break from tummy time or rolls onto his or her back, you can move into quadruped (on your hands and knees). This position allows you to work both parts of your glutes. You can work your gluteus maximus with the bird dog exercise by extending one leg back. You can exercise your gluteus medius muscle with the fire hydrant exercise by lifting one knee out to the side. Work hard to maintain a neutral spine (no excessive arching) and equal weight distribution side-to-side (no leaning into one hip) as you look down at your baby.
Besides encouraging strength and promoting development of baby’s motor milestones, tummy time is effective at treating and/or preventing torticollis.
What is Torticollis?
Torticollis means ‘twisted neck’ in Latin. It describes an abnormal neck posture. Damage to or a shortening of the sternocleidomastoid muscle in a baby’s neck is a common cause of the baby tilting their head towards the tight side and rotating their chin away. It has been reported that 1 in 300 births develop torticollis.
What are the signs of torticollis?
- The baby’s head is tilted to one side, and/or the shoulder on that side is elevated. The baby also commonly prefers to look to the opposite side.
- A lump may be present in the baby’s neck muscle.
- The baby may prefer to look, eat, or roll in one direction only.
- Flattening on one side of the baby’s head, called plagiocephaly, may develop from the baby preferring to look in one direction when lying on his or her back or when in the car seat.
What are the causes of torticollis?
- Torticollis is often congenital (meaning present at birth).
- Possible causes include: the position of baby in utero, lack of space in the uterus (often seen with multiple births like twins), or a traumatic birth (difficulty delivery or prolonged labor).
- Environmental causes can lead to torticollis developing after birth too. For example, the baby spends extended periods of time in containers such as a swing or bouncer and develops a habit of looking in the same direction.
- Sometimes an underlying cause such as GERD, vision problems, or neurology deficits may lead to torticollis.
How can I help prevent my baby from developing torticollis or plagiocephaly?
Decrease container time
- Limit the time your baby spends in sitting or lying in any piece of equipment including his or her car seat, swing, bumbo seat, bouncy chair, high chair, etc. Instead, increase floor time which allows baby to explore his or her environment on his or her own terms.
- If you notice that your baby may already have a flat spot on one side of their head, consider using a pillow like the Tortle Repositioning Beanie. Be sure to mention your concerns to your child’s pediatrician as well.
Alternate positions to encourage baby to look both directions
- When you lay your baby down in the crib, switch which end of the mattress your baby sleeps on. Additionally, alternate what end of the changing table you place your baby’s head on.
- Alternate the side you carry and feed your baby on.
- Place toys on different sides of the stroller, bouncer seat and swing to encourage your baby to turn his or her head to their non-preferred side.
- Interact with your baby equally on both sides.
Consider head positioning
- Roll up a towel or light blanket to pad around the baby’s head to keep the head and body straight, in optimal alignment, when your child is in their car seat, swing, or bouncy seat.
- For an example of how this looks, refer to this picture of Travel Car Seat Safety Pillow.
- Football carry: Hold your child on his or her side facing away from you on their tight side so their ear is resting against your forearm.
- Switch which side of your body you carry your child on so he or she is challenged to look a different way to see his or her surroundings.
- Try to hold your baby or the bottle so that their head is in a straight position or turned slightly toward the tighter side.
- Encourage your child to turn their head by using the rooting reflex.
- Before feeding, stroke your baby’s cheek on the side that is tight to encourage head turning. Repeat 3-4 times before each feeding.
How can a physical therapist help?
A physical therapist will evaluate your baby and make recommendations to address his or her specific impairments. The therapist may teach you proper positioning techniques for when your baby is in equipment (car seats, high chairs, swing) and when being held in order to encourage optimal alignment. Demonstration of gentle stretching of your baby’s neck muscles and righting reaction exercises will be performed if indicated. They may also demonstrate simple stretching exercises and massage techniques that you can perform daily at home with your baby. They will evaluate your baby’s gross motor skills and show you how to incorporate age appropriate activities at home to reach their developmental milestones.
Why is treatment important?
Treatment by a physical therapist is necessary to prevent cranial and facial deformities from developing and to prevent limited motion of the head and neck. Limited motion can lead to a delay in the child’s developmental milestones and gross motor skills. The earlier your child receives treatment, the better the outcomes.
There is a plethora of reasons why tummy time for mom and baby is so important. Mom and baby alike benefit from time on the floor. Not only is baby developing necessary muscle strength to develop and meet key developmental milestones, but you are helping your body heal during the immediate post-partum period as well. Multi-tasking during tummy time allows you, as the mom, to interact with your baby while working to move better to mom better multiple times throughout the day. Hooray!