Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An Unexpected Reaction: Clarifying what we mean by “tummy time”

A few weeks ago, we posted a response to a reader’s question about how to make tummy time easier for her baby. We provided a few suggestions and asked other readers to share things they found useful for making tummy time enjoyable. We got some great tips from readers, like laying baby tummy down on mom’s chest or lap, and holding or wearing baby in a sling. After seeing a few of the comments and emails from our readers, we were a little surprised to see what people think about tummy time. I was curious, so I scrolled through a few popular parenting websites and found that many more parents expressed the same perceptions. Today, we’d like to clear up some misconceptions about what we mean when we refer to “tummy time”

Perception: Tummy time needs to be scheduled into the day. This was probably the most common misconception I saw during my search. Maybe it is because the term “tummy time” implies that it should be done at a certain time of day or for a certain amount of time. Or maybe it’s because many of the sources of advice suggest spreading it out over the day and aiming to get in some tummy time each day.

Clarification: Regardless of the reason for the confusion, we’d like to assure you that we are not suggesting that you pencil tummy time into your calendar or to do list. The term “tummy time” was made popular during the Back-to-Sleep Campaign, a nation-wide effort to reduce deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by teaching parents to put babies down to sleep on their backs (click here for a previous post campaign). As a way to help parents remember to put their babies down on their tummies while awake (but not asleep), health care providers used the term “tummy time” and slogans like “back to sleep, tummy to play.” It is possible that some parents found that incorporating tummy time into a routine helped them remember, but there is no evidence that babies need to be put onto their tummies at the same time every day and we found no recommendations for the number of “tummy times” or total minutes babies absolutely need.

Perception:  The tummy time recommendation is the only physical activity recommendation. Several of our readers seemed to think that we were suggesting that tummy time was the only alternative to being in a car seat, bouncy chair, or stroller.

Clarification: Just like adults, babies need to move to be healthy (see one of our early posts, For Babies, A Little Playtime is a Great Workout).   After being confined to their mom’s bellies for so long, even just stretching is great exercise for your baby. Babies need a lot of time to stretch, not just on their tummies, but on their backs too. Car seats are great for car rides and strollers are great for walks, but having their arms and legs free to move and stretch, being able to turn and raise their heads, and wiggling and twisting their bodies is how they get stronger and prepare for more complex movement.  

Perception: Tummy time is not necessary if a baby is carried in a sling. Some of our readers mentioned that wearing your baby in a sling provides the same benefits as tummy time and therefore, “baby wearing” could replace tummy time all together.

Clarification: First, I’d like to mention that the similarity between tummy time and baby wearing was new to us, so we searched for studies to share with our readers. We didn’t find any research articles, so if you have any you’d like to share with us, we’d love to take a look and possibly write a future post on them.  There is no question that holding your baby, in a sling or just in your arms, is very important (click here and here for a 2-part series on slings). Having close contact is beneficial for mothers and babies. But, like we mentioned before, babies need to develop their muscles, and to do that, they need to be able to move around in a variety of different positions. While many slings allow some flexibility for the baby to move around, some do not, and when it comes to muscle development, free movement is key.   

Perception: Tummy time is only good for preventing the “flat head”

Clarification:  Studies show that tummy time has several benefits. It does help to prevent plagiocephaly, the technical term for “flat head syndrome,” but it also strengthens muscles in the jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, and arms.  Also, health professionals have observed an increase in motor development delays corresponding to a decrease in the amount of time babies spend on their tummies.

We’d like to thank everyone who emailed, commented, or posted on Facebook in response to our tummy time post. We hope the information above provides a clearer picture of what tummy time means and why it is important. We recognize that every baby (and family) is different but the bottom line is that babies need time and space to stretch, push, twist, and turn. No baby should be bundled up, buckled up, or on his back or on his tummy all the time. Just like adults, babies need a variety of movement to stay strong and healthy.  


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