7 tips for making tummy time a little less…um…miserable.

Ahhh, tummy time. If you’ve spent any amount of time around babies or grown-ups who care for them in the last few years, then I’m sure you’ve heard at least a little about this topic. Tummy time — as the name clearly indicates — is time awake that a baby spends on his, um, tummy. This trendy title is apparently a fairly recent addition to the vocabulary of American parents, as very few adults of my parents’ generation (parents who raised kids in the 80’s) seem to be familiar with it. This makes sense, since it wasn’t until the early 90’s that the “Back to Sleep” campaign was launched and, suddenly, babies nationwide found themselves on their backs for much of their early days, causing them to miss out on all that time that used to be spent lying on their tummies.

Tummy time is important because the skills learned while on the tummy are essential for later development. Think about it, most of the big milestones in the first year of life involve the prone position in one form or another (e.g., lifting and turning the head, rolling, pushing the chest off the ground, getting up to hands and knees, scooting, crawling). Tummy time also gives the back of baby’s head a break in an effort to prevent flat spots from forming (something called “positional plagiocephaly”). And, as an occupational therapist, I should mention that tummy time also contributes to the strength and skills needed in the upper body and hands for school-age tasks such as handwriting. Yes, it starts that early!

I remember when we took our son to his one-week checkup and, at the end of his appointment, his pediatrician told us that we could go ahead and start giving him tummy time every day. I knew what tummy time was (you put them on their tummy, duh!), but I didn’t really know what to do because he HATED being on his tummy. He has wanted to move ever since day one, and being on his tummy that early on just reminded him that he wasn’t yet old enough or strong enough to crawl. He would cry and squawk and moan, and it just didn’t seem like putting him flat on the ground was the right thing to do at that time. But I didn’t know what else to do.

Then, when my son was two and a half months old, I started taking him to a parent/infant education class offered through our local community college taught by child development specialist Laura Sobell (learn more about Laura and her amazing work at calmbaby.com). I am so thankful for everything I learned in that class, especially when it came to helping my little one actually enjoy tummy time! Who would’ve thought? Some of what you will find below is inspired by what I learned in that class. However, the majority of the details and graded progression from beginning to end are taken from my own experience as both a parent and a therapist.

Many sources I’ve read seem to recommend that parents try to give their babies about 30-60 minutes of tummy time each day, whether that’s in one chunk or spread throughout the day in much smaller portions. Pediatric physical therapist Wendi McKenna states that by about 3 months of age, babies should get at least 90 minutes a day of tummy time. Research has shown that, at four months of age, babies who spend at least 80 minutes per day playing on their tummy while awake are able to more successfully reach motor milestones involving the prone, supine (laying on the back), and sitting positions than those who spend less time playing on their tummy. Although 80-90 minutes sounds like a lot, it’s really not very much time throughout the course of a day, if you think about it! However, rather than shooting for a concrete number of minutes spent forcing your baby to lie flat on the ground (which will likely end with crying and screaming, like it did with mine), your baby can instead proceed through the steps listed below in order to build up the strength and stamina needed to be able to independently lie on her tummy and actually enjoy it!

Here is a general guideline: start each step a few times a day, a few minutes a day, building up to the final step. 

Try not to let your baby cry during tummy time (though some grunting is normal when they are exerting themselves to try to “crawl” and move), and do your best to engage him by getting down to eye level and talking or singing to him. Always supervise your baby during tummy time to make sure he is secure and safe. And, as mentioned previously, take these “steps” as suggestions rather than rigid requirements…let your baby (and your intuition) be your guide.

Some of the links below may be affiliate links, which means if you click over and wind up making a purchase, you will get a great product and Mama OT will receive a small commission to keep this blog running, at no extra cost to you (thank you!). Read my full disclosure here.

So, without further ado, I give you…

7 Steps to Independent Tummy Time:

1. Baby is held up to adult’s shoulder while being burped or carried.
 This is, of course, one of the most common first positions in which people hold babies so, CONGRATS!, if you’re reading this post then you’ve likely already accomplished step one. This really is the first step to helping a baby learn to be comfortable in prone. The higher up on your shoulder you hold the baby, the more strength required to keep that head up and steady.

2. Baby lies with tummy down on adult’s tummy/chest while sleeping or playing.  As with step one, this is also a very common practice among parents and caregivers of new babies. And — might I add — one of the sweetest and most memorable practices that occur during those early days and weeks of bonding. My first postpartum tears (tears of joy!) were shed while my baby nuzzled and napped on me in this position when he was about a week old. Oh how I miss those days! If your baby is not yet comfortable being horizontal on your tummy (which he probably won’t be while awake), you can simply adjust how far you lean back/lay down while he rests on you. Now’s the time to kick back in your recliner chair or prop yourself with some pillows on the couch to get yourself into just the right position — anything for the baby, right?

3. Baby lies with tummy down or sideways across adult’s arms while playing or being carried. This one takes some practice, but the easiest way to accomplish this position is to place one forearm between baby’s legs up to the chest area, and then bring the other forearm down between the shoulder and ear that are closest to your own body. Confused?
IMG_6050 text Picture what it would be like to hold her horizontal with her back to you, and then “roll” her forward to her tummy while still holding her in the air. (As a bonus, this can also be a great position for calming down babies who are fussy or gassy.) You can practice with a baby doll or while standing in front of a mirror if you’re still feeling unsure. Once you get the hang of it, have some fun with it and turn on some music so you can dance with your baby while carrying her in this position! I’m a fan of any kids’ station on Pandora. Some favorites on my Pandora account include “Raffi”, “VeggieTales”, “Yo Gabba Gabba!”, “Nursery Rhymes Radio”, and “Elizabeth Mitchell”. You can move baby fast and slow, up and down, round and round…however she likes to move! Just make sure to stop for a few seconds every minute or so in order to allow her body to really register the movements (the body gets used to the continuous movements and sort of “stops” feeling it if it goes on and on at the same pace and rhythm for long enough).You can also try a variation of this hold by  playing “super baby” with your little one!

4. Baby lies with tummy down on exercise ball, beach ball, big pillow, or adult’s shins. This is a great one because
IMG_6047-text-1024x768 cropped textyou can vary the angle at which your baby is positioned, thus determining how easy or difficult it is. A greater incline will be more comfortable for a baby who is just beginning tummy time (kind of like being up against an adult’s shoulder as a newborn), whereas a more flat position right on top of the ball, pillow, or shins will be more challenging and appropriate for those who are further along in the process. Once you get your baby into a position on the ball that is comfortable for both him and yourself, you can begin to slowly roll him forward and backward, making sure that you keep a good grip on him and that he is okay with how far and fast you are moving him. While you can certainly place your hands on baby’s hips and position yourself behind him as you roll, it’s even better if you can place yourself where he can see you so that he knows where you are and can interact with you. We did this one a lot in our parent-infant class and it was so great to see babies tolerating tummy time way better than when on the floor! If you don’t have an exercise ball, you can use a big pillow instead, placing baby’s chest at the bottom edge of the pillow and propping him uphill from there so that he is at an incline similar to if he was placed on a ball. Learn more about how to use an exercise ball to help your baby enjoy tummy time by reading THIS POST.

If you really want to get hands-on you can lay on your back, bend your hips and knees at 90 degree angles, and place baby on your shins as you hold onto him and vary the angle at which he is positioned (this one is best for taller people, who have longer shins than us short folks). The more bent your knees (i.e., the smaller the angle), the more inclined baby will be and, thus, the more comfortable he will be as he’s starting out. You can turn it into a game by putting him on your shins and playing “elevator” as you slowly move him up and down as you sing or talk or do whatever you must in order to make it fun!

5. Baby lies with tummy down across adult’s legs, with adult either sitting in a chair or on the ground (leg position can vary). Believe it or not, I first discovered this positionIMG_6049 text as I desperately tried to soothe my son during his colicky months as a newborn (so glad those days are behind us!). Boy, am I glad that my mother showed me this trick — prone across her legs while supporting his head (which gets turned to the side), rubbing or patting his back, and maybe even offering him a pacifier. Worked like a charm when she used it on him. It wasn’t until my baby was several months old that I discovered this position could actually be used as a means of introducing tummy time. My favorite was to sit on the floor with my legs extended so that he could start to put his arms out in front of him on the floor. This transitions nicely into step six…

6. Baby lies with tummy down and upper chest positioned over a rolled-up towel on the floor with arms over the towel. You can also position the baby so her upper chest is Roll up a receiving blanket and place it under baby's chest to assist with making tummy time easier and happier for baby! Lots more tips in the article to make tummy time easier and less miserable for baby.over your leg instead of a towel, or you can sit on the ground with your legs in a diamond shape (so the soles of your feet are touching each other) and position her facing away from you so her chest is over the part where your feet come together. You can place a toy, book, mirror, or even another person in front of her in order to make this position more interactive. Some people also choose to use a Boppy pillow at this point to assist their little one with tummy time, but I personally was never able to get my baby to enjoy this position with a Boppy — all he wanted to do was use his feet to push himself forward, which led to him pushing his head straight down into the ground as he curled forward around the pillow! I think we ended up kind of skipping over this step because he just wanted too badly to crawl, and this position just frustrated him. Do what works for your baby…she’ll let you know if she likes it or not!

7. Baby independently lies with tummy down on the floor. Tada! Keep playing and challenging him and, before you know it, he’ll be pushing his little chest off the ground and getting ready to roll! (Check out this video to see a discovery I made with my little one when he was 3 1/2 months old that helped him learn how to instantly push up while on his tummy. It’s actually pretty amazing.)

tummy time

Here are two easy-to-understand videos I’ve found on YouTube for those of you who are visual like me and like to see what you’re doing before you do it. A quick rant: I hate how “professionals” make it seem like it’s normal for babies to love tummy time and that it should be an easy thing for them to do. It’s not! There, I said it. Keeping that in mind, here they are: Five Essential Tummy Time Moves and Therapy Ball to Promote Tummy Time. (Note that I am not officially endorsing or affiliated with the companies who produced these videos, but I do find them incredibly helpful.)

And here is a really helpful book by Pediatric OT, Dr. Anne Zachry. It’s called Retro Baby and it’s filled with tips and activities to help your baby with things like tummy time, rolling, sitting, crawling, and beyond. You can read my review of Retro Baby by clicking here, or you can just head straight to Amazon to see it for yourself.

Best of luck in your tummy time endeavors!

Want more handy tips and tricks to help the kids in your life? Then be sure to like Mama OT on Facebook, and follow on Twitter and Pinterest. Oh, and subscribe to Mama OT by clicking "Subscribe!" on the homepage so you can receive new posts via email and not miss out on all the great tips published here!

43 thoughts on “7 tips for making tummy time a little less…um…miserable.

  1. Hi Christie,
    This is a great blog post! I wish I’d been able to read it earlier on Mikayla’s infancy! I definately learned some things. From the beginning, Mikayla was always so big (birth weight 9 lbs 9 oz) that we found it difficult to hold her upright high on the shoulder for very long. So we maybe could’ve done better in that. However, it was very comfortable & natural to cuddle with her tummy to tummy either with myself, or especially this is great bonding time for Daddy & baby! I always wondered at parents who were holding their babies in the tummy hold (#3)-again because of Mk’s size, I always found it quite awkward. I don’t have an exercise ball, but my mom does & that’s a great idea for something fun to do at Grandma’s house next visit.
    I learned that I’m quite behind on the amount of time I give her tummy time-usually only about 10-15 minutes per day. [No wonder she's not very mobile yet :( ] I’m most familiar with the eye-level smile “method” mentioned in the “Five Essential…” video & Mk seems to really enjoy that. She does great holding her head & even arms up now. She just seems the opposite of Matthew when it comes to desire to crawl. (That newborn video of him trying to crawl is unbelievable!)

    I guess my biggest outstanding question would be, how soon after eating is it ok to put them onto their tummy? I have a friend in the nursery at church who picks her baby up from being on her tummy, nurses her then puts her right back on her tummy. She seems to live life on her tummy! She’s about a month older than Mk (6 mths-ish) & not crawling yet, but kinda scooting herself around by various movements & turning different directions. Anyway, my observation has been that the baby always spits up a significant amount of milk not long after being placed on her tummy. I don’t have a spit up phobia like some people, but I do wonder how healthy it is for the baby to immediately be put on the tummy after eating. Also, it seems like it would be very uncomfortable for the baby to lie on a full tummy. Maybe you could speak to that?

    Thanks, MamaOT!

  2. Hey Angela,
    So glad you found this post helpful! I added two more ideas to “Step 4″ to supplement the fact that many people don’t have an exercise ball: elevating on a pillow and playing on an adult’s shins. Check them out, hope they are helpful for you.

    In terms of how long to wait in between feeding and laying baby on her tummy, it really depends on the baby. I haven’t found an “official” recommendation other than just make sure that baby has been sufficiently burped after her feeding and make sure that she seems comfortable with however much milk/food is still in her belly. I agree, it does seem kind of silly to have them lose all that milk for the sake of being on their tummy but, like I said, it really depends on the baby and caregiver. My son was (and still is) notorious for spitting up all the time, so we generally tried to wait until he had stopped spitting up his previous feeding before we got him on his tummy. This meant that we would hold him upright, sit him on our laps, engage him in a side-lying position on the floor, or put him in a semi-upright position in his bouncer in order to let things settle, because he just wasn’t comfortable on his belly when it was full, plus he would just spit it all up anyway. Does that help?

    Thanks for reading!

    • What if you have not started tummy time or very minimal? I was told to only do what my son could send which has been about 5 minutes total daily if that. He is 3 months and I have done some of he other things, burping position, carrying position, even napping on my chest. Should I try do do more than 90 minutes since he has such little experience. He can push up and stag himself a little during the tummy time he has gotten.

      • The key is building upon what he can already do. One easy way is to build tummy time into his daily routine, such as always setting him tummy-down on the ground when you first set him down. It may start out as only a few seconds that he can tolerate. But if you do that every single time, you will likely find that he will begin to gradually tolerate it for longer periods until he actually prefers to be placed in that position as opposed to on his back. It’s important to remember that “tummy time” isn’t the only play position for babies. They need to play on their sides and back too! The side lying position is a good one for babies who are used to being on their backs and don’t tolerate tummy time very well yet. This can be done while swatting at toys, lying next to you and looking at a book, or even lying next to you as you look into his eyes and talk and sing. Good luck!

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  8. I really love all of these! All my kids loved being on their stomach, but I know several moms who say that their child hated it. I never thought of these positions being used to help baby get more comfortable on their tummy. Thanks for sharing.

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    • You’re welcome! My son hated tummy time as well and always screamed his head off, so I was excited to learn these tricks while he was still young enough to try them. Good luck!

  11. Hello mamaot! I am so glad I found your blog! I am also an OT, specializing in pediatrics, as I evaluate infants for Early Intervention. I see so much Torticollis and Plagiocephaly (moms: that’s just neck muscle tightness and head flatness) … That I recommend TUMMY TIME, TUMMY TIME, TUMMY TIME all day long :)
    Our babies just don’t get enough of it anymore, so we need to ensure these wee ones get tons of it! I will be directing lots of families to your site, as I love your words and pics and videos !
    Thanks mamaot!!

    • Thanks for the comment, Kelly. I really think if more parents and caregivers knew about info like this, all our little ones would be better off! I hope to write more about topics likes torticollis and plagiocephaly in the future…thanks!

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  13. Found you on Pinterest and had to click over to see what the deal was. My daughter adored tummy time, and I never really considered that other babies didn’t. Then I started reading. Turns out that we all just naturally did steps 1-5 without even noticing we were doing them. No wonder she liked it when we got to step 7! (We might have skipped 6, I can’t remember now…) With another on the way, I will have to keep this article in mind! Now I can’t wait to explore the rest of your site… :)

    • That’s great! Intuition can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes kids who struggle with development need everyday activities to be broken down into smaller chunks, and that’s where steps like these come in handy. Congratulations on the impending arrival of your new little one and best of luck!

  14. Found this one-year-ago-today post while googling “how long should I let the baby cry during tummy time.” Desperate, right?

    “Try not to let your baby cry during tummy time” Makes sense, but how? Start short and build up, but . . . My grandson (for whom I am primary childcare) screams immediately when you put him on his belly. This is true whether he is on the floor, on the boppy or on Nana’s chest. (I once got 40 seconds of not-crying on the boppy. Once.) I used to do the baby-across-the-lap thing and the baby-on-the-shins thing with my kids (I had five) but so far the grandson doesn’t like those positions either. More screaming. Not only that, once he starts, when you pick him up, he is inconsolable until the next nap. Needless to say this makes for a very unpleasant day for both of us. He’s three months old already and I’m concerned enough about the developmental delay issue to wonder if, since he’s going to cry for a half hour after I pick him up anyway, I should just let him stay on his tummy, screaming away. But honestly, I can’t bring myself to do that. His parents are both worried about this as well, and not finding successful solutions.

    Anyway, thanks for at least acknowledging it’s an issue. Keep those good ideas coming!

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  17. Thank you so much, the tips and videos here are fantastic. My son has a large head and has been really struggling with tummy time and the advice from health professionals advice has just been to leave him lying there or try the roll under the shoulders both of which cause him to scream! We have tried balancing him on daddy’s legs today and he enjoyed it so much more!

    Thanks again!

    Cate

    • You’re welcome, Cate, I’m so glad to hear you found a solution right away! Mine also has a larger than average head (99th percentile!!!), and he wanted to crawl from the day he was born, so that did not add up to a happy tummy time baby! Hope the rest of the tips help as he becomes more comfortable.

  18. I don’t have any children of my own, but have been a nanny for several families since I graduated high school. I saw this on Pinterest, and thought it would be interesting. I am glad to know that, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I was already doing all of these things. Though, now that I understand the importance, I will pay more attention. Just goes to show that intuition plays such a big roll in caring for children. Thank you for posting this!

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  21. Thanks for this blog. My 2 month old hates tummy time. He cries from the moment we put him down. It is often difficult to calm him down afterwards as well. I love these ideas and look forward to trying the ones I haven’t yet attempted. I have a silly question……how long should I spend on each step before moving on?
    Thank you,
    Jessica

    • Jessica, sorry to hear it is so tough for him! There is not necessarily a set amount of time you should spend on each step. You can try all the ideas out and see which ones he is most comfortable with at the time, and you can even engage him in more than one of those ideas each day as you burp him (laying across your lap), snuggle with him (leaning back against the couch so he’s on your chest at a diagonal angle), or play with him (on a ball or while holding him in that tummy down or sideways position while you play some music, sing, or dance with him). As mentioned in the post, take the steps as suggestions rather than rigid requirements, and let your baby be your guide. You can also check out this link with additional tummy time tips from Wendi McKenna, a pediatric physical therapist who recently guest posted on Mama OT: http://www.moveplaygrow.com/top-10-tummy-time-tips-august-2012/. Be sure to browse around her blog…she has tons of other posts related to tummy time. Best of luck!

    • Great question. Make sure he or she is wearing some sort of covering over the umbilical area (shirt, onesie), but if your baby seems uncomfortable or you see any signs of blood coming from that area after being placed on tummy, then it would probably be good to wait until it has fallen out. This hasn’t been an issue for my two babies personally. As noted in the post, you can also do tummy time by laying tummy to tummy with your baby or by holding him or her in the air in a modified tummy down position.

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  23. I love your blogs! Thank you for all the great advice!
    My daughter turned 7 months today, and although she can sit unsupported for small amounts of time now, she still hates tummy time and rolls over immediately when we try put her on her tummy. If I block her from rolling over she cries and screams and gets so mad. I’m afraid she will never crawl and build strength since she’s never on her tummy. Do you have any advice? Should we keep just letting her roll over every time we lay her down?

    Thanks so much for all your help!!

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  25. *****THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR POSTING THIS!!!!!*****

    I just had to put that in all caps because THIS ACTUALLY WORKED!!!! I had been struggling with my son (now almost four months) for about three months to help him get used to tummy time but he absolutely hated it! The only reason he did anything on tummy time was so that he could get to me in order to nurse, and that only involved pushing with his feet. He would scream and cry, his face would turn purple, and I felt like I was torturing the poor guy.

    I started to ease off of tummy time, but by two months, he couldn’t hold up his head at all and the doctors were concerned (though I now know this is perfectly fine) and by three months, he could only hold it up for a couple of seconds. I was terrified that he would not learn to crawl because he would not stay on his tummy for any length of time once he realized that he was going on the floor!

    When we started doing these steps, it turns out we had already been doing Step 1 (on shoulder) and Step 2 (laying on adults tummy/chest) though he was not fond of the second one. I started carrying him around as shown in Step 3 and it really helped him to be a little more comfortable with his stomach, not to mention it was fantastic because he is such a curious little guy!

    Step 4 is definitely my favorite with the exercise ball! He loved being at a steep angle and being able to look around, and I was able to slowly progress him to being parallel with the ground!! (BEST STEP EVER!! THANK YOU!!)

    He never cared for Step 5 or 6, though he would put up with a small carseat neck pillow for laying on in Step 6, but that never lasted very long. What I did find, however, is that a jumperoo, even at 3 months if baby can hold his neck up while holding him in the air, is fantastic! Even though he only lasted about two or three minutes in it the first time, he started holding himself up and gaining upper body strength!

    We are not fully into Step 7 where he is content, but he has actually stayed on his tummy for several minutes, is not only holding up his head but is also pushing up his chest several times, and now he is even starting to scoot forward using his hands!! It’s still a work in progress but this article has been the answer to my prayers about tummy time!! Thank you so much for posting this article!!!

    • Crystal, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I am SO happy and honored to hear about how these tips have helped him! Your little guy is lucky to have you as his mama :) Best of luck with the coming months…the best months are yet to come!

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  29. Thank you very much for posting this info. I came across it during my google search “my baby hates tummy time” haha! My 3 month old was tolerating #1,2 and 3, but when I set him on the floor or with a prop pillow for tummy time he would bury his face into the mat and scream somewhat frantically. I am actually a maternity nurse and send people home with the important information to do daily tummy time as babies are on their back so much and need the exercise do avoid motor delays or decreased range of motion…and then I had my own baby and I was managing 1-2 minutes of miserable face smashing into the floor screaming time! I had no idea some babies hated it so much! I set up an exercise ball for him yesterday and it made a huge difference immediately…it was like something clicked for him…like he just realized he has arms he can push up on. I have been placing him on the ball for a few minutes after his diaper changes and he actually likes it, smiles and everything! He is also pushing up on his prop pillow if I place him there right after his exercise ball time, so big progress in just a couple days! It will be a bit more work to get him up to 60-90 minutes, but we are going in the right direction now. Thanks again :)

  30. Thanks for this article and tips! I am a new momma and a special education teacher so I am very familiar with the “new” term. Baby Girl and enjoys tummy time, as do her daddy and me. I wanted to tell you I linked back to your blog on mine as a reference for great tummy time activities.

So, whadya think?